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April 12, 2003

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Marines Balance Risks at Iraq Checkpoints
Marines Balance Risk With Security at Iraq Checkpoints in Search for Remnants of Saddam's Regime

The Associated Press

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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 up.

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 Marines.

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 knuckles.

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 wasn't searched.

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 shoulder.

"I get to escort the jackass," Dreyer, 21, of Clearwater, Fla., grumbled, before the command came from the rear: "Hey, get that donkey moving!"

photo credit and caption:
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 Photo/Wally Santana)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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