Mideast edition, Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Enemies and friends are made quickly in the farmlands just outside of Baghdad. Deciphering that struggle between Iraqis, and investigating its possible danger toward U.S. forces, is a delicate matter.

Last week, a group of farmers in Abu Ghraib saw two unfamiliar men purposefully driving away from a convoy of U.S. soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 7th Artillery Regiment. The farmers stopped the two men and found four rusty rifles, ammunition, and spools of wire. They detained the two and waved over the Americans, who had stopped nearby.

Capt. Christopher Piskai, the battalion’s intelligence officer, was in the convoy. He looked at the stash, then walked over to the men. Soldiers had already handcuffed and blindfolded them. The two tested negative for any weapon residue on their hands.

Piskai, 27, of Exton, Pa., interviewed each man separately. The first told how many in his family had been killed in recent months, and that the guns were purchased at a local market for his family’s protection.

The second man corroborated the story. Neither man had cell phones — a tool of choice for insurgents. They had cigarettes and wallets and identification cards. Piskai gave them water and talked to them in the shade.

“They don’t fit the bill of being up to no good,” Piskai told the farmers, who had called their sheik to come down and oversee the possible trouble.

Plus, one of the men was a member of a nearby tribe, a sheik that has dealings with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in a nearby command.

Two hours after they had detained the two men, the farmers were pleading with Piskai for their release. Piskai agreed, but with a caveat. The sheik of the two men had to call the local Iraqi commander to vouch for them before they could get their guns back.

All the Iraqi men pleaded. The two guys needed their guns to protect their families.

“I understand you want to protect your family,” Piskai told the detained men, the farmers, and the local sheik. “But we won’t let them keep their guns.”

The men were freed, their blindfolds untied. They kissed and hugged the men who first captured them.

Piskai agreed to escort their truck back the edge of the convoy’s patrol area as an extra measure of protection.

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