FALLUJAH, IRAQ — The convoy of trucks and ambulances from the Iraqi Red Crescent rolled up Sunday to the checkpoint at the edge of Fallujah, as part of the balancing act of providing relief to a city that remains a fluid war zone.
Members of the Red Crescent - the Iraqi equivalent of the Red Cross - began working in Fallujah last week. But friction over their role in the city, escort and security arrangements, and, separately, a history of such convoys being used to carry weapons to insurgents, led to a high-level meeting with US commanders Sunday.
The convoy that arrived Sunday late in the afternoon - with white flags marked with red crescents, at the checkpoint on the eastern edge of the city on the road to Baghdad - was thoroughly searched by US and Iraqi forces, before being allowed to pass.
Part of the mission was to "work out misunderstandings" with US troops who invaded Fallujah earlier this month, Red Crescent President Said Hakki told the US Marine battalion chief, as the two stood among sand-filled barriers during the search.
Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, commander of the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, overseeing the convoy arrival, replied that marines had delivered food to 15 families the day before, but that fighting had erupted 300 yards away.
"That will be a plus in God's eyes," Dr. Hakki told the Marine officer. "We'll work with you. Your mission is part of our mission. You have security issues, and this is the priority. Humanitarian work comes second."
"Hopefully, they can be done together," Colonel Ramos replied. "Yesterday was kind of an experiment that we're going to repeat on a larger scale."
So far, no other relief agency has been permitted to enter Fallujah, where senior commanders estimate that only half the estimated 50,000 houses in the city have been searched so far.
US officers plan to open every door, and the weekend brought more examples of why US forces here say they are pursuing the door-to-door policy.
Sunday, one platoon of the Light Armored Reconnaissance company discovered a control center that could explode at least eight improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the kind of roadside bombs that have inflicted large numbers of deaths across Iraq. The control center was set inside a normal building, with a wide horizon view of the main highway that cuts through the city. Each IED was labeled, and the operator had only to touch the copper wire for the battery to set off the explosive.
On Saturday, the 1-8 Marines battalion engaged in a serious battle in the south of Fallujah that killed two marines and wounded several others. As the fight continued, marines estimated that they had killed 34 insurgents and captured another 23 - at least 10 of whom were foreign fighters.
Also Saturday, Bravo company of the 1-3 Marines found two vast weapons caches in the northeast of the city, which is considered to be the most "cleaned" so far, and therefore the most likely to see the earliest return of civilians.
"We've been through half the doors. It's a necessary but laborious process going on," says Col. Craig Tucker, commander of the Regimental Combat Team-7, one of two regiments active in Fallujah. "We'll go through every house in this city. We'll bring back people by sectors, but we don't want to bring people back while we are still finding one hundred 105mm [artillery] rounds in a single house."
That fluid security environment has convinced the Red Crescent - which, like its parent organizations in the West, strives to keep "neutral" in its work - that it must coordinate with US forces in Fallujah.
Hakki says that the organization has learned a lesson from August, when fighting in Najaf and Karbala between US units and Shiite Muslim claimed the lives of three Red Crescent staff, and left 16 wounded, half of them seriously.
"Rebuilding a town is a lot more difficult than destroying it - it's an arduous task, but not insurmountable," said Hakki, in an interview later. "We must coordinate - it's safer for us. We do not want to be seen to be protected or driven [by the US forces]."
"The people in Fallujah are different from those in Najaf," Hakki adds. "If they think you are cooperating with the Americans against their interests, then it's over. It's irreversible."
The Red Crescent, after setting up last week and despite a 24-hour-a-day curfew imposed on the city, sent its ambulances out into the city with loudspeakers, calling for people in need to come outdoors. They collected 110 people, most of them military-aged males.
Hakki says that "we check everything we do," when asked about past incidents - including one at this same checkpoint during fighting in Fallujah last April, when marines discovered weapons in a Red Crescent food convoy.
"We're responsible for it," Hakki says. "We tell people of Fallujah: 'Please don't put us in harms way, or we can't support you.' "
The transition to humanitarian work is also difficult for marines, who have spent three weeks in a virtual ghost town, clearing buildings with large quantities of explosives and grenades with little need to be concerned for civilian casualties.
"It's hard to shift gears from taking down buildings, to, when peace breaks out, doing more police and security work," says Ramos.
"Some people are bitter, some are afraid, and some are angry - there is a lot of psychological trauma - [but] I don't know if this [assault on the city] could have been done another way," says Hakki.
He says he saw one Fallujan man step out of his house and look at the destruction all around him. "This is all our doing, this is what we have done, this is what we deserve!" the man lamented. "We hung up [the four American contractors], we tortured [hostages] and put them on television."