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thedrifter
03-30-03, 05:10 PM
Marines Build Ties With Iraqis



By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2003; 5:24 PM


NORTH OF NASIRIYAH, Iraq (March 30) -- On Saturday, the Marines found a cache of weapons in a tiny village along the road to Baghdad. This morning they returned for lunch with the locals.

In a model of how the Marines say they hope their relationship with the Iraqi people can evolve, the two sides struck a deal: the Marines agreed to escort some villagers to a nearby well to get clean water and help repair damage caused by the fleeing Iraqi army. The village leaders agreed to go house to house, rounding up rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that could be used against U.S. forces.

The bargain was sealed with a feast cooked up by the townspeople, featuring rice, bread and goat cooked over an open fire.

"I was concerned because of what we found here," said Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, who led Marines from the 1st battalion, 7th Marine regiment into town in a predawn raid.

In recent nights, the Marines have suffered small arms attacks that many believe were launched by paramilitary forces loyal to the Iraqi government who disappear into the villages by day. Conlin said he wanted to see where these villager's loyalties lay. The Marines found a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and other weapons in a house Saturday. When they arrived at the outskirts of the farming village the day before, they had found Iraqi army helmets, uniforms and weapons scattered throughout the nearby fields.

"It had to have been a pretty large force; there was lots of stuff," said Lt. Kohtara Terahira, 30, the battalion's intelligence officer. "They must have left in a hurry."

This morning, two platoons of Marines stormed into the mud brick village in amphibious assault vehicles to provide security. Conlin and two interpreters went house to house, asking where they could find the village elder, while the Marines took up positions on sand berms that lined the town's muddy main street.

They were directed to a three-building compound at the end of the main street with a stable in the front yard for cows, horses and donkeys. Inside, Conlin said, he expressed his concerns through interpreters. A villager told him residents were getting sick from bad water, Conlin said.

The group emerged smiling, and chatted for awhile, while leaning against the hood of a Humvee parked in the yard. The Marines were invited to stay for lunch in the family's front yard. For many, it was their first direct contact with Iraqi citizens they did not consider hostile.

The Marines left boxes of humanitarian rations and promised there would be more to come. Conlin brought one young lieutenant over to apologize because his platoon had broken down a door in town during its patrol the day before.

Greg Serdynski, 22, a Navy corpsman from Gulfport, Miss., made balloons for the children out of rubber medical gloves. Both sides made jokes about removing President Saddam Hussein from power. The Marines bought cigarettes from the townspeople and handed out chewing gum. Some exchanged dollars for Iraqi dinars.

Sgt. Steven Christopher, 23, of Derry, N.H., showed some of the Iraqis pictures of his family. "It was the best part of the war so far," said Christopher. "Up until now I wasn't sure they wanted us here, but they seemed really friendly. It was like the cowboys sitting down with the Indians."

Others acknowledged that one warm reception does not make them safe in the countryside.

"I'm not saying I'd want my own kids to walk down the center street," said Conlin, who added that he hopes today's scene can be repeated as the Marines continue to push toward Baghdad. "I do feel more comfortable here now," he said. "I can say that."


2003 The Washington Post Company


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