Friend and foe blurred on urban streets
US forces occupy Fallujah, but fighting continues, and it remains risky for civilians.
With fear in his face and a white flag of surrender in his hand, Majid Hamid approached the US Marines' position.
Within seconds, marines of the 1st light armored reconnaissance (LAR) company had wrestled Mr. Hamid to the ground, taken away his T-shirt flag, and cuffed his hands.
The good news for Hamid, on these Fallujah streets of raw violence: He wasn't shot.
Drawing the line between friend and foe is extremely difficult in this urban battlefield. Insurgents may appear in civilian garb or the uniform of the Iraqi National Guard fighting alongside US troops. And the magnitude of violence - from heavy US air and artillery strikes against rebels, to the kidnappings, murders, and car bombs favored by terrorist cells - means that civilians are often caught in a web of suspicion.
Armored US Army and Marine infantry units are consolidating new gains in south Fallujah, while elements north of the highway that bisects the city east to west continue to hunt down tenacious bands of rebels. The military says the city is now occupied, though not yet subdued.
The Marine commander in charge of planning the assault said that more than 1,200 insurgents have died - a figure that barely seems possible, at least given the experience here in the northeast sector. In a week, this reporter saw the bodies of 25 insurgents and about a dozen live civilians.
Commanders on the ground say such metrics of success don't apply to Fallujah, yet.
"We have crushed their command and control, but these guys are patient," says Capt. Gil Juarez, the LAR company commander, who seized his rifle and took part himself in a gun battle with four insurgents that broke out 100 yards away from his command post Saturday.
Marines used a TOW missile and rifle fire to smoke them out, and later sent foot patrols to sweep the area. No rebels were found.
"We need to keep them off balance, the pressure on, and then rebuild this city," says Captain Juarez, from San Diego, Calif. "We're making progress, [but] Iraqi forces don't control the city, and that's the final objective.... There is still a lot of work that needs to be done."
Meanwhile, insurgents continued to show strength in Iraq's third largest city, Mosul, by overrunning a police station there Sunday. Last week, rebels seized at least nine stations and took over neighborhoods. Some local police defected, others fled, before Iraqi and US military forces arrived to restore order.
The fighting in Fallujah has left the city a ghost town. The few people venturing into the streets are viewed through rifle sights first as potential enemies, and second as innocents.
US and Iraqi forces have made clear - with leaflet drops, radio broadcasts, and psychological operations teams with loudspeakers mounted on Humvees - that the way to stay alive in Fallujah is to keep indoors, or "surrender" with a white flag.
Mr. Hamid, the frightened, mustachioed Iraqi of military age, followed those instructions when he surrendered.
Besides his white flag, Hamid bore a handwritten letter in English, written by his father, explaining that he had moved the rest of his family out of Fallujah, and left Hamid to "safeguard the house. I hope [you] treat him kindly, if [you] happen to see him."
He also carried a mobile phone, and a card showing him to be a student at the Al-Rasheed College of Engineering and Science. After five or six days, he said, he had run out of food and water. A neighbor also wanted to turn himself in, to be safer.
But until his story was examined in detail, by an interpreter and intelligence officer, Hamid was hardly welcome. He was handcuffed, and put in a room with another detainee, until a US team came 10 hours later to question him.
The intelligence officer who came to interrogate both detainees said that insurgents have been posing as civilians.
A few weeks ago in the town of Khaldiya, marines did not fire on a man who approached them in daytime with a white flag. In the suicide blast that followed, one marine lost a leg.
"We didn't shoot him, because of that flag," the officer said.
Before the intel team arrived, a lone US Army officer arrived at the fire position, with a dozen Iraqi National Guardsmen, who wore red and white tape wrapped around their arms and thighs to distinguish them from the foe.
They sat down with Hamid, said they would go to his house to find his friend, but also made clear the risks, if Hamid was lying, and leading them into an ambush.
"He must understand," US Army Staff Sgt. Richard Fryar, from Waltham, Mass., told his interpreter to tell Hamid in Arabic. "If I or any of my men, American or Iraqi, get hurt or shot in any way, I'll shoot him dead."
"If he's lying in any way, he'll be punished all the way through," Staff Sergeant Fryar continued.
"We have to treat them all as insurgents, unless they prove otherwise," Fryar said later. "You don't know who to trust."
Hamid's trustworthiness was on the line when the Iraqi squad agreed to hike at dusk to his house, four blocks east and one block north from the US position. Burnt-out cars lined the route - every vehicle in the city has been treated like a potential car bomb, and shot up at a distance by US forces.
After the left turn into Hamid's narrow street, the level of tension shot up. The bodies of three prone corpses were being picked over by cats. A couple of rocket-propelled grenades - a favorite insurgent weapon - lay on the ground inside one garage gate.
"This looks like a prime spot for an ambush," Fryar said, urging his Iraqi unit to hustle, as they scanned the rooftops and houses for snipers, or any sign of attack.
Hamid, still wearing plastic cuffs, walked alone up the stairs to what he said was his friend's house. He banged on the metal gate. No one seemed to be home. The squad broke in, but the friend was not found inside.
"Where is he?" demanded Fryar of the young Iraqi. "If this is an ambush..."
To push home the warning, he grabbed Hamid by the scruff of his neck, forced him to his knees, and drew his pistol.
Hamid led them across the street, in his own house, where he was able to take the US officer and Iraqis directly to the AK-47 assault rifle hidden in a closet, with several full magazines, and a hunting rifle - precisely the weapons Hamid had described earlier.
Walking back to the Marine fire position, in the near darkness, the Iraqis shot back up the road, toward a four-man team of insurgents prowling the streets.
Later, the intelligence officer determined that the stories of both detainees - Hamid, who had surrendered, and a local guard - checked out.
They were to be escorted outside the city and then released. The word "RELEASE" was written with permanent ink on their forearms.