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.
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.
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.
Still, orders since the 2004 offensive – the largest urban assault for the Marine Corps since the Vietnam War – have been to rebuild Fallujah to demonstrate the benefits to Iraqis of backing the coalition over the insurgents.
Col. Lawrence Nicholson spelled out the options of US help the first time he addressed the Fallujah City Council last February. It was a "tough love" speech, he says, that left their "eyes popping."
"We're not going to be here forever, so you have two choices," Colonel Nicholson recalls telling the council. "We can help you rebuild, and jumpstart your businesses. Or you can call us occupiers, and we call you terrorists, and we'll still leave and nothing will be done."
City elders have opted for rebuilding, and cash has flowed as projects and Iraqi contractors have been identified. Civil-affairs units host a weekly reconstruction meeting with engineers and contractors.
But the challenge is to spread US money in Fallujah to win goodwill in a way that does not further endanger Iraqis willing to help. Several moderate imams have been assassinated after being seen to be working with the Americans; mosques in this Sunni city now are largely run by younger, more radical clerics.
This civil-affairs team still visits the worst parts of Fallujah, with Brezler speaking like a proud father as he does his rounds, checking out everything from a $150,000 project to build a wall around a large cemetery for a local mosque – with an eye toward easing anti-US rhetoric – to a large local clinic, completely rebuilt with $2 million from the US.
The clinic received a setback a few weeks ago when three trucks carrying medical equipment, all paid for by the US military, were attacked. One British and three Iraqi security contractors died.
"As marines pull out of the city, our [civil affairs] ability to move around will be limited," says Brezler, who is on his second Iraq tour. Beside running their own projects, with a $500,000 ceiling, his team from the 4th Civil Affairs Group, attached to the 1st Battalion 24th Marines, keeps an eye on the projects of the US Army Corps of Engineers, contracted out to Iraqis.
But little runs smoothly in Fallujah. Contractors can take off with the cash without paying subcontractors, or they are intimidated into stopping. Quality of work can be poor and delays are chronic. Any interest shown by the Americans can be a death sentence, to the point that, sometimes, marines pretend they are doing a security check on workers as they really check out progress on a project.
The agenda for one weekly contractors' meeting hosted by the Marines showed that two drivers of gravel trucks had been killed on Nov. 17. The next day, two brothers – both contractors – were taken from their home by men in a black BMW. As "consistently some of the best contractors" in Fallujah, the notes remarked, "their potential kidnapping or murder would have considerably adverse effects on reconstruction."
Grappling with such pitfalls is daily fare for civil-affairs officers in Fallujah, where the definition of success fluctuates with the violence. Trash cleanup contracts are awarded – three in one week – to clear the roads of garbage, and of easy places to hide bombs.
After a series of lethal blasts in previous weeks, some sections of unpaved roads are scheduled for repaving to once again minimize the risk to US and Iraqi forces of roadside bombs.
More unconventional steps are taken as well. Hoping to meet the imam of one mosque, where the cemetery wall was built, Brezler disarms, leaving his assault rifle and pistol with a marine translator at the gate. The imam is not there, so he meets the mosque manager.
He seems unaware that the Marines paid the contractor to build the cemetery wall and do tile work inside the mosque. He is grateful to learn the source of the money, but asks that the Americans limit their help to paying for projects and not giving cash.
"It's a very good project; all the people came out to help," says Haji Mohamed, at the mosque. But when asked who had paid, he said some "contractor from Baghdad."
"We wanted to put an Iraqi face on it, so the contractors could work free of intimidation," Brezler spells out.
"The imam is afraid to tell you everything," admits the mosque manager, about the likely dangers that stem even from this short visit. "I'm sure a lot of people are watching us and when they see you leave will come and ask what the Americans wanted here."
"Even if we can keep these people neutral, that's good enough for me," Brezler explains later. "If Friday prayers are not anti-coalition, then there will be greater tolerance, which helps us further secure the city."
Despite the problems, the US continues to pump reconstruction funds into Fallujah. Congress approved funding in October for the next year for commanders' discretionary funds.
And after the 2004 invasion, the US State Department earmarked $98 million to rebuild houses and commercial property. So far, 78 percent of that – two disbursements out of three – has been paid. The Iraqi government in 2004 also pledged, and partially paid, tens of millions of dollars for rebuilding.
"We're trying to withdraw our security forces, but continue to inject reconstruction forces," says Lt. Col. Bryan Salas.
But lavishing funds on cities like Fallujah drew criticism from outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a memo dated Nov. 6, two days before his resignation.
Among new options in Iraq: "Stop rewarding bad behavior, as was done in Fallujah when they pushed in reconstruction funds, and start rewarding good behavior," Mr. Rumsfeld wrote. "No more reconstruction assistance in areas where there is violence."
After the invasion, angry residents returned to a wasteland, their hopes for the future pinned on promises from the US and Iraqi governments of a massive rebuilding effort. Today, many houses have been refurbished. But those freshly painted front walls and newly placed glass panes stand in stark contrast to the many houses and buildings that remain ruins.
And some larger projects may never be completed, officers say, as the Marines begin to withdraw. Finishing steps – such as connecting the sewer mains to houses – may also be beyond the capacity of local officials.
Marines aren't sure yet how much of what they are building will be sustainable, or how much the rising violence will poison their efforts.
"The fact of the matter is: These people are never going to like us. They are never going to want us here," Brezler tells his civil-affairs team, after a long day in Fallujah. "In terms of an embrace, they did that for five minutes in April 2003 [when US forces toppled Saddam Hussein], and that was it."