For US troops in Iraq, safety vs. diplomacy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Under the searing heat of Iraq's summer sun, water is like gold. So this weekend, when the mercury hit 110 degrees F., the US Army's 3rd Division rolled into town with 3,000 gallons of the liquid balm, hoping to bring relief to this village 15 miles west of Baghdad.

But there were few takers.

Wariness of this apparent good deed was written on the faces of the villagers as they stared from a distance. After all, tension with their occupiers has been high since 16 men from the nearby town of Fallujah were killed by US troops during protests in April, and house-to-house searches in May were heavy-handed.

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Finally, a group of children broke the stalemate, crowding around the soldiers as they worked the pump. A donkey cart carrying a bright blue 55-gallon drum and two small boys appeared, prompting a soldier to cheer: "Ah, the first customer!"

Amid the surge of lethal attacks against US troops in recent days, the work of the soldiers here in Al Haswa shows the tightrope troops walk as they balance security with trying to win the hearts and minds of regular Iraqis.

When the 3rd Infantry took over here June 3, men in the market shook daggers at them when they passed. Nine soldiers had been killed in the previous week; none have died since. Children still throw rocks at passing patrols, attacks still occur, and on Friday night, a man spat out in angry English, "Leave!"

But the troops are trying to change perceptions. In addition to the daily water delivery, units operating around Fallujah are helping with repairs to schools and electrical facilities. They are also training and equipping Iraqi police, who received 200 new uniforms a week ago. The first group is to graduate from the US-run "academy" Tuesday.

Now a Bedouin family invites soldiers into their tent for hospitable cups of tea. During a night patrol, a boy races on his bicycle beside the lead Humvee shouting, "I love you, mister. I love you!"

Still, that reception is far from the rule around Iraq, where a senior military official spoke on Saturday of the current burst of lethal anti-US attacks. "The first clear message is: 'This war is not over. It's not ended,' " he said. "All of us in uniform are targets, we're subject to being engaged."

Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, told the BBC on Sunday that "unfortunately we will continue to take casualties." Some Iraqis, he said, "particularly remnants of the old regime ... [are] still fighting us. We will capture and, if necessary, kill them until we have imposed law and order on this country."

Troops are grappling with everything from abductions - the bodies of two soldiers who disappeared last Wednesday north of Baghdad were found on Saturday - to point-blank shootings, like the one that killed a soldier buying DVDs in a Baghdad shop on Friday.

While the Pentagon says the attacks are not militarily significant, for more than 150,000 troops on the ground, stress levels are high, and the line between self-defense and overreaction is just razor thin.

"Technically, we've done what we came out here to do - provide a safe and secure environment and win hearts and minds," says press officer, Staff Sgt. Antony Joseph about the Fallujah area, which has taken on a relative air of calm.

Commanders met local leaders to ask how to ease tensions that had seethed in the aftermath of the killing by 82nd Airborne troops of 16 Iraqis in late April, and tough house-to-house searches in the weeks afterward.

While it may be calmer here, on the night patrol there is palpable tension. US troops say Iraqi attackers signal each other with flares. A red one signals a "soft" target is approaching; green means a hard target like a tank is on its way. Red and green together means the target is within 50 or 100 yards.

"If the lights in town blink, we either take a risk of an ambush and go in, or turn around and haul ... out of there," says Army Gunnery Sgt. Juan Carlos Cardona, as the patrol turns its headlights into the crowded village of Al Haswa. "One thing I've learned in this war, is to be alert 24 hours a day: Stay alert to stay alive."

Staying alive is what the Iraq war is boiling down to for many in the US armed forces, which has lost 22 men in recent weeks to a surge of guerrilla-style attacks.

The patrol feels by turns part occupation army, part vanguard of liberation. While some jeer or remain stone-faced as the Americans pass, many Iraqis give a thumbs up and return Gunnery Sgt. Cardona's wave. That's a welcome change for this division's 2nd Brigade combat team - the same unit that captured Baghdad during the "Thunder Run" in the first week of April.

Grinding into town at night, the three-vehicle patrol gently turn around when they come upon a wedding party that was taking up one lane of a road.

From inside a Humvee, behind the bulletproof glass and paper-thin canvas doors, gunfire can be heard. Several of the vehicles have been targeted by grenade and rocket attacks across Iraq. But the view from these armored vehicles is narrow. Entering Al Haswa, Cardona radios to his fellow patrolmen: "Keep your eyes on the rooftops, looking for a weapon. If you see one, you know what to do."

Cardona and other soldiers admit that that job is far more difficult at night, when many Iraqis sleep on their roofs to keep cool. They are often drawn to the deep, clanking noise of a passing convoy, and race to the edge of their roofs to see.

Even with the troops' night-vision capability, correctly identifying weapons is an inexact science. An American soldier in Baghdad last Thursday shot dead a 12-year-old boy on the roof of his house. The family says he was unarmed, according to the Washington Post; the military says it recovered a gun from the house.

In that context, convincing Iraqis that US troops are in Iraq to help them is an uphill battle.

A woman with three children - and a pushcart with six empty jugs - stood by on the opposite side of the road from the soldiers distributing water. When she finally crossed, she lost heart and walked right past the gushing fire hose. Finally the children, chanting their surprise and holding the end of the hose invitingly, convinced the woman to return for the water. After that, a trickle of Iraqis turned into a stream, keeping the spigot busy.

But that didn't keep many Iraqi men nearby from complaining. They suggested that the water should be delivered house to house - efforts that in past opened US troops to accusations that they were violating the private lives of Iraqi women at home.

The men also complained that the American presence had not kept Iraqis from "haphazardly" firing into the air during weddings - a tradition that no number of troops from any nation could prevent. "It's been three months, and nobody has fixed the water pipes," says Jassim Mohamed, a laborer. "It would take them half an hour if they wanted to do it."

Despite the complaints, some welcome the Americans. "We want more patrols in the streets, and are relieved that they are here. We want them to live among us," says Imad Abuziad Jassim, a welder. "We take care of these soldiers - they are under our protective wing."

The children, too, brought drums and sang and danced, getting one soldier to clap and jump along with them. Spc. Hector Perez amused them by drawing cartoon characters on scraps of cardboard, while standing on the top of his ammunition carrier. "It's something to keep the kids happy," Specialist Perez says.

"Yeah," says driver Levi Molnar, "so they don't throw rocks."

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