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thedrifter
04-09-06, 09:51 AM
Marines Use Census to Gauge Iraqi Town
By ANTONIO CASTANEDA, Associated Press Writer
Sat Apr 8, 6:03 PM ET

After a nearly 10-year hiatus, census takers returned to this small town just west of Baghdad.

But these men hardly resembled the census takers of Saddam Hussein.

Instead, behind the clipboard at each doorstep was a smiling interpreter as well as more than a dozen heavily armed U.S. Marines.

The mission of the Marines slipping through muddy streets during a morning drizzle was not a nationwide survey but an attempt to gain basic information about residents in about 200 homes in a newly assigned neighborhood.

As in most parts of Iraq, the Americans here lack information about the population. There is nothing resembling a phonebook, street addresses are incomprehensible, and demographic data is nothing more than anyone's best guess.

"If we know who lives where, we can start connecting the dots, said 2nd Lt. David Samuel of New York, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment. "If they see our faces, know our names and then we go later and ask them for information, they may give us information after a shooting."

The nine-question form asks for basic information like how many people who live in each home and in which mosque the residents worship.

An Iraqi-American translator asked the questions, often to wives whose husbands were away at work.

Less than a month before the Marines had suddenly been pulled from the countryside outside Fallujah to the Abu Ghraib district of Baghdad to counter a recent wave of sectarian attacks. They arrived with little information about the local population.

The Marines, sidestepping piles of trash in the streets, walked door-to-door, followed by wild dogs and bands of neighborhood children asking for candies. Apache attack helicopters streaked through the gray sky.

GPS coordinates were taken outside each home — an attempt to make up for a dearth of street signs in most parts of Iraq. U.S. raids on suspect targets often mistakenly lead to neighbor's homes and sometimes result in full searches of neighborhood blocks.

Some Marines weren't convinced the effort was worthwhile.

"The way Iraqis travel about, (the census) is just a roundabout number," said Staff Sgt. Tommy Vaughn of Ceres, Calif., referring to the local Iraqi custom of visiting extended family for weeks at a time. "My hopes aren't too bright."

Census-taking by a foreign authority in Iraq has a long precedent. The British, who ruled Iraq from 1918-1932, conducted a census soon after taking control of a foreign territory.

Iraq's last nationwide census was conducted in 1987.

A census in 1997 excluded the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Censuses in Iraq provided information on ethnicity and religion but did not break the population down by Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

In July 2004, the Iraqi government announced plans to conduct a national census that fall, but the plans collapsed as the insurgency escalated.

Ellie