Next Fallujah battle: hearts, minds

Marines converted a mosque into a food and medical distribution center for residents Monday.

In the opening days of the week-old assault on Fallujah, the Hadra Mohamadiya mosque was a major battleground. The rocket-propelled grenades used by insurgents holed up here are still kept in a corner; the minaret has been hit by US forces repeatedly.

But Monday the mosque became a food and medical distribution center - the first tentative step by US and Iraqi forces to move this broken ghost town from war to peace.

Some 88 families sent men on foot to collect food and water, handed out by Iraqi National Guard units after US civil affairs teams broadcast news of the distribution.

The danger of the rebels remains: One man was carried dead to the mosque, after being shot while on his way by what his friends described as a foreign insurgent sniper. Elsewhere in Fallujah, a US marine was also killed by a sniper.

"People were so happy [when they came], because they need water and food for so many days," says Dr. Adnan Naji, a medical doctor and captain in the Iraqi armed forces, who set up a clinic inside the mosque Monday that treated nearly 20 cases.

"This is a very important day for us, and for Iraqi and American soldiers, because we let the people go out," says Dr. Naji.

Senior American commanders speak of a race against time in which they must begin to restore services and the faith of the people of Fallujah. After making rapid progress toward ridding the city of radical Islamist fighters loyal to Al Qaeda, the challenge now for the US Marines is to turn military control into political progress.

"The clock is ticking before civilians start to come back into the city," Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, chief of the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines that occupy northeast Fallujah, told his company commanders. "Let's get these programs rolling. We're going to exploit some of those [military] actions with hearts and minds."

Widespread damage

Many of Fallujah's residents fled in the run-up to the assault. When they are finally allowed to return, they will come home to a city where many buildings have been pulverized. Black smoke still rises from fires throughout the city, and the sound of air and artillery bombardment still echoes. At least 38 US soldiers and hundreds of Iraqi and foreign insurgents dead were killed in the fighting.

With pockets of resistance remaining here, the US military wants to control the initial humanitarian work. The Iraqi Red Crescent sent truckloads of food and medicine for the city, but US forces turned back the convoy at the main hospital Monday.

Speaking of those civilians who remained, Dr. Naji said: "Some of them are angry, because of the destruction, and others are not angry, because they suffered from the bad situation."

"All are in their houses, fearing the insurgents and terrorists, who told them they would be shot if they go out. An old man came up to me, and said: 'Thank you, thank you [American and Iraqi troops], for saving us from the insurgents.'"

Clearing the streets

Besides the first food and water distributions, which were protected by US forces as Iraqi units gave the handouts, the Imam of the Hadra mosque organized a mix of Iraqi soldiers and civilian men to remove the scores of dead from the streets.

US military radio traffic crackled Monday with requests for 20 boxes of surgical gloves, and 20 boxes of surgical masks, for those disposing of the dead.

"It's the first step," says Maj. Tim Wattier, of US Army civil affairs, about the food distribution. "There's a large project ahead, and this is just the first step."

Major Wattier was pleased with the cooperation of the imam of the mosque, which had been listed on US intelligence maps before the war as a hotbed of insurgents. Monday, the imam asked the Army to broadcast his request that anyone with special needs should come to the mosque.

The scene in the Hadra mosque Monday was among the busiest in Fallujah, with several families seeking shelter, a handful of the faithful at prayer, and Iraqi troops billeted in the wings.

Elderly men in one low-slung corner sat on mattresses, fingering prayer beads and waiting. Across the mosque's broad floor, families lined a far wall. Near the front door, Dr. Naji set up his clinic, using medicines taken from damaged hospital and clinic stores.

Children received toys from the Iraqi troops. Outside, the mangled chassis of cars - burnt beyond recognition by US forces, which targeted every vehicle to cut the risk of car bombs - testified to the still-smoldering conflict.

House to house searches

Shifting toward the tasks of rebuilding and winning hearts and minds does not mean that the battle for Fallujah is over. Far from it, in fact, for troops on the ground. Marine units continue to clear dozens of houses every day.

Monday, the Raider platoon of the light armored reconnaissance (LAR) company launched two operations. In the predawn raid, it fired four rockets to gain entry to two suspect warehouses, and then a host of fragmentation grenades to clear it.

After dark, another raid targeted a house believed to house insurgents.

Elsewhere in the city, US forces renewed airstrikes and positioned tanks in an effort to clean out the remaining guerrilla fighters.

"This is the 48 hours, 72 hours for the insurgents to test and learn new tactics," says Capt. Jer Garcia, commander of Bravo Company, 1-3 Marines.

Welcome relief for Marines

After a week of fighting in which the number of civilians on the streets could be counted on one hand, the scene inside the mosque was a welcome surprise to marines.

Throughout the fight, most people seen outside have been armed, and have been engaged.

"I really liked what I saw in there," says Corporal Victor Gomez, a scout on a light armored vehicle. "I didn't want to come in here [to Fallujah], shoot a load of rounds and then leave, as if we'd done our job. That really set my mind at ease today."

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