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Savidge: Marines, villagers feel each other out

Savidge
Savidge: "What started out as a search-and-destroy mission turned into a humanitarian mission."

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CENTRAL IRAQ (CNN) -- As coalition warplanes pounded Iraqi military positions around Baghdad, a number of U.S. units waited on the periphery, engaging in sporadic skirmishes, entering villages and readying to strike and surge toward the Iraqi capital.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper talked Sunday with correspondent Martin Savidge, embedded with the U.S. 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, about a unique operation carried out by a band of U.S. forces in central Iraq.

SAVIDGE: For the past couple of days, we have been in the same basic area here in central Iraq. The 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, has been, at least in this region, trying to deal with the paramilitary units, the Fedayeen Saddam as they're sometimes called, that have been harassing the supply lines and also attacking military positions.

It's not been a serious problem, but it's been an aggravating problem, and it has cost lives and caused injuries.

So, today the Marines decided to get proactive and get out into the villages. We went on one patrol to a nearby village with the U.S. forces, moving out before the sun came up. These villages don't necessarily host militia, but they could be harboring or offering havens to Iraqi paramilitary units.

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A combination of Marines in armored personnel carriers and Marines on foot closed on the village just as the sun was coming up. The welcome wagon didn't exactly roll in initially. Things were tense, and the Marines were prepared for anything they might encounter.

The first thing the Marines did, through an interpreter, was try to find the village elder -- the man who was the senior in charge there. They found him, and the elder assured the Marines that there were no longer any paramilitary units there. In fact, he said all of the paramilitary units he knew of had fled some days earlier.

After that, it became smiles, hand shakes and broken conversations in mixed English and Arabic.

One of the things that quickly became clear was the definite humanitarian need in this small village. According to people who live there, about five days ago Iraqi soldiers shut down the nearby water pumping station. That's left them in very dire straits, with no fresh water coming in. The villagers say the children are growing sick from drinking water in nearby culverts or from old and stagnant ponds.

The Marines stepped in, [preparing] to take some villagers under guard to the pumping station to see if they can get the water flowing again.

So what started off as a search-and-destroy mission turned into a humanitarian mission. And it's very clear the Marines wanted it to happen this way, because if they can keep the people of Iraq comfortable with their presence and feeling, as they say, that the coalition forces are only here to help, it will make the road to Baghdad that much easier.

COOPER: How are the Marines adapting to this role?

SAVIDGE: Well, it is kind of a different role for them. They are clearly a fighting force, not necessarily ... the welcome wagon.

However, the Marines [have been told] how critical it is to get into these villages, to see the lay of the land, to meet the people and to get to know the people -- who lives there regularly and who may be a stranger.

The Marines want to gauge the normal sense of activity. And they've found that the Iraqi villagers they've met lead a pretty predictable life.

Their hours are predictable: There is no electricity out there, so they aren't out after dark. That usually means if you observe that community, then find people moving around under the cover of darkness; those people probably are not villagers, but quite possibly Iraqi fighters out to do the Marines harm.

Operations and intelligence-gathering like this -- making friends with Iraqis -- could save Marines' lives down the road. At least that's what the U.S. forces are hoping for.

COOPER: The locals that you met with, did they know what was going on?

SAVIDGE: No, you didn't get the feeling that the villagers we visited were aware of the big picture.

Imagine if you were a person who had no idea of the situation -- including that there had been a massive military operation led by U.S. forces. It's the crack of dawn, you're about to go out and feed the chickens and suddenly these huge armored personnel carriers come rolling in.

Then, heavily-armed men pour out of these vehicles, and a jeep pulls up with loudspeakers that begin shouting in Arabic, 'Don't worry, we're here to help you, we are here asking that you stay in your homes and don't come near the U.S.-led or Iraqi military forces.' For any average human being, that would be an overwhelming experience -- terrifying for many, many people.

These villagers did come out, and they did meet and speak with the Marines. But there was a great deal of trepidation in the early stages, and a lot of the children were initially kept back. Once that greeting was handled, though, the children came out, and there seemed to be pleasantries all around.

It's not to say the Marines feel perfectly comfortable. As a U.S. Marine colonel told us, he wouldn't send his boys walking down Main Street in this town. But he does feel a little better about the whole security situation now after visiting this village.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.


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