Sunday, June 11, 2006

By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The going rate for an Iraqi life
is $2,500.

In his weekly trip to the Civil-Military Operations
Center in downtown Fallujah, the battalion's judge
advocate hands out cash to Iraqis. A few hundred
dollars for a car scraped by a Marine vehicle in a
tight alley. A thousand for a collapsed wall.
And the maximum payout -- $2,500 in hundred
dollar bills -- for an Iraqi death involving Marines.

In Fallujah, it's a Marine's job to take certain lives,
and it's a Marine's job to pay for others. Marines
are here to build a government and they are here to
destroy an insurgency, so each one in this
downtown base is both a highly trained killer and a
street-level diplomat.

There's no shortage of work for either, and the
roles can flip in an instant.

England's Own'' and including Plainville-based
Charlie Company -- is the authority in and around
The 1st Battalion, 25th Marines -- called ``New
Fallujah. In the ``Tigris Room'' of the city's
equivalent to a town hall, Capt. Jeff King, the
battalion's judge advocate, sits across a desk from
one city resident after another. Next to him is a
sergeant with a backpack holding about $35,000 in
U.S. currency.

A man sits down. He says Marines who detained
him for questioning stole $6,000 from a vase in his
home. Though highly unlikely, it's a claim King
hears regularly. This time, he believes money was
stolen, but not by Marines.

the money,'' he tells the man. But King assures
him, ``If there's an allegation that someone took
money, we take that very seriously.''

Even though Marines didn't do it, King says he'll
try to compensate the man for some of it, anyway.
The sympathetic young captain from Dallas
doesn't like to turn people away. Maybe by giving
out a little money, he figures, he will make a friend
for the Marines in a hostile city.

Out in the lobby, people read newspapers and fan
themselves in the heat, waiting to see King or the
other captain, Joseph Androski from Ansonia. The
room smells of sweat and stale patience. A stereo
pumps out Arabic music.

A desperate father occupies one of the seats,
holding his limp boy in his lap. He didn't come for
bureaucracy, but for help in the most basic way.
He brought his badly burned son -- the skin seared
from his legs in an accident while playing with
matches -- to find medical help that he knows he
can't get at the rundown hospital in Fallujah. Navy
corpsmen, the medics who work with Marines,
agree to treat the boy's burns in a back room. The
boy's small cries can be heard under the music in
the lobby.

King keeps working on claims, many of them
brought by Iraqi lawyers in stacks of four or five.
King maintains a fast pace, trying to verify the
truth of the claims, asking for pictures and
documents, sometimes giving the benefit of the
doubt. The money is put in Iraqi palms by the
sergeant.

The death claims are sometimes from military
convoys firing warning shots at cars that edge too
close or at drivers who seem a threat. Other times,
it's crossfire from a firefight with insurgents. If
King can find records of a Marine clash that even
loosely match the details of the claim, he'll pay out,
even though the fatal shots more likely come from
insurgent rounds than the more accurate Marines.

Today, he pays a woman for her child and a man
for his father. Condolence money, he says, not
compensation.

     * * *

In the first week in the city for Charlie Company,
when Iraqis shot at 20-year-old James Lauber from
Waterbury, when his buddies scrambled to fire
back, when he found himself in the stretched
seconds of a real gun battle, Lauber was living up
to his name.

He's the third James Lauber of his Connecticut
family, the third generation to bear that name and
to enlist in the Marines. As he dodged bullets in
those first days in Fallujah, it might as well have
been North Korean gunfire, echoing through the
generations.

His grandfather, James V. Lauber, of Cheshire,
fought in Korea, living in bunkers and trenches,
staring out across a front line. The war ended for
him in 1953 when a close sniper bullet shattered,
driving pieces of metal into him.

The next generation, Lance Cpl. James A. Lauber
of Waterbury, joined in 1974, at the tail end of the
Vietnam War. He joined the military police,
wanting to be a Connecticut state trooper when he
finished his four years, though an injury prevented
it. His Marine years were spent working at a
military jail.

James R. Lauber, known as ``J.R.,'' wanted to be
his grandfather's kind of Marine, going toe to toe
with enemies in a straightforward fight. In that first
Fallujah firefight, he thought he got his wish. But
two months later, his duties are something
different, probably more familiar to his father than
his grandfather.

He stands at a post at the city's western
checkpoint, baking in the heat and watching Iraqis
pass in overcrowded minivans, on self-decorated
bicycles and in junk-heaped donkey carts. The
Marines mix all day with people, face to face,
picking up the language and customs, dealing with
bureaucratic identification problems, getting to
know the regulars.

Right now, Lauber is more ambassador than
combatant. ``We all feel like cops,'' he says. ``The
cop in the bad neighborhood.''

Like most of the other guys at the checkpoint, he is
eager to get rotated back downtown, where the
action is heavier.

He stands in a wooden box, where a machine gun is
aimed at vehicles leaving the city. Traffic is light
today, and running this exiting side of the
checkpoint is easy. Check some identifications to
see if they have expired. See if any cars match
descriptions from incidents in the city. Though a
few shots are fired toward the checkpoint during
the shift, it's just another day.

``It doesn't feel like combat,'' Lauber says. He
hasn't fired the machine gun since he started
working here. ``I'd rather be doing what my
grandfather did.''

There are other reasons Marines reject the duties
that put them close to the people and farther away
from the glory of Iwo Jima. Several of the Marines
just don't like Iraqis. They don't trust them. They
don't understand the way the people of Fallujah
live, and a few use the word ``savages'' freely.

In Lauber's view, though, ``It looks like these
people are trying. The majority of the people in
this city aren't bad people. With all the stuff going
on, it's just very hard. There's a bunch of different
things pulling at these people.''

There are as many things pulling at the Marines,
until their job sometimes seems as much Peace
Corps as Marine Corps. As Lauber points out, it's
a mission jammed with decision-making and it calls
for instant switches between helping and hurting
people. He would choose a front line any day.
With that, ``You've got your mind on one thing,
and that's it.''

Given the choice, a lot of Marines in Charlie
Company would rather kill an insurgent than
change a Fallujah resident's mind.

     * * *

Maj. Vaughn Ward, the leader of Charlie Company,
and his command staff watch Iraqi soldiers filling
the table with trays of vegetables and sausages and
heaps of flat bread.

The simple feast is set up in the master bedroom of
a former vacation home for one of Saddam
Hussein's generals, the edge of its large bed used
now as a bench seat for an Iraqi lieutenant and a
translator. The house on the Euphrates River is a
military barracks for soldiers of the new Iraqi
Army, and they are hosting the Marines tonight.

Ward has sat at such tables before. His diplomatic
skills were honed by a stint with the U.S. State
Department in Afghanistan. He was a liaison
between the ambassador's office and the military
there. He is in another war now, accepting
goat-meat hospitality and hoping the men serving it
can help turn their country around.

They talk about the things people talk about:
family, jobs, hometowns. But they also talk about
the Iraqi soldier who was shot through the chest a
week ago, killed a few dozen yards from this house.
An Iraqi lieutenant, the senior man in the handful
of soldiers who work at the neighboring
checkpoint, gripes about losing seniority from his
position in the former Iraqi Army, to which the
major says, ``Hopefully, you'll have many more
years of service now,'' and Iraq will ``need good
officers like him to rise up and make his country
strong.''

The lieutenant says there are many differences
between Iraqis and Americans, but he likes the
Americans' ``manners and respect.'' He says, ``I
wish all the Iraqi people to learn.''

The soldiers serve trays of watermelon. Though
the Marines around the table can't be sure the food
won't make them sick, they eat it anyway. For the
same reason, they take cigarettes when they are
offered, and those not used to smoking puff at
them awkwardly.

Ward gets to an important point. He asks if the
soldiers here know those who will replace them in
the rotation, which is happening soon. They say
they don't. So he asks if they will have another
dinner with him when the new soldiers arrive, all of
them together.

Ward's motive: He wants the new guys to see how
well he and his people get along with the old guys.
The lieutenant agrees and says he wants to make
sure these new soldiers understand the dangers
they will face. He hands a digital camera around the
table, showing a photo on its tiny screen. That's
the soldier who was killed right out there on the
road, he says.

The next day, another Iraqi soldier will be hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade on the nearby bridge.

Sometimes, the Marines' efforts to sway public
opinion against the insurgency are less subtle than
paying claims and showing up to dinner. They also
practice some sledgehammer diplomacy, such as
loudspeaker propaganda, shows of strength and
anti-insurgent leaflets given to children.

Convoys roll through narrow streets, armed with
bullhorns spouting prerecorded Arabic, insulting
the insurgents, calling them out.

In other dealings, they might emphasize Marine
muscle. As Ward explains, the Sunni Muslims who
dominate this area had, until recently, run the entire
country for generations. ``The Sunnis are used to
being in charge.'' So they have to be reminded that
their rule is over.

Another tactic is handing out anti-insurgent leaflets
in the streets. Often, that propaganda will be
loaded into toy and candy bags to be given to
children. The inevitable result, though, is happy
children leaving a trail of discarded leaflets strewn
on the ground.

These measures are meant to aid the fight against
the insurgency. But there are other brands of
diplomacy that can get in the way of the fight.
Iraqi women can't be searched by men, and female
Marines aren't usually available. Most of the
women wear burqas, often covering them from the
tops of their heads to the ground, allowing them to
conceal anything underneath. Worse, men could
dress as women, with face coverings, and slip
through checkpoints untouched.

The Marines have the same problem with the
mosques. In Fallujah, the City of Mosques,
Marines raid and search any building they want to
except for those many places of worship. The
buildings are scattered, big and small, everywhere
in the city, and the insurgents are well aware that
the Marines do not set foot in them.

The mosques are used against them. Snipers
routinely shoot at Marines from the big,
twin-towered mosque across the street from the
main entrance to the Civil-Military Operations
Center. Charlie Company's leaders would love to
search such places and are sure they would find
stashes of weapons. But politics prevent it.

They have to respect Islam, even if the insurgents
won't.

     * * *

The Fallujah city council chairman, Najm Abdullah
Suwad al-Isawi, calls a meeting to order, wishing
everybody the traditional peace and blessings
under Allah.

Instead of addressing the people of the city, the
council more often directs its speech-making at the
Marines, who attend each week. The council is not
yet an independent group, and defers to those who
carry rifles into the room, the overseers of
Fallujah's martial law.

The chairman talks through a translator about the
security situation, how the dealings between the
people, police and soldiers are ``very good right
now.'' All the tribes,'' he says, ``have been
cooperating with the police.''

``There's cooperation from the citizens with them
to find out the names of all the insurgents and
terrorists,'' al-Isawi says.

Next up is Salah Khalil Hamad al Ani, chief of
police, with more of the same. ``The truth is, lately
the situation in Fallujah has improved a lot.''

Maybe neither man has heard about last night, the
tense news that rolled through the building next
door, Charlie Company's base, like a blast wave:
Marines have been hit in the south part of town
and need help.

Those Marines were from another company in the
battalion, overseeing headquarters and support.
They had just been here, running a security convoy
for the trucks that picked up Charlie Company's
garbage and emptied its outdoor toilets. They were
going down to a checkpoint on the south edge of
town. The blast that stopped them was big.
Charlie Company was called to respond, and the
Marines were in a grim hurry. ``Get the ... down
here!'' somebody shouted up the central stairwell.
``We've got men bleeding on the road!''

When they arrived, four Marines were in serious
shape. They had been in the lead Humvee when it
was hit from below with a bomb or a mine buried
in the road, an explosion that heaved the floor and
the contents of the vehicle up toward its roof.
There were burns, shrapnel and protruding bones.
The legs of one Marine were barely attached. All
the Marines had to be rushed to the surgical
hospital at Camp Fallujah.

When the Marines of Charlie Company returned to
their building late that night, they didn't have
diplomacy on their minds.
.