By TODD PITMAN
The Associated Press
Monday, May 8, 2006; 2:38 PM
RAMADI, Iraq -- Rocket launchers and radios strapped to their backs, U.S. Marines burst into a dark, lantern-lit villa after nightfall, forcing a quaking Iraqi man and his mother into a corner at gunpoint with hands on their heads.
As troops search the house with red light beams attached to assault rifles, one asks the frightened pair if they've seen any insurgents.
"We've seen nothing," they reply _ words heard often in this conflict-torn city where guerrillas blend easily among civilians.
Fear of _ or sympathy for _ insurgents, along with a distrust of outsiders, has made residents reluctant to cooperate, complicating efforts to secure a city that sees more violence daily than any other part of Iraq. American troops hope to hand off to Iraqi forces, but even they are finding it hard to win over residents in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The Iraqi man and his mother, interrogated on a recent night patrol, were quickly put at ease, and the Marines left after finding nothing suspicious. The visit came one day after an assault on the headquarters of the provincial government a few blocks away.
"They're not very cooperative," Marine 1st Lt. Carlos Goetz of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment said of similar conversations his men have had with Ramadi's inhabitants.
When troops query residents after firefights erupt around them, "generally the answer is that they were sleeping, they were out of town, or they stayed inside," said Goetz, a 29-year-old platoon commander from Miami. "They don't see anything, they don't hear anything."
It's often difficult to tell friend from foe.
"We're fighting an enemy that doesn't wear uniforms," said Marine Sgt. Edward Somuk, 30, of New Milford, Conn. "You can see him on the street one day and he's smiling and waving ... and later on that night, that guy could be shooting at you."
Insurgents stake out coalition positions simply by walking past in civilian clothes or watching from a distance. U.S. forces won't shoot unless they can positively determine "hostile intent," though just viewing a U.S. post with binoculars _ as troops say insurgents often do _ can pave the way for a hail of fire.
"We're playing a game of cat and mouse," said Iraqi Col. Ali Hassan, whose troops sweep neighborhoods only to have insurgents return to stage new attacks. "The mouse can get into every hole in the wall, but the cat cannot."
U.S. and Iraqi officers say many residents are hesitant to talk because insurgents visit the same people they do _ threatening, intimidating and sometimes killing them.
"They don't think the coalition can protect them from insurgents, and right now they're right. We don't have enough forces on the ground," said Iraqi Maj. Jabar Marouf al-Tamini.
American commanders say there are plans to pour more Iraqi soldiers into Ramadi this year, and authorities have begun to rebuild the lawless city's virtually nonexistent police force.
But residents may be reluctant to talk _ period _ to foreigners. Tribal loyalties run deep in this tightly knit Sunni Arab city, where extended families are often born and raised in the same neighborhood and rarely leave. Some see the insurgency as legitimate resistance and view U.S. troops as occupiers ultimately responsible for the ongoing violence.
Even Iraqi army troops say they are often viewed as outsiders because most are Shiites who grew up elsewhere.
"They don't trust us, so it's almost impossible to get information out of them," al-Tamini said.
Not all are reluctant. Despite the dangers, American commanders say many residents, fed up with the war, offered up tips to the whereabouts of weapons caches and insurgents.
One Iraqi whose windows were repeatedly blown out by insurgent bombs begged Marines to stay and catch them, said 2nd Lt. Brian Wilson, a 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, S.C.
But troops know kindness can be deceptive. "They tend to tell you what you want to hear," Wilson said, adding that a man who welcomed Marines into his home while they used it as an observation post was detained a few days later after being found with bomb-making material.
In eastern Ramadi, U.S. Army Capt. Joe Claburn visited a house beside an alley from where four guerrillas armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades had attacked a guard tower on a U.S. base a day earlier.
The man, barefoot with a carefully trimmed white beard, said he hadn't seen the attack or any gunmen. U.S. officers asked that The Associated Press not publish his name for fear of reprisals.
Claburn asked the man if he was willing to signal U.S. troops when insurgents turned up.
"I'm telling you sincerely, I cannot cooperate with you," the man replied, shaking his head. "We know you are trying to protect us, but the insurgents would cut off my head.... We are too frightened to do anything. They're everywhere. They're probably watching us right now."