KARBALA, Iraq — Jumping down from the 7-ton truck, with sporadic gunfire in the distance, members of the security foot patrol head out. The shots don’t deter them; they head straight for the worst of it.

Across fields of swampy ground, past packs of wild dogs, raw sewage and debris, a group from Company L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment patrols the worst neighborhoods in the city.

They search for illegal weapons and keep the peace amid the havoc of postwar Iraq.

“We have found ourselves doing the role of policemen, governors, bankers, a little bit of doctors,” said Col. Larry Brown, operations officer for First Marine Expeditionary Force, the body responsible for the bottom half of Iraq.

With combat operations declared over, Marines and soldiers are performing a new and critical role, fostering stability through regular patrols and outreach to the community. While ambushes plague the areas near Baghdad, in the southern sectors, patrols have established a fragile, but promising, order.

What’s surprising is the relative ease at which servicemembers have transformed, from combat infantrymen to police and community relations advocates.

“We handled it better than I thought we could,” said Capt. Richard Gannon, Company L commander. “The training we get is to be very versatile. We don’t shoot everything [in combat]. We do differentiate what we attack.”

The skills to distinguish good and bad in combat help the Marines fulfill the new, and in some ways more challenging, role.

“We made such a great transition from fighting the enemy to integrating with the community,” said 1st Lt. Edward Lofland, adjutant for 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Najaf, Iraq. “We’ve been working toward this since we took Baghdad.”

The process was gradual, at first in Baghdad, then in the seven provinces they now control. As the environment became less aggressive, the Marines responded in kind.

They meet force with equal force, no more and no less.

Farther south, in Diwaniyah, members of a foot patrol from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment step from their Humvees. They stop a motorcyclist. Nearly all the motorcycles in the country were stolen during the war, so there’s a good chance this one is stolen, too. It still has a blue light on the rear, evidence that it once belonged to the police. The Marines search the man and walk him to the Iraqi police station down the street for arrest.

The patrols make sure they are visible in the community. They search cars for weapons, talk to locals and watch for strangers and noticeable changes, even as the power goes out, leaving them in total darkness.

The patrols develop a rapport with locals. Some earlier told the Marines about gun trading at a nearby nighttime sheep market. Locals want the criminals removed, many of whom are former prisoners released by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein before the war.

All night, shots ring out, either from celebratory gunfire, people keeping looters at bay or warring gangs. The Marines are especially concerned with the gangs, they say, and that is what they’re there to find.

The patrol loops the streets of Diwaniyah, scanning rooftops through night vision scopes and speaking to people along the way.

Children wave. “Mister, good-good,” they say.

They are doing good, or so it seems. The patrols have stopped thefts and protected neighborhoods.

“Basically, wherever we’re needed, we’ll be walking,” said Cpl. Mario Lanzilotta, section leader for the 3-5 patrol in Diwaniyah. The community’s reaction is encouraging.

“It’s very common for people to come out and offer Marines food, water, cigarettes. They sit and talk to them,” said Lt. Col. Matthew A. Lopez, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.

The Marine companies scattered across the provinces of southern Iraq — home to millions of people and thousands of acres of cities, towns and rural communities — divide their time between securing the camps they live in, rebuilding and working security patrols.

Most of the Marines have survived combat although a few are newcomers. They live in squalid camps and dream of the things they miss. The mission is no less difficult than combat had been.

“You get in the combat mind-set. It is dangerous,” 2nd Lt. Chris Schickling, executive officer for the Headquarters and Support Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines at Hillah.

It’s a different kind of patrol.

“You don’t muzzle people [point weapons at them],” he said. “It’s a little more work; you’re doing a lot of handshaking. You’re just going to show them, ‘hey, we’re here to help,’” he said.

Some of the Marines have been through a new training technique in the States to develop the dexterity needed in peacekeeping. They practice realistic combat maneuvers with civilians added in and practice with different rules of engagement.

The 3-7 went through the exercise, Basic Urban Skills Training, last year.

“It’s almost a mirror image of what we did here,” said company 1st Sgt. Martin Berns.

The locals in Karbala call the Marines “night wolves” because the Marines work in packs and go to the most dangerous areas, Berns said. It builds confidence and trust.

The role of peacekeeper isn’t new, and it wasn’t a surprise for the Marines. Battalions helped rebuild in Nicaragua and China, said Lt. Col. John Mayer, battalion commander for the 1-4 in Hillah. “We’ve always done these types of operations,” he said.

Patrols can have the same exhaustive adrenaline rush as combat, and leaders use the same techniques to diffuse it: talking out feelings, evaluating patrols, Berns said. They discuss what could happen and then what did happen before and after each patrol.

“There’s still a threat,” said Sgt. Juan Ospina, a sniper scout with 1-4. “The difference is, people were shooting at us all the time. Now they’re not shooting as much, but there’s still a threat.”

Some people on the street are intoxicated on tranquilizers or alcohol. People might get too close, or children might have a toy gun that looks a little too real.

It helps the Marines when they see the result of their endeavors daily.

“They’re seeing the freedom and what it brings to the Iraqi people,” Mayer said.

Ospina agrees.

“I wish I was home, but we’re here to help these people,” he said.

It helps, too, that they’re welcomed, especially by children, unlike around Baghdad, where hostility runs high.

“They understand that’s what we’re fighting for — the kids,” said Lofland from 1-7 in Najaf. “They love that people appreciate what they did.”

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