FALLUJAH, IRAQ — The eyes of Abbas Aswad shine, as a US Marine lawyer counts out 16 crisp $50 bills, and places them in his hands. The money is compensation to the Mukhtar village, to fix several fragile water lines broken hours earlier by marines, as they set up positions at the nearby Fallujah railway station.
As this Iraqi front line quiets down - there hasn't been any shooting in Fallujah in days - the payout is part of a concerted American strategy to shift away from war, and to resume the campaign to win hearts and minds. Indeed, perceptions that Iraq is a nation spiraling out of US control began to change this week. Thursday, the US ratcheted up pressure on radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, by seizing the governor's office from his fighters in Najaf. Moderate Shiites and tribal leaders have put forward plans to persuade Mr. Sadr to turn himself in.
However, returning to a practice that's been absent for more than a month, a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb outside the so-called Green Zone that houses the US headquarters in Baghdad, killing five Iraqi civilians and a US soldier.
Back in Fallujah, the Iraqi general entrusted with pacifying the city said Thursday that US Marines must withdraw quickly so that stability can be restored. "If they stay it will hurt the confidence, and we have built confidence. They should leave so that there will be more calm," General Muhammad Latif told Reuters.
Until such an order arrives, US soldiers are doing what they can with cash, food, and medical assistance. And this kind of campaign can do more than settle a debt. "It takes away their ability to be mad at you.... It shows people that we are here for them, to improve their lives," says Capt. Kevin Coughlin, the staff judge advocate for 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment who gave out the money. With such payments "you are making an apology for damage done."
US officers here say it is too soon to judge if this Fallujah peace will hold, but they are making post-war amends. It's not an easy task. US forces face deep skepticism about their actions across Iraq, particularly after revelations about the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. And the evidence of the ferocity of the past month's battle for Fallujah is everywhere.
Houses are burned or leveled; streets are strewn with rubble; feelings are frayed. The casualty count has been high - for both US Marines and insurgents. "Instability hasn't ended, just because no one has been shooting at us," says Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, commander of the 2nd Battalion from Cumberland, Rhode Island.
The result - in a city that has become synonymous with the anti-American resistance in Iraq - is no shortage of work for US officers now trying to defuse anger with cash and goodwill.
"We've always had two tracks: Be a better friend for those who want a democratic, stable future Iraq. We'll support them with whatever we have," says Colonel Olson. "But at the same time, these things can't exist...when people are afraid. These tasks [like compensation payments] drive out fear."
EVEN during the fighting last month, when this battalion shifted its forward headquarters into an apartment complex, claims were assessed. Families on their way out - to flee the fighting - were often paid $200 or so, for doors or windows that marines broke to gain entry. Officers made clear that premises were to be handed back as intact as possible - as they were on Wednesday, when marines vacated the apartments.
When company commander Capt. Jeff Stevenson of Oceanside, Calif., visited the Mukhtar village to discuss the damaged water pipes, he took a Humvee with him stacked with pre-packaged meals and bottles of water, as gifts.
"Sir, Thursday we damaged your village water pipes," he told Mr. Aswad. "Americans like to take responsibility for their actions, so I need to know who to pay."
A meet-and-greet walk around the hardscrabble desert village of 100 turned up several more men, who all agreed that Aswad was trustworthy enough to receive the cash and supplies for all.
Captain Stevenson asked if anyone in the village had been wounded in the fighting. None had. "God willing the fighting is over, the insurgents are done, and [Iraqi forces] are in control of the city," Stevenson told the men. They joked that their poor village - because it is so close to US positions - is now being called the "Village of Bad Luck."
"By us being out here, we have caused some discomfort," the captain said, as marines gathered boxes off the Humvee, and handed out leaflets with radio frequencies for coalition broadcasts.
Solatia payments are at the discretion of local commanders, and only provided in countries where it is customary to pay such blood money to end a feud. Officers first planned to pay $400 for the broken pipes - a half a dozen lines of brittle plastic tubing snaking just under the surface of the desert. Aswad bargained instead for $800, as villagers promised to put in a more permanent, larger pipe. The Americans agreed. "In my opinion, it was well worth the extra $400 to get them better pipes," says Captain Coughlin, wiping sweat from his brow.
The maximum payout through the commander's scheme is $2,500 per incident, and each battalion can have available up to some $500,000 per month. Far larger claims and projects - some already approved for Fallujah - are handled at a centralized claims office.
But this is the first time that Marine lawyers have been deployed at battalion level, a sign of how much the military recognizes the importance of minimizing the impact of US occupation.
Inside Fallujah, the imam of one mosque has been approached to determine what has been broken, such as buildings and water mains because of "collateral damage due to combat," says Coughlin. The key - and it is a fine line in this city - is to "make sure the people who owned it were civilians, and not using [a house] for insurgents."
Compensation is not the only means US forces use to connect with Iraqis. An older Iraqi woman living in a trailer hovel adjacent to the rail station says she was beaten by insurgents several weeks ago - accused of being a collaborator - and kicked in the stomach.
US servicemen evacuated Farha Abed Saad for medical treatment after dark, when her pain became unbearable. "Thank God, you have come here to Iraq and make us free," said Ms. Saad, kissing a soldier's hands. "When I see you, I see my own sons! Thank you, thank you."