When four boxes of bottled water from US troops hit the ground, villagers pile onto them. Five year-olds shove and throw elbows to get a bottle or two.
The water is a parting gift from 10 civil-affairs troops who have come to find out what this nearby farming village needs. A crowd gathered as soon as the soldiers approached in Humvees.
Maj. Daniel O'Neil of the 402nd Civil Affairs (CA) battalion instructed his interpreter to find the oldest male. The elder told of water shortages while CA soldiers held their rifles pointed down and shook hands.
"Civil Affairs basically does 'hearts and minds' and 'nation building,' " says Col. Christopher Holshek, who commands the 150-person battalion. "When the shooting stops, the meter starts running for us."
CA troops, in their biggest call-up since World War II, are at the vanguard of Iraq's rolling transition from full-blown war to peaceful occupation. They go to work after the bulk of the fighting has stopped, when civilians are most vulnerable to the failure of vital services and the depredations of looters.
In Basra, Nasiriyah and the suburbs of Baghdad this week, extensive plundering complicated the job of coalition troops, who are trying to stamp out the remnants of Iraqi forces. And amid the chaos of southern Iraq, CA forces must quickly restore the basic services Iraqis depend on. Urgent concerns include providing clean water and food, restoring damaged electrical grids, repairing sewer lines and delivering medicine. If they fail, the US and the UK could win the battle but lose the bigger war for Iraqi stability and self-government. CA troops also negotiate the religious sensitivities that have made armed confrontations with Iraqi forces in the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf so potentially dangerous to the US war effort.
Chaotic conditions mean that the unit approaches problems cautiously. Even a simple visit to the nearby village of Abu Shwais was undertaken only after days of legwork. Initially, the battalion manned checkpoints on major highways and talked with drivers about local conditions. Then the troops took to smaller roads. Next came drives through town centers, waves, and the Arabic greeting of a salaam aleikum - peace be upon you. Slowly they gained visibility, trust, and information.
"This is the exact opposite of the 'shock and awe' campaign - this is the 'slow and easy' here. We don't want to spook anybody," says Maj. Joe Hermann.
Being the first troops to mingle with civilians can be risky. Several days ago a CA soldier in the area was grazed by a bullet as he rode in a Humvee. While CA forces wear body armor and carry weapons, they must sacrifice some security to appear more friendly. They drive in Humvees without doors and fixed guns, and they get close to strangers to shake hands.
When situations turn hot, says Major Hermann, "you become a good talker real quick."
On the outskirts of Baghdad, Maj. Toney Coleman of the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion sums up the public-relations problem facing US military forces in Iraq.
"Skepticism is thick as molasses," he says, estimating that 90 percent of the Iraqis he has encountered fear that, as in 1991, murderous reprisals will follow if US forces withdraw from Iraq without overthrowing the Hussein regime. "Only we know we are going to do the right thing this time," he says.
Further south, near the Talil air base, the population has grown much warmer over the past week. At first, when troops waved, villagers' hands would hesitate before reciprocating. Now handshakes come freely in this predominately Shiite area.
Civil Affairs is a Special Operations branch of the Army. Most CA troops are reservists with both combat training and professional "people skills."
They are assisted by Free Iraqi Fighters (FIF), expatriate Iraqis who have returned to help topple Saddam Hussein and rebuild their nation. The FIF interpret, read the local body language, and watch out for cultural misunderstandings.
According to "Mike," an Assyrian FIF, if an Iraqi steps back and bows slightly with his hand on his chest, he does not trust you. Similarly, children will look at the ground. But Mike disarms people quickly with his big smile, slaps on the shoulder, and expressive hand gestures. He hands out Twizzlers to kids at checkpoints.
But when people ask for things, the CA forces sometimes refuse.They worry about fostering a culture of dependency. The four boxes of water given to the villagers engendered a heated dispute back at headquarters. Some on the team felt that Maj. O'Neil should have waited until the next day, when 24 boxes of water and some food would be distributed more formally. Villagers apologized for the chaos that followed the hastily given gift.
Ultimately, CA forces are passing along information and paving the way for a State Department transitional government and relief agencies to take over in Iraq.
"The good news is we don't have a lot of dislocated civilians," says Holshek. The other good news, says Holshek, is that civilian areas are mostly undamaged - except by years of sanctions and economic decline.
Partly they have Baghdad to thank. Before the war, Hussein ordered the distribution of multiple months' worth of rations to civilians and locals hoarded the food.
Some relief agencies like Doctors Without Borders have in the past criticized military involvement in the type of humanitarian work done by civil-affairs forces. They argue that it muddies distinctions between soldiers and relief workers, making it more dangerous for aid workers.
Holshek notes, however, that many nongovernmental organizations in Kuwait City have said that they want to wait 30 days after the war before moving in.
"That's a heck of a long time to wait for humanitarian relief," he says. "We would be more than happy to see them show up as soon as possible. We have to fill the gap."
In the meantime, they keep their smiles and handshakes ready. Some have had tea and cookies with a local sheik who has offered his assistance by sheltering some injured civilians. Other civil-affairs forces escorted a local man who came to the Talil base to exhume the remains of his son, an Iraqi soldier. They allowed the father to dig so that he could give his son a proper burial.
"We're about the closest and most direct application of our foreign policy on the ground," says Holshek. "We're the low-tech solution to the low-tech problem [and] we come with a lot of common sense."
• Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Najaf.