HASWAH AND MUSAYYIB, IRAQ
In the shadow of night, on the edge of the volatile town of Haswah, a convoy of humvees silently pulls to a stop and disgorges its marines.
In the wake of daytime raids Wednesday, in which 200 US troops cordoned off the town and 100 Iraqi special forces arrested 17 men, the marines of Operation Phantom Fury, which began this week, expected resistance.
They had never been here, some 30 miles south of Baghdad, and not been engaged by insurgents. And they had never planned such deep penetration, striding behind storefronts to the narrow, dusty streets behind.
But instead of a firefight, they stepped into a surreal silence.
"I don't believe this - aren't there supposed to be people in the streets at 11 at night? Drinking tea?" asked one marine emerging from a side street in full combat gear, threatened by nothing more than clusters of wild dogs.
"I've never seen it before - not a soul," says 2nd Lt. Mark Nicholson, a platoon commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines, from Wheeling, W.Va. Previous visits at even 2 a.m. found people on the street - and always an armed reaction.
"It's a good thing," says Lieutenant Nicholson. "But I'd like to see people in the streets, people who want us there, who greet us."
The apparently lifeless town, a chronic hotbed of insurgent activity, may typify what control can be achieved in Iraq with joint US-Iraqi forces. But as marines prepare to return to Haswah and other insurgent strongholds day after day, officers say the calm may be misleading, and tough to maintain.
"We can't be at every location, 24 hours a day," says Capt. Chris Ray, an intelligence officer. "[Insurgents] know they can just drop their AK-47s and blend into the crowd, if nobody points their finger at them."
"Our biggest problem right now is overcoming the intimidation that [insurgents] have working all the time," says Captain Ray, from Tolland, Conn. "They're here all the time, they know where everybody lives. In the past, [after an big arrest operation], for 24 hours it will calm down. Then they will actually pick up operations, to send the message: 'We control this town.' "
"We've seen it in every town," Ray says. "After we leave, there are more reports of people forcing shop owners to close, or stay off the streets. They're doing well with psychological operations."
Iraqi forces are meant increasingly to pick up the slack, and take permanent control of hotspots like Haswah. The arrests Wednesday, in fact, were prompted by Iraqi forces. "The Iraqi police called us, saying 'We got some people we know are bad, we're going to come get them," says Maj. Matt Sasse, chief of operations for the 1-2 Marines.
"We're perfectly willing to go out andkill these guys, but it's better if the Iraqi forces are going to deal with it on their own," says Major Sasse, from Midland, Mich. He notes that the 17 detainees were taken to the Iraqi jail at Hilla. "They're getting progressively better, and every time they have a successful operation, they get a bit more aggressive."
Down the road, Alpha Company was making less progress. The unit - with 48 people in eight vehicles - pulled into Musayyib, a grindingly poor Shiite town southwest of Haswah, to make an arrest. The target was a man who had sold a remote-detonated bomb - the kind that has taken a frequent toll on US and Iraqi forces - to an Iraqi "source" for $100.
Racing on foot past a street barrier, the marines found the building and burst through two doors - thinking the house was linked inside. They shot the chain off one door to gain entry, an irregular step the platoon leader later quizzed a marine about, saying it could have been removed without firepower.
Inside, a terrified family watched as they ransacked the rooms for evidence. During the raid, the man of the house was spreadeagled on the floor; the complaining but cooperative mother rushed to find her black shawl to cover her night clothes; children were led to a back room. Another boy was found with his head in his hands behind the bed.
After a short time, the marines realized the family was innocent. "Oh, this is the wrong one," groaned Nicholson.
They shook hands with the quivering children and apologized. "Tell the children not to play with this in the street," a marine told a translator, holding a toy assault rifle. "If they were holding this when we came in, we could have shot him."
The next door was the right one. Inside, marines found several women, a boy, an elderly man. The family said the target man had been gone for two days.
Disappointed, the marines finished by interrogating two suspects found in a grimy parking lot. One man turned out to be a guard, sleeping on post; the other was drunk and had stopped to sleep.
A loudspeaker blaring at 2:40 a.m. was taken by one marine as a call to arms from a mosque - not uncommon in such raids - until he was laughingly corrected: The sound was in fact a US psychological operations unit blasting pro-coalition messages.
The marines then turned the raid into an impromptu foot patrol, setting off down a street brightly lit with strings of bulbs, toward the town center. Two blasts from a whistle gave them pause.
The source was another security guard, this one awake. The marines didn't believe his story till they saw his ID card. "Who are his friends?" Nicholson asked the man through an interpreter. "Ask him: 'Who did he signal?' "
As time passed, bakers began their predawn work and vegetable sellers came to the muddy central market. Local allegiance was not in doubt: every wall seemed to have a poster of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Marines removed a few posters and took photos of others with longer messages. And, in a sign of new permanence, images of Mr. Sadr were spraypainted onto walls using a template, just as Hizbullah honored their revered clerics and martyrs in southern Lebanon.