March 25, 2003
ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. Marines, M-16s pointed, forced the Iraqi men out of their vehicle, questioned them and shoved them down onto the rocky sand -- slashing their tires first to ensure they wouldn't tail a convoy again any time soon.
After the hoped-for popular welcome in Iraq turned out to be deadly ambushes by ruse, U.S. forces heightened their vigilance Monday of a people they hoped to win over.
"It felt great when we came in, with the crowds waiting and smiling. Now you wonder what's behind those smiles -- and what lies behind those crowds," said Lt. Col. Michael Belcher of the 1st Marine Division.
"It's tough to win over their hearts and minds now, when you have to hold them at arm's length," Belcher said.
His men dealt with the three Iraqis: suspected ex-Iraqi soldiers, holding suspected Iraqi military goods.
In two cases Sunday near An Nasiriyah, Iraqi forces deceived Americans into believing they were surrendering or welcoming them.
U.S. officials said one Iraqi unit indicated it was giving up, but as the Marines approached, the Iraqis opened fire, killing nine Americans. U.S. military officials said about 40 were wounded.
Another ambush in An Nasiriyah, in which 12 soldiers were listed as missing, may have involved a surrender situation, U.S. officials said.
U.S. forces have been skirting cities and towns as they push toward Baghdad. On Monday, residents of the border town of Safwan -- one of the few towns directly taken by U.S. forces -- stoned the passing military convoy.
The three Iraqis stopped by Belcher's unit were pulled over after they had made a long swing by the U.S. convoy, doubled back, and swung by again. The Marines suspected they were deserters and looters in a stolen car.
They slashed their tires and put them face down in the dirt for an hour or so until the convoy passed.
Catching a stranger's eye, one man ventured a thumbs up and a grin. It faded and he pressed his face back down again in the sand in defeat.