ALONG ROUTE 7, Central Iraq April 12 —
Seven men sat in the dried mud alongside the road, hands bound by
white plastic cuffs and four Kalashnikov rifles ammunition clips
fully loaded lying in back of their armored jeep. U.S. Marines
guarded them warily.
Detaining the men would have seemed a clear call for the Marines
manning the checkpoint on the road outside Kut, where intelligence
reports said possibly thousands of foreign fighters were holed
But after Maj. Clint Nussberger of the 24th Marine Expeditionary
Unit questioned each man and found that their story of being
opposition fighters on a shopping trip checked out, the Marines
confiscated their weapons and let them go.
The search for top officers and leaders from the Iraqi regime
continues at checkpoints like this across the country, with Marines
making sensitive calls every minute balancing security needs and the
risk of potential suicide bombers against the sensitivities of
Iraqis who will be led by a U.S.-imposed government.
"What we can we actually do here real fast is we can win the
battle, and we can lose the peace," Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston,
commanding Marine at U.S. Central Command, warned Marines Friday
during a visit to Camp Fenway, the unit's base in southern Iraq.
Marine intelligence officers said earlier this week that
unconfirmed intelligence reports estimated that anywhere from a
couple hundred to 5,000 foreign fighters were in Kut. Their path to
Baghdad, 95 miles to the northwest, was blocked by other coalition
forces. The foreigners, who "bought a one-way ticket to Allah" in
the words of one Marine major, included possible al-Qaida members,
and reportedly had come from Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Chechnya.
Helicopter gunships circled over Kut on Saturday afternoon as a
cloud of black smoke rose from the city, which was surrounded by
About six miles south of Kut, explosions shook the ground as the
Marines blasted a trench alongside the new checkpoint so no vehicles
could drive off Route 7, which runs from Baghdad to Nasiriyah. Two
Humvees, one with a machine gun, the other with a TOW anti-tank
missile, stood guard.
After Iraqi men filed out of their vehicles, Marines asked them
to pull up their sleeves looking for tattoos that could indicate
military affiliation. An eagle, the Iraqi national symbol, with rays
coming out of it, is one military symbol, while tattoos of two
hearts with arrows through them belong to Republican Guard troops.
Fedayeen paramilitaries have tattoos running across their
Next, Marines pat them down for weapons possibly hidden beneath
long shirts and robes, and check vehicles. The troops also check
identification for military connections; anyone who is a colonel or
higher is deemed worthy for detention.
The only common language between most of the Americans and Iraqis
is hand signals, and tensions rise with the frustration that people
the world over feel when stuck in a traffic jam.
One man in an old black car held up his baby and said it was
sick, while others complained they had places to go and wanted to
pass as freely as they could just the day before.
A trio of black-robed women started crying and hugging each other
after Marines insisted on searching them, in violation of Muslim
religious beliefs. There are no women Marines here to conduct
searches, but the troops have to check everyone.
Nussberger, 34, of Ogema, Wis., who speaks Arabic, does what he
can to not offend locals.
The men in the armored jeep insisted they were opposition
fighters looking to get food for poor families inside Kut, and one
had a shopping list in his pocket with items such as sugar and
tahini sauce substantiating the story.
"We have to make sure Marines don't get shot by Saddam Fedayeen
or Baath Party militia and at the same time you don't want to
alienate the populace," Nussberger said.
One man seemed to have the secret to getting through the
checkpoint quicker: He came riding up on a weathered donkey so small
his feet nearly touched the ground, before Marines demanded he stop
for a search under his black-and-white striped shirt. The donkey
Cpl. Cory Dreyer then got the command from his superior to
"escort the donkey," walking alongside the pair to the other side of
the checkpoint with his M-249 machine gun hanging off his
"I get to escort the jackass," Dreyer, 21, of Clearwater, Fla.,
grumbled, before the command came from the rear: "Hey, get that
|A man and his car are checked
for weapons or contraband by the U.S. Marines 24th
Expeditionary Unit at a checkpoint, Saturday, April 12, 2003,
9 kms. (6 miles) south of the Iraq town of Kut. (AP
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