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Thaddeus Herber, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, searched a vehicle while fellow Marines waited with the vehicle’s occupant. Marines looking for insurgent activity may often ask Iraqis whether they’ve seen “Ali Baba,” widely understood to refer to insurgents or criminals.
Thaddeus Herber, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, searched a vehicle while fellow Marines waited with the vehicle’s occupant. Marines looking for insurgent activity may often ask Iraqis whether they’ve seen “Ali Baba,” widely understood to refer to insurgents or criminals. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)
Thaddeus Herber, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, searched a vehicle while fellow Marines waited with the vehicle’s occupant. Marines looking for insurgent activity may often ask Iraqis whether they’ve seen “Ali Baba,” widely understood to refer to insurgents or criminals.
Thaddeus Herber, 19, of New Braunfels, Texas, searched a vehicle while fellow Marines waited with the vehicle’s occupant. Marines looking for insurgent activity may often ask Iraqis whether they’ve seen “Ali Baba,” widely understood to refer to insurgents or criminals. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)
During a hunt for oil pirates in Iraq’s western Al Anbar province late last month, U.S. Marines checked the IDS of Iraqi men. These Marines are with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, part of Task Force Highlander, which operates in western Anbar.
During a hunt for oil pirates in Iraq’s western Al Anbar province late last month, U.S. Marines checked the IDS of Iraqi men. These Marines are with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, part of Task Force Highlander, which operates in western Anbar. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)
Marines checked the IDs of Iraqi men.
Marines checked the IDs of Iraqi men. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

Mideast edition, Saturday, August 18, 2007

COMBAT OUTPOST RAWAH, Iraq — When U.S. troops in Iraq question local residents about insurgents who may be in the area, they often use the term “Ali Baba.”

In use since the very first year of the Iraq conflict, it’s a term that’s become instantly familiar to Iraqis through their contacts with U.S. forces.

“The Ali Baba thing, that’s pretty much become slang,” Marine Lance Cpl. Thaddeus Herber said recently. “To them, they know that when Americans say ‘Ali Baba’ we’re talking about ‘bad guys.’ We’re talking about ‘Where’s insurgents?’ To them that’s our word for insurgents.”

Herber is with Company C, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, part of Task Force Highlander, which operates in western Anbar province.

But for Herber and some of his fellow Marines in Company C’s 3rd Platoon, it’s usually not good to just spring that question on an Iraqi straight out.

“In their culture, you don’t just walk up and start talking about ‘Where’s insurgents?’ Because that’s being disrespectful to them and their household, and respect is very important in their culture,” he said.

So Herber prefers to work his way up to the question.

He might start with “‘Has anybody been around here, anybody causing problems?’ They feel like you’re looking out for them. Then, if you get around to it,” he’ll ask about Ali Baba.

It can be a delicate question because, say Task Force Highlander officials,while insurgent activity in their area has fallen off dramatically in the cities in recent months, the insurgency is still active in the region, Task Force Highlander officials say.

Herber and his fellow Marines have gotten used to two basic responses.

The most common, they say, is a see-nothing-know-nothing answer.

“Where is he, wayn Ali Baba?” they’ll ask. “Ah, no Ali Baba,” will be the answer.

But sSometimes they get useful information.

“If you talk to somebody more and more, and they’re comfortable with you, they’ll let you know,” Herber said.

“They’ll never straight up come out and tell you, because they fear for their own lives, the insurgency,” said Herber. “It may not be very active, but it’s still active. They don’t want anything to do with the insurgents, but at the same time they don’t want anything to do with us, because the insurgents will come down on them.”

“But they’ll give you hints. ‘Well, maybe you should check here, near the river.’ Or, ‘That building over there, it might have something that you’re looking for.’”

One day, though, outside the city of Hassa, Herber and fellow Marines ran into a very unexpected answer, one they concluded was sheer anti-American sentiment.

They were questioning a man who appeared to be a sheepherder.

“Wayn Ali Baba?” the Marines asked him.

“No Ali Baba. No Ali Baba, mister,” he answered.

Suspicious, though, they pressed him.

“We asked him, ‘Ali Baba in Hassa?’ This guy said, ‘No, mister.’ That’s what they always say.

“‘Well, Ali Baba in Fallujah?’ He said ‘No, mister.’ ‘Well, Ali Baba in Iraq?’ He said ‘No Ali Baba. You Ali Baba!’ ”

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