Taking Iraq, One Village at a Time

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In Vietnam, it was known as the village-pacification program: Marines in the Combined Action Program first took out Charlie and communist sympathizers, and then tried to convince the villagers that life would be swell now that the bad guys were gone.

In the central Iraqi region of Al Qadisiyah, the mostly Shi'ite population isn't likely to buy this approach so easily. In the second week of the campaign, advancing coalition troops faced up to one of the fundamental miscalculations of the early days of the war: blasting conventional Iraqi forces hasn't been enough. They also have to go into towns and take out Baath Party officials and Fedayeen fighters loyal to Saddam. Only then can one even begin to talk about prospects of local people—circumspect after the U.S. encouraged previous uprisings that were later crushed—partying in the streets. "Only when there is physical presence can people feel safe," says Sergeant Major David Howell, with 3/4 Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.

So here in Al Qadisiyah, the hearts-and-minds exercise is a priority, since the Marines need to secure two towns and two hamlets along a road linking a pair of north-south highways in the vicinity. The area forms a picture of rustic simplicity: donkeys tied up next to mud-brick houses, children playing near a canal, a young girl in a pink dress and a pink cardigan chasing a cow through her garden.

Tanks with nicknames such as Carnivore and Prom Queen roll into the first hamlet, and the Marines fan out, searching houses. A loudspeaker blasts a message in Arabic: Stay in your houses. We are here to help. "This is a place taken out of thousands of years ago when Jesus was walking the earth still," says Corporal Omar Monge, 20, driver for the battalion commander, Lieut. Colonel Bryan P. McCoy. A village elder approaches the battalion translator. Tell everyone not to be scared, he is told. But tell them if they shoot one bullet they will be very scared. We will shoot 2,000 bullets back.

At the hamlet of Hajil, American helicopters overhead report white pickups, the preferred ride for the fedayeen, leaving town. A yellow-and-white taxi makes the mistake of pulling out in front of a tank, and the machine gunner opens up. Rounds explode across the car, and the driver is hit in the thigh and the back. He is treated and medevacked out.

The resistance comes a few minutes later. The convoy stops south of Afak, the first big town, fearing that a local bridge may not support the tanks. Men are seen running through a field and a date-palm grove, north of the road. A machine gunner atop a tank starts shooting, and suddenly the air is ripped by bullets. The copters dance over the field, firing down. McCoy bounds into the palm grove, lobs a grenade over a small berm and opens fire on a group of men. When the shooting stops, Marines spread through Afak while human exploitation teams, U.S. soldiers who collect information, start interviewing locals. A group of Iraqis hanging out in front of a run-down gas station tell the Marines that all is cool, but clearly it is not. "Will this be a place where you Americans will stay, or will the Iraqis, the Baath Party, come back?" one of them asks. "I need to know before I can speak."

Help us and you will be safe, the translator tells him. They aren't convinced. "They are scared we will leave them like we did the first time," says the translator, referring to what happened in 1991. Yet they reveal a critical piece of info: the location of the local Baath Party headquarters a few kilometers down the road, near At Tahrir.

When the troops arrive there, the two-story green-and-lime building housing the Baath Party seems deserted. Then a sniper across the road starts firing on the convoy and is answered. The battalion pours through the streets, grabbing two teens who tell the troops that 250 to 450 armed Baathists have headed east, the last of them having left as the Marines arrived. The teams collect names of party officials and details on their vehicles and weapons. The biggest find: a book listing the names of all local Baath officials.

By day's end, the tally is eight or nine enemy dead, two civilians wounded, at least a dozen pows and cheering Iraqis along the roads. It will take many more missions like these to find and disarm the scattering enemy.