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In Fallujah, Marines bring goodwill, but trouble can follow

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2006


While their weapons were ready, this was a mission about charity. The US Marines weren't entering a hospital in downtown Fallujah to root out insurgents, they were going there simply to help.

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But any interaction with American forces can prove deadly for Iraqis, and these marines received an uneasy welcome.

Death threats – and increasingly murder – are common against anyone seen to be cooperating with the US. And already, the presence of a Marine observation post, built adjacent to hospital grounds just days before the mission, had cut the number of patients coming to the hospital from 35 a day to just five.

The wariness that greeted this civil affairs unit two weeks ago points to the difficulty faced by US forces as they search for a balance between rebuilding and bringing security to a city where insurgent attacks are on the rise.

"Our being here today, will it cause trouble for you?" asks US Navy Capt. Lee White, there to get a list of any needed medical supplies.

"I am sorry to tell you, yes. I'm so sorry," says Talib al-Janabi, owner of the private hospital. When marines last entered here, a few months back, they had been hit by a roadside bomb not too far away. They broke hospital doors as they searched for suspects and later, Dr. Janabi says, rejected claims for compensation.

"We came here to help," says Marine Capt. Jason Brezler, head of the civil affairs team, sending a translator to check out the damage to assist with a new claim.

"I appreciate your situation, but for them," says Janabi, motioning toward a handful of patients struck silent by the military presence in the lobby. "There are too many kinds of trouble. Threats, and talking.... I'm in a bad situation. I am stuck in a sandwich."

Like most of the 300,000 or more people of Fallujah, who saw their city virtually razed in November 2004 by Marine-led US forces that sealed off the city to hunt down insurgents, the return of militant violence is creating a dangerous dilemma.

In a bid to convince the majority to side with coalition troops – as well as the fledgling local government and Iraqi Army and police units in the city – the US military has committed $200 million through more than 60 reconstruction projects.

This small civil-affairs team is on the sharp end of buying security, of finding those projects, paying the cash, and checking up on the work. The dangerous city has claimed 10 marines' lives in a month from snipers and roadside bombs.

"Reconstruction provides a way of influencing the population, of shaping the battlespace nonkinetically, so you don't have to put bullets down range," says Captain Brezler, a reservist from the Bronx whose usual job is New York firefighter.

In a daily ritual before moving into Fallujah, Brezler pulls from his pocket a thick piece of glass from the World Trade Center buildings, says a quick prayer, and passes it around to every member of the convoy.

Rebuilding to build loyalty

Spending the money to rebuild Fallujah can be tricky business for a host of projects that range from a few thousand dollars for school and athletic supplies to complex multimillion-dollar electricity and sewer efforts.

For two years, strategic rebuilding has been complicated by frequent rotation of Marine units. Today, it is made more difficult by increasing violence and insurgent numbers – Iraqi contractors and workers are frequently killed – and a Marine presence that has shrunk to less than 300.