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. US marines bid to win hearts and minds in Iraq's 'triangle of death'
YUSUFIYAH, Iraq (AFP) Dec 02, 2004
An army helicopter hovered overhead as the US marine stood in the street in this town in Iraq's "triangle of death" and patiently explained to a group of young men that he and his colleagues holed up in a heavily-fortified base nearby were their friends.

"I want to be sure you guys can walk down the street without getting your heads cut off," said Corporal Jared Tio, as the other marines on his foot patrol took up positions to cover him as he did his bit to win hearts and minds.

Tio, a 24-year-old from Milwaukee, is at the sharp end of the marines' strategy in this region south of Baghdad to regain government control ahead of landmark elections planned for January.

In Fallujah, east of the capital, and in Mosul in the north, US-led troops in November applied overwhelming force to reclaim what had been insurgent bastions.

But here in the "triangle of death" that tactic was more difficult because the insurgents were not based in a defined urban zone, but in a 40 by 80 kilometre (25 by 50 mile) stretch of lush farmland dotted with a handful of towns between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

Police and Iraqi national guard (ING) positions had been overrun and the towns of Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah had become notorious for kidnappings and attacks on civilians and military targets.

Bomb attacks on convoys became so frequent in the region that the authorities have closed a stretch of Iraq's main north-south highway that runs through here and set up marine positions under most of the bridges.

But then the marines decided that the best stategy was to go into these towns and set up small bases, chase out the insurgents and help the civilians get back to some sort of normal life.

"The first few days there was only us and the fighters. They mortared us every day and we mortared them back," said Major Morgan Mann, the commanding officer of the base in Yusufiyah.

His base was set up in early October in an abandoned school next to a former Baath party headquarters bombed during last year's US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Opposite the school is the ruin of a police station that was hit with a car bomb.

"But after a couple of weeks things relaxed. We talked to the sheikhs, the headmasters, the imams," said Mann, sitting in his sandbagged room in the base. On his table lay "Small Wars", a book on the military lessons to be learnt from Britain's colonial adventures, and on the ground next to him a copy of the New York Times Book Review.

"By the end of October the souk (market) was bustling, traffic had picked up," said Mann, a reservist, like nearly all of the marines here. But he added that in mid-November there was a major firefight in the town in which up to 40 insurgents and one marine were killed.

Things were indeed relaxed on the streets on Wednesday morning as Corporal Tio's 10-man patrol fanned out through the mostly Sunni town of about 40,000. Some of the people going about their business waved at the soldiers as they passed though the trash-strewn streets.

When the patrol reached a run-down apartment children came running out to ask for the candy they by now have come to expect from the marines. A little further along a group of young men carrying canisters complained the petrol station was out of supplies.

Tio stopped to chat.

"We were scared. They took seven of us because they say Shiites are friends of America," said one youth, explaining that before the base was set up here thugs would abduct and kill members of small Shiite community.

"Is there a curfew?" asked one man. "What are we supposed to do at checkpoints?" asked another.

"Why are you here with your guns? You scare the women and children," said one man, but his comments were belied by the presence in the crowd of several women and a handful of smiling kids.

An elderly man showed Tio a cut on his foot and the marine went with him to a nearby house, where he cleaned the wound and applied a bandage.

Then the patrol moved on, through the souk, past a mosque and back to the base. It had been a successful mission for the marines, another small step in their eyes towards restoring stability in this restive region.

But all the soldiers were aware of the long road ahead. Roadside bombs and attacks on convoys are still a daily occurrence in a region awash with weapons looted in the post-invastion chaos.

US commanders here say they are facing an insurgent force of several thousand members made up of of wealthy ideologues, criminal gangs and disillusioned locals.

"It's about re-engineering a society that is tribal, gangster-like," said Major Mann back at the base.

"There's no way we're going to do that in a few months. I've no illusion this place is going to be a democratic society anytime soon. That's up to them."

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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