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Marines Safely Venture Into Fallouja, Talk With Leaders

Times Staff Writer

In a test of what U.S. Marines see as their new partnership with Iraqi security forces, a joint convoy Monday safely escorted an American general into this troubled city’s downtown for a 25-minute meeting with the mayor and a group of sheiks, government officials and businessmen.

It was the Marines’ first trip into the city center since March 18, when a meeting with Iraqi officials was interrupted by an insurgent attack that left 17 Americans hurt.

Although young men dressed in black clothes and waving AK-47s were spotted in the blocks near the mayor’s residence where Monday’s meeting took place, there were no shots fired and no clashes. The Marines interpreted that as a sign that Iraqi forces are capable of keeping the guerrillas in check.

“Sometimes history is written in hot, little dusty places on the Earth,” Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, told his troops when the mission to escort him into the city was done. “That’s what we did today, and it’s good history.”

However, many members of the new Iraqi army unit, which along with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and police officers is now in control of Fallouja, were until recently battling American troops as part of the insurgency. After the Marine convoy pulled out, many Iraqis celebrated in the streets.

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The convoy had been the subject of lengthy and heated discussion for several days between the Marines and the top officers of the Fallouja Brigade, the Iraqi army unit.

At one point, the convoy was supposed to be made up of 30 Marine vehicles, including tanks, and the route would have taken the convoy to the western edge of the city and across the bridge where on March 31 a mob hanged the burned and mutilated bodies of two of the four American contract workers who had been killed while driving through the city.

The Iraqis, however, found that number of vehicles and route provocative. The convoy instead comprised 10 Marine vehicles, 10 Iraqi vehicles and no tanks, and it took a route that avoided the bridge.

Hundreds of members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the Iraqi police lined the route to the mayor’s residence. Crowds were kept back. As the vehicles rolled slowly past, some residents smiled and waved, but others glowered, turned their backs and made rude gestures.

No children were seen along the route or in the downtown area, increasing the nervousness of Marines. Intelligence reports had suggested a possible attack; Marines have learned that the lack of children in a neighborhood often means an ambush is planned.

The convoy was led by an Iraqi vehicle supplied by the U.S. government -- a new Nissan truck -- with a uniformed Iraqi officer waving a large Iraqi flag, and the Iraqi and American vehicles were interspersed.

Although only 69 Marines made the trip, hundreds more -- along with dozens of combat vehicles, including tanks -- were stationed just outside the city limits, ready to rush to the aid of the convoy. Helicopter gunships were overhead, and Air Force F-16s were on standby. A Marine colonel maintained command over the procession from a helicopter.

As the two forces were arranging their convoy on the eastern edge of the city, a captain in the Iraqi police told Mattis that the Americans should stay out of Fallouja, that their presence was neither wanted nor helpful.

“All would be happiness and safety if you would stay outside,” Capt. Hamaed Alyash said. “We can handle the city without you.”

Mattis listened politely but gently rejected the suggestion.

In announcing recently the deal that led to the Marine withdrawal from the city, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said one test of whether the Iraqis were capable of providing security in Fallouja was whether they could make it safe for Westerners to begin the rebuilding process. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has earmarked more than $100 million for projects in the city.

During Monday’s gathering, Mattis, wearing a 9-millimeter Beretta strapped to his right thigh, met with Mayor Mohammed Ibrahim, Fallouja Brigade commander Mohammed Latif, 14 sheiks and 17 government and business leaders. The group sat on couches. If there were any pictures of Iraqi politicians -- past or present -- on the walls, they had been removed. No women were in the group on either side.

The tenor of the meeting was friendly, though its substance was modest.

“When you build something you put a block here and a block here,” Latif said, using hand gestures to explain his idea.

“This is just one of these small building blocks,” Mattis said.

Less than 90 minutes after they had left the safety of their rallying spot, the Marines and their Iraqi counterparts had finished the meeting and returned to the starting point.

Afterward, the Iraqi security troops, somber and apprehensive before the convoy began, were joyous and began laughing and waving their guns in the air. “From Fallouja to [the town of] Kufa,” residents chanted, a suggestion that their ability to rid their town of Americans should serve as a national example.

The Marines were more relieved than joyous.

The convoy came five weeks after Marines surrounded the city, slapped a blockade on all major routes and imposed martial law. The Marine unit that did the brunt of the fighting, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment, suffered seven dead and more than 100 wounded in nearly daily fighting for more than three weeks.

The decision to turn over security in the city to Iraqi forces carried two conditions -- that residents surrender their heavy weapons and that suspects in the brutal killings of March 31 be arrested. Those demands seem no longer likely to be fulfilled.

The issue of whether Latif would lead an offensive against any foreign fighters who might be part of the insurgency also seems debatable. In recent comments, he has downplayed the significance of such outsiders.

On the matter of Fallouja becoming safe for Westerners, Marine and other U.S. officials still appear to have at least guarded optimism.

“We didn’t come here to fight these people,” Mattis told his troops. “We came here to free them. The first step to stopping this silly senseless fighting is the peaceful meeting we just had.”


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