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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 November, 2004, 11:52 GMT
'Embedded' in Falluja
By Quil Lawrence
BBC, Falluja

Quil Lawrence was embedded in a US military unit during the military operation in Falluja. Here, he describes life on the front line, including an inspirational US soldier, and the tensions between different Iraqi communities.

Correspondent Quil Lawrence with US forces in Falluja
Quil Lawrence (centre) had to keep helmet and armour on at all times

The man who impressed me most during this trip was a reservist captain.

He did not want me to use his name so I will just call him Davis.

Captain Davis was running a supply line to the western front of the assault on Falluja. I was hoping to catch a convoy with him out of the city, but for days we were pinned down.

Insurgents seemed to have an endless supply of roadside bombs set up along the route.

A massive booby-trap had killed two men along the highway already. Their humvee was not one of the fully armoured kind, which are still in short supply in Iraq.

Captain Davis took the losses hard.

He was a good 10 years older than many of the privates and corporals under his command.

As a rocket crashed into the building just 20 metres behind us, he called out in a voice like an angry father: "Case in point why you keep your helmet and your armour on!"

"Hernandez", he said to one of his men, now in a milder voice, "I need you to keep your helmet on. All the time."

Sense of duty

There was nothing to do but wait. As Davis and I lounged against a mound of dirt for cover, he told me that this was the second time he had volunteered for Iraq.

US forces in Falluja
US forces say over 1,000 insurgents have been killed in Falluja

When he rolled toward Baghdad in the spring of 2003, Davis believed in the cause.

There were weapons of mass destruction over here, he thought, and Saddam Hussein was a lunatic who might use them.

Davis told me in a low voice that he was enraged when he learned that the evidence about weapons had been so weak.

I wondered why he had signed up for a second tour.

"Nobody else was going to do it," he said. "Nobody else was going to come over here and take care of these guys."

But Davis was an exception.

Most of the men gave simple reasons for being in Iraq. They said they were protecting the US from terrorists and helping the Iraqi people to a better life.

Mutual distrust

At the same time, there was not much affection, or trust, or even contact between the Americans and the Iraqis. Especially in the province around Falluja, the troops have to consider almost every Iraqi they meet as a potential suicide bomber.

Most of the soldiers do not even trust the new Iraqi army and police - the men who are some day supposed to take over security so the Americans can go home.

The men here are all terrorists and murderers
Shia soldier

But they are not alone. The Iraqis do not seem to trust one another either.

A group of Iraqi army soldiers took control of the main hospital on the first night of the offensive.

The next day I swept away some shattered glass and set up my radio gear there, taking cover behind the concrete reception desk.

The hospital staff had come to work and wanted to show me where the laboratory doors had been kicked in and their money and mobile phones stolen. But they said it was not the Americans, it was the Iraqi troops who did it.

The staff, like most residents of Falluja, are Sunni Arabs. All of the Iraqi commandos I met were Shia Arabs or ethnic Kurds.

The local doctor told me not to trust these soldiers. "They are crazy" he said, "they're thieves". He said I should not leave my equipment out, even just to step outside and take a look at the battle across the river.

Human nature

Iraqi army troops in Falluja
Iraqi security forces are currently more than 150,000 strong, but relatively few are 'combat ready'

The Iraqi soldiers said the same thing about the hospital staff.

"The men here are all terrorists and murderers," said one Shia soldier.

Not to be outdone, a Kurdish commando told me he does not like any of his Arab countrymen. "I've got a picture of Ariel Sharon at my house," the man said, "I want to send my children away to live in Israel."

It was encouraging that a few days into the offensive the Iraqis in the hospital started to co-operate.

The Kurdish and Shia soldiers helped the Sunni doctor to mop out an operating room and get ready for the flood of wounded they expected.

They all winced each time another load of bombs fell on Falluja, shaking the walls of the hospital. They took cover together as mortars slammed into the courtyard.

I am no longer in Falluja. I jumped on a military transporter out to Kuwait and returned to my base in Washington DC. 

Captain Davis dropped me off at a US airbase not far from Falluja. He had time for a quick shower and shave before returning to the young men under his command.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 November 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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