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RAWAH, Iraq — Before their patrol set off Friday night, Marine Maj. Hezekiah Barge Jr. said his role would be less about the “science” of fighting a war and more about the “art” of reading people.

The science part, he said, would be left to the combat skills of the nine or so Marines of Company D, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, including their company commander, Capt. Ruben Gutierrez.

The patrol was put together to help Barge take the pulse of the local residents of this city on the Euphrates River near the Syrian border.

Barge is executive officer of Task Force Highlander, a force composed of the 1st LAR Battalion and troops from other units, including soldiers and sailors.

Checking the local pulse helps Marines keep tabs on progress in their section of western Anbar. They aim to undercut the insurgency, win over the local populace, and steadily transition responsibility for security in western Anbar to the Iraqi army and police.

It was shortly after 9 p.m. that the patrol started off under the light of a crescent moon and a sky strewn with stars.

Within minutes they came upon a few men in their 30s near a car at the curb.

Barge asked, “Do you like what we’re doing here? … Do you wish we were gone? … What can we do to make Rawah a better city?”

The men asked about an incident earlier in the week in which a Marine convoy shot and wounded the occupants of a truck that the Marines say kept coming toward them despite their signals to stop and pull off the road.

“Tell him several of our men did shoot the truck because the driver of the truck did not stop,” Barge told his interpreter. “This is why it’s very important whenever my Marines say ‘stop’ — stop.

“Tell him we’re only here to bring peace and prosperity,” said Barge, “not to hurt any Iraqis — innocent Iraqis.”

After five minutes they continued down the long blacktop road that ran past one- and two-story houses, walled courtyards, palm trees, and market stalls stocked with potatoes, onions, melons and other merchandise.

When they passed Iraqis, they’d smile and greet them in Arabic.

Most Iraqis they spoke to responded, often with a smile or wave. Children seemed especially friendly and comfortable with the Marines.

But not all the inhabitants were. A few answered a greeting with little more than a quick nod or a word or two that sounded anything but enthusiastic. A few men replied hello but then shared a quiet chuckle.

And many other Iraqis simply looked, blank-faced but watchful. They volunteered no greeting or smile; they made no unfriendly gestures.

But whenever Barge approached someone he was never rebuffed.

They stopped inside a new Internet cafe and Barge asked one of the men there whether they had the ability to instant message, which he said he did to keep in contact with his wife. They did not, the man said. But he smiled as he spoke with Barge and seemed calm and unbothered in the presence of the Americans.

A few doors down they asked a shop owner whether the local bank was able to provide loans to small business people. No, the man said, they’ve had to deal in cash thus far. There too, the man seemed untroubled at speaking with the Americans.

Toward the end of their hourlong patrol, they happened upon a Sunni family who said they’d packed their goods and fled their Baghdad home to avoid the risk of violence at the hands of Shiites militias. A handful of children were among the group.

The man, who looked in his late 50s, spoke cheerfully with the Marines and used some English.

“So it looks like you have a lot of little helpers to move,” Barge said.

The man smiled and did a head count: “One, two, three, four, five — five babies.”

After several minutes of friendly chat, Barge said they’d leave so the family could get on with moving in.

Several children wanted their picture taken and posed with Barge. As the Marines left the kids could be heard having fun.

“That’s what we like to hear,” Barge said as the patrol moved off. “The sound of kids happy. That’s why we’re here.”

Gutierrez acknowledged that some locals “would not initiate” a greeting.

“It’s touchy, but sometimes they do,” he said. “Right now, across the whole city right now the atmospherics are pretty good.”

Later, Barge said the patrol reinforced his sense that “things are going very well and [for] our direction for transition. … Things are working in our favor.”


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