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Marines on Patrol in Fallujah

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And more now on the situation in Fallujah from Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor. He's joining us by phone from Istanbul in Turkey, but in November, he was embedded with the Marines in Fallujah for a week.

And I wonder, Scott Peterson, first of all, whether the kind of mission that we've heard described, the mission that proved fatal for 10 Marines, rings a bell with you. Is this what you saw Marines doing in Fallujah?

Mr. SCOTT PETERSON (The Christian Science Monitor): Well, this is exactly what Marines had been doing in Fallujah, as they have been doing for the last year, which is going through and mostly doing foot patrols in the city--I mean, maintaining a presence, as they say. Often this involves, you know, handing out candies and sweets, you know. And often also, the Marines say, they get a mixture of very cold stares, a lot of anger still because of, as Annie described, the quite widespread destruction of the city. I mean, there are hardly any of the 50,000 structures in that city that were untouched by that offensive one year ago.

So there's still a lot of residual anger, as you can imagine, as people begin to rebuild, but also, people who are happy that the city is surrounded still and, basically, people prevented from coming in or out, and there's such strict controls. I mean, what I found was people were--you know, as much as they feel that the security circumstances in which they're living are onerous, they also recognize that this is the kind of circumstance that has allowed them to vote in such large numbers in Fallujah and also to, in fact, in many ways kind of take some of the Sunni political power for themselves, because they've been, per capita, the most political people in Iraq in the course of the last year among Sunnis.

SIEGEL: Could you get a sense from the Marines whom you were reporting on when you were embedded as to whether they really enjoyed the cooperation of the Sunni Muslims from Fallujah? When they went on these patrols, did they have good intelligence? Did they regard the people who lived there as friends, or was every person they faced a potential foe?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think it's a mixture of both. I think it depends on the type of patrol that's going through. I think it depends on how they behave. I mean, I saw patrols of all different kinds of mannerisms. In one--you know, in several cases, I was on patrols in which, you know, basically it was the question of handing out sweets, people welcoming and waving, and it all looked fine on the surface. And yet at just the end of one of those patrols--in one case, I was on a parallel patrol where there were two squads that were out. My squad--we finished up, we rounded a corner right next to the base, and literally 10 minutes later, the next squad came through that exact same spot and the sergeant was hit with a grenade.

SIEGEL: We've heard President Bush and others distinguish among the different groups of people who are attacking US forces or, for that matter, the new Iraqi forces in Iraq; some of them former regime elements, other old Baathists, other are jihadists. In Fallujah, is it clear who's doing this sort of thing?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think that the majority of the Marines there are talking about people who are nationalist resistant, i.e. people who they recognize are unhappy that the Marines are there because these are foreigners in their country. I think that they don't ascribe very many of these kind of attacks to actual foreigners working in Fallujah at the moment because it's just too difficult for foreigners to get in past all those checkpoints and operate in that area. So they believe that this is mostly nationalists.

But even though things have, in some respects, been going relatively well--or at least according to what the Marines consider to be their plan--in terms of slowly pulling together a civil society and beginning to get some of the parts of the economic engine going in Fallujah--I mean, one word that I never heard on the lips of a Marine commander from the top to the bottom was the word `victory.' No one ever described what was going on in Fallujah--or anywhere else in Iraq, for that matter--was heading toward any kind of victory.

What were people were trying to do was to basically make it functional, make it work and make it sufficiently secure. And in Fallujah, you know, of course, they're controlling variables in ways that they're not controlling anywhere else in Iraq. And so this is kind of a test case to try and make this happen.

SIEGEL: Scott Peterson, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor talking about Fallujah, where he was last month and several times in this past year. He was talking to us from Istanbul. Earlier, we heard from our own Anne Garrels reporting from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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