Marines Cultivate Iraqi Sources, but Reap Little
It was a roadside debate involving an Iraqi couple and four Marines.
It won’t merit a footnote in the history of U.S. forces’ struggle with the insurgents who hold much of this city in their grip. But their interaction clearly demonstrated the difficulties Marines are having in persuading Iraqis to help them.
“He’s not working out like I thought he would,” said Lt. Michael Scott, 26, of Boston, his voice redolent of disappointment.
The story began early Friday morning, when an Iraqi man, followed dutifully by his wife, approached Scott for help crossing Marine checkpoints that were restricting the flow of traffic into Fallouja.
The 50ish man said he needed to drive his pickup truck into town to help relatives and bring back food to his family in the farming village of Saqlawiya. He smiled and gave the impression he wanted to help the Americans, if they would help him.
Scott agreed and hastily scribbled a note allowing the man to pass through the checkpoints. Scott hoped that in return, the man would provide information about insurgents hiding in the countryside and smuggling weapons and fighters into the city.
Each day, the U.S. launches unmanned surveillance planes to gather information on the movements of insurgents. Telephone calls are intercepted. Leaflets and public announcements beseech Iraqis to provide information.
But that is not enough.
“Until you get some human intelligence, you really can’t get anywhere” in stopping the insurgents, Scott said.
Once the man and his wife had entered the city in their battered, bullet-pocked 1985 pickup truck, Scott returned to the Marine outpost here. Hoping to ingratiate himself with the couple and their relatives, he gathered a large quantity of food and, organizing a convoy, headed toward the couple’s home deep in the farm belt that encircles much of Fallouja.
The foliage on the rutted roads is thick, and the possibility of ambush is ever present. The Marines have nicknamed the region “the Vietnam area.”
Scott’s convoy arrived in late afternoon, before the couple returned home, and began dispensing food to at least three dozen children and several adults: bags of rice, candy, biscuits, a tub of onions, canned goods, an enormous sack of sunflower seeds, potatoes and more. The children tussled happily for the candy as Marines threw handfuls into the air.
But one of the adults, speaking to a Marine interpreter, pleaded with them to leave, lest opponents of the occupation learn of their visit and take retribution.
A young girl began crying and flailing her arms. The Marines left.
Then a call came through on the radio: The man and his wife, while on their way home, had been wounded in an attack several miles away. Their truck had also been shot up and, despite their injuries, they were trying to walk back to the village before the nightly curfew.
Both had been hit by shrapnel, the woman in her arms, the man in his back. Blood soaked his white garments. Both had been treated by Navy medics.
Scott rerouted his convoy to the site and greeted the man. His wife was weeping and shaking her head. The man was distraught. He said that he had been hit by American fire and that his truck, which he needed to support his seven daughters and three sons, was ruined.
Scott and the other Marines struggled to explain through an interpreter that the shrapnel must have come from an insurgent’s mortar round. The effort failed.
“He’s got it stuck in his head that if he gets shot, it has to be an American,” one Marine said.
Scott offered to replace the truck with one that had been confiscated from insurgents. The man refused. To take a truck from the Marines would mark him as a friend of the Americans, and he and his family could be killed, he said.
The man, however, wanted his truck towed to his farm. But the Marines said they could not do so because it had been abandoned in an area thick with insurgents.
The man said he would instead accept money and quoted a price in dinars that translated into upwards of $5,000. Too much, Scott and the others said.
Scott, however, sought to bargain, telling the man that the Marines wanted to help him but had to be helped in return.
The man shook his head, his eyes misting. He showed them his mangled foot, an injury he had received long ago while serving in the Iraqi army.
“I don’t want to help either side, the U.S. or the others; both will shoot me,” the man said.
As his wife’s sobs grew louder, the debate continued in a circular fashion: money, truck, responsibility. Scott persisted in trying to enlist his support. Warplanes buzzed overhead.
“Tell him that unless he and his neighbors work with us, we cannot make progress for Iraq,” Scott said.
The response was immediate and needed no translation: No, no, no.
In the end, nothing was resolved. The man and his wife accepted a ride toward their village: close enough to walk home but far away enough that neighbors would not see them accepting even that amount of aid from the Americans.