Monday, June 7, 2004

BAQUBAH, Iraq — U.S. forces battling insurgents in northern Iraq have a new weapon in their arsenal — illustrated Arabic-language booklets explaining politely to residents why American troops want to come into their homes to search for weapons.

“Iraqis did not like having their houses searched when we did not hand out the books,” said Capt. Jeff Peterman, an expert on psychological or “information” operations with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

Now soldiers routinely distribute the books — which emphasize that the troops do not want to harm Iraqi families — before carrying out searches, eliminating much of the previous friction.

The booklets are part of a broad public relations effort by the brigade’s psychological operations unit, which includes “story books and coloring books for the kids, including a full range of subjects about things like unexploded ordnance and teaching kids about the police department,” Capt. Peterman said.

Also, he said, “We’ll pass out simple informational fliers or handbills telling people not to park their car along the side of the road because it could be mistaken for someone placing an explosive device.”

Even so, military officials understand that their effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqis remains a struggle. “There’s an element out there that does not want us to succeed,” Capt. Peterman said.

For the troops, every day is a balancing act of trying to reach out to friendly Iraqis and protecting themselves and their colleagues against potential killers.

This sometimes means stopping on patrol to talk with friendly citizens and pass out candy and chewing gum to children, even in the knowledge that the delay makes the soldiers more vulnerable to ambushes with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.

On one recent convoy, U.S. soldiers waiting to cross a bridge threw children gum from the back of their Humvees and dickered with a teenager who was trying to sell them a wristwatch. But when another teenager approached with a foot-long hunting knife he wanted to sell, the soldiers motioned for him to keep his distance.

When the convoy continued, the troops warily scanned the roadside while others tried to keep the traffic moving, all the while smiling to the Iraqi children gathering in front of their homes.

In the long run, some officers say, the smiles and waves make less difference than physical achievements — the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and roads and the restoration of running water and electricity.

During one mission last week, platoon leader Lt. Mario Giberti led his column of tanks into a side road to check up on a newly renovated elementary school.

Looking happily at the school, Lt. Giberti said, “It was rundown with no electricity, the bathrooms were disgusting. Now it is repainted, with air conditioning, electricity and basketball.”

Nevertheless, Lt. Giberti said, his team still sees anti-U.S. placards, messages and fliers posted on the walls during its patrols. And while a majority of Iraqis wave to the passing tanks, many still turn their backs or watch with sullen stares.

“They hear a lot of anticoalition propaganda,” Lt. Giberti said.

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