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CENTRAL IRAQ — For at least some groups of warfighters in Iraq, the gloves are off.

When the invasion of Iraq was in its early stages, American troops operated under strict rules of engagement that commanders hoped would prevent embarrassing incidents of fratricide and civilian deaths.

But as some Iraqi forces ditched their uniforms and adopted guerrilla tactics in a successful series of ambushes and raids on U.S. supply lines, the rules seem to have changed.

“When we move in, you kill anything that moves,” Lt. Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, told his troops just hours before they assaulted a key position south of Baghdad.

It is a change in tactics that soldiers have cheered but may lead to controversy as incidents are investigated.

And with the fight shifting from the open desert into urban areas, distinguishing between civilians and legitimate military targets will only become more difficult.

“Nobody on the streets in the middle of the night, in the middle of a battle, is an innocent civilian,” said Capt. Scott Brannon, commander of the 1-15th scout platoon.

Early in the war, the soldiers of the 1-15th were told to carefully choose their targets.

At road checkpoints, the soldiers were to stop vehicles, show drivers Arabic placards to explain who they were and to advise civilians to stay away from British or American troops.

All of that changed after Iraqi irregulars in civilian clothes drove a car bomb into a U.S. checkpoint last week, killing four soldiers. Now, American soldiers are caught between efforts to protect themselves and to gain the support and trust of Iraqi civilians.

“If it’s between saving myself and maybe not shooting the right person once … I’m all about getting myself home,” said one soldier. “I’m not going to go out and shoot civilians, but in the middle of a firefight I’m not going to ask myself, ‘Did that shadow have a weapon, and was it pointed at me?’”

Senior military officials in Kuwait decline to discuss rules of engagement.

The Pentagon similarly declined.

“We do not talk about rules of engagement, due to the risks to operational security,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

But troops in the field say their orders are to err on the side of decisive action.

Nonetheless, the troops are more than willing to show restraint, choosing to ask questions first rather than shoot. Examples of this desire to not make irretrievable mistakes are evident from recent confrontations at checkpoints.

A few days back, while tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from the 1-15th assaulted Iraqi positions on the outskirts of As Samawah, some members of the scout platoon established roadblocks.

The checkpoints have a twofold purpose: keeping innocent civilians from entering the zone of conflict and keeping enemy fighters in civilian clothes from joining the fray. The challenges were immediately obvious.

At one checkpoint, nervous scouts flagged down a white sedan that sped up to their location, carrying an Iraqi man and his young son. American soldiers ordered the man to exit the car. He refused several times, in halting English.

One of the Americans brandished a handgun, again ordering the man to exit the vehicle. Again he refused. The soldier fired a shot in the air, eliciting compliance from the father, who drove off shaken, but in one piece.

At another location, other scouts turned back a vehicle headed straight to the center of the fight.

“I am doctor. I am going to help,” one man in the vehicle said.

“Are you going to help Iraqi soldiers?” he was asked.

“Yes, yes, help wounded soldiers,” the man replied.

“Iraqi soldiers? You seem like a smart guy, go find another road,” the American soldier said.

The driver did, perhaps insulted, but unharmed.

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