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In Fallujah, Marines try a new tactic

Image-building is latest mission

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- As he navigated his Humvee through rubble-strewn streets, Lance Corporal Sunshine Yubeta articulated a question that is key to the Marines' mission here.

"I wonder," said the 23-year-old from Madras, Ore., nodding toward several sullen men on a corner, "if they hate us or like us."

It is a dilemma at the heart of the US policy in this Sunni Triangle city, which was once the center of Iraqi's insurgency. Having routed the guerrillas late last year in combat that left much of Fallujah in ruins, the US military needs the cooperation of residents who once fled the fighting.

To keep the insurgents from reestablishing a headquarters here, the United States knows it will need information from residents about the movement of fighters back into the neighborhoods. In addition, US officials hope for at least a modicum of participation from Fallujah in Jan. 30 elections that might bolster the credibility of the Iraqi government.

At five heavily guarded entry points to the city, military interrogators selectively ask residents returning to Fallujah if they have heard of the upcoming election and, if so, which candidate they might support.

The goal, officials insist, is not to influence how the Iraqis might vote. It is to get an understanding of how well residents of this culturally and politically isolated city understand the changes in their country since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in April 2003.

Inside the city, the Americans have established several relief centers to provide food and water to residents and toys to children. By some estimates, the United States has earmarked $150 million for the city. The Iraqi government plans a compensation program.

In addition to the humanitarian assistance centers, Marine patrols drive slowly through the streets, talking to residents, handing out water, fruit juice, cigarettes, crackers, cookies, and breakfast cereal, and asking for information about insurgents. Some of the food had been sent to the Marines by their families.

Posters have been plastered on walls offering rewards for insurgent leaders, although there have been few reported takers.

Outside the assistance center tents, Iraqis stand for hours to receive water and packets of food stamped with a US flag and the words "A Food Gift From the People of the United States of America." Hands are marked to prevent a return for seconds.

One center is just blocks from the spot where a mob killed four US contractors last March. Now Iraqis gather not only for aid but for a chance to work in the assistance program, which pays about $8 a day.

Many of those in line on Thursday were hungry, cold, and seemingly dazed by events that made their city, untouched by the US-led invasion in 2003, into a battlefield against the insurgency.

"I didn't do anything wrong, but the Americans destroyed my house," said Sami Fafaj, 49, holding two bottles of water and two food packets.

"I want America to rebuild my house and give me money for what they have done," agreed Allah Abdullah, 37, collecting food for his seven children. "Sometimes I wish they had never come to Iraq."

While public expressions of anger directed at the Americans seem rare, a widespread feeling appears to exist of having been wronged by US forces.

While older residents might seem fatalistic, the younger ones show signs of impatience.

"We are not free to move in our own city," said Maged Haraj, 20. "We want to be free."

The young Marines say they are confident that residents will come to accept that the destruction was necessary to rid Fallujah of the insurgents who had controlled the city.

As the patrol vehicles prowled the streets, children ran after the Humvees begging for anything available. Adults asked for rice, water, or cigarettes.

Some told horror stories of months under insurgent control.

"I have a nephew that they beheaded," said a truck driver, Adnan Mohammed, flanked by two children. "You are our destiny."

But other Iraqi men remained on the curb, offering no smiles and returning no waves. One gestured in disdain. Some refused to ask for handouts but sent children to do their bidding, particularly for cigarettes.

The residents who have returned are living a meager existence. In this western sector of the city, no stores have reopened, although a black market is said to exist. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed.

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