Afew nights ago, British Royal Marines commando Harry Maskers toted his machine gun on patrol, hunting for Iraqi snipers outside this shabby port town on the Persian Gulf. "I got a few rounds off," he says proudly.
He doesn't know whether he hit the enemy, but at least the strapping 19-year-old from Birmingham has a combat tale to tell. Now, beaming a perfect white smile, Maskers guards a cargo warehouse ready to accept humanitarian supplies. His grin is not just evidence that British dental services have improved -- it's a "weapon" that coalition troops must repeatedly deploy if they hope to keep the peace in the unstable south of Iraq.
The military focus here has rapidly shifted from killing people to loving them. Maskers, from his view on the ground, calls that a "fair" assessment, and his commanders bring forth the message: We care.
"We're actively telling them, 'We are the good guys,' " Royal Marines Maj. Ray Tonner says, standing dockside, swarmed by a group of about 40 correspondents. We've been convoyed in from the Kuwait border on unarmored military transports for a drive-by tour in the rain on Tuesday afternoon, the first authorized deployment of non-embedded journalists into Iraqi territory.
We aren't allowed to talk to the allegedly pacified locals, some of whom wave, smile and beg for food as our contingent rolls by. Instead, we're here to witness de-mining operations underway to speed the opening of the deep-water harbor, a crucial next step in the coalition's hearts-minds-and-stomachs campaign.
This is just one front of the Information War, part of the media-oriented psychological operations both sides embrace. (Some coalition press officers call it "white psy-ops." Up in Baghdad, their statements are usually denounced as "stupid criminal lies.")
If the coalition hopes to deflate Saddam Hussein's agitprop, the world must see footage of happily liberated Iraqis in places like Umm Qasr, where U.S. forces met several days of unexpectedly strong resistance, forcing repeated backtracking on assertions that the place was "secure."
Today, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf convened a news conference and ridiculed the notion of a coalition triumph at Umm Qasr. "They only have a few docks on the water. They dropped their forces there and now they're in a trap," he declared.
The town that's riveted the world isn't much to look at. It is mainly a collection of debris-strewn empty lots, aged fishing wharves and dun-colored brick hovels. It's home to a few thousand souls and many foraging dogs. It's also the site of an efficient-looking cargo area, a newer section that calls to mind the port of Baltimore -- replete with cranes, berths and container off-loaders. We spotted no crabs.
Not long after Minister Sahhaf's news conference, a shipment of humanitarian supplies finally reached here, hauled overland from Kuwait while mine-sweeping by Australian military divers proceeded at the port.
"Umm Qasr is now secure -- as a port and as a town," Brig. Jim Dutton of the Royal Marines announced to reporters today.
Whom to believe? Perhaps Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who first announced the capture of Umm Qasr on Friday.
We can reliably report that the infamous Umm Qasr felt pretty secure Tuesday afternoon. Perched in a patrol vehicle, Maskers, the British commando, aimed his machine gun toward the Persian Gulf as reporters scurried through a rainstorm into a hangar-size warehouse that was empty except for sacks of sugar and salt.
Was he expecting trouble?
No, just on guard duty, he said. Whom was he guarding?
"You lot, basically," he replied.
In the town itself we glimpsed only a few Iraqis -- young men on bicycles and children on foot, most in threadbare clothing.
Maj. Tonner provided an assessment of the children he's encountered in recent days: "They did not look emaciated." He added, "The kids particularly were all very happy and very friendly."
During the nearly three-hour visit, we heard no sniper fire or artillery blasts. But when the convoy pulled out of town, several curly-tailed dogs approached suspiciously. One yellow-coated cur barked a warning at the correspondents, then retreated to a defensive position where, no doubt, he planned to carry out further harassive barking, then melt away into the sandy landscape.
Another difficult-to-verify story is unfolding at the Hilton Kuwait Resort, 20 miles south of Kuwait City. It's home to a small army of coalition public affairs officers, military liaisons and "unilateral" reporters who are not embedded with the troops.
Occupying the priciest suites -- the beachfront Presidential Villas and Royal Villas -- is a growing group of civilians who look as if they belong on the Red Line, except they're toting gas masks and handguns instead of briefcases. They've been observed convening briefings on the patios of their villas, some of which sleep eight and cost $1,200 per night.
More of these secretive people materialized at the breakfast buffet today, clutching file folders and looking serious. The men favor khaki slacks, windowpane plaid shirts and awkward haircuts -- regulation Pentagon whitewalls with a little too much on the top. Some sport the dark blue suits of the Senior Executive Service.
Most of the women wear the staid slacks and demure blouses that dominate the GS-14 ranks in Washington, but some dare to mix beach garb and shooter chic. Like the brunette at the pool whose flowered pants were accompanied by a green military belt and 9mm pistol holder.
They hush up immediately when reporters are near, but have been overheard discussing matters of extreme importance: "I think we've got one side of this covered" and "It used to be called the ISL."
Fleeting observations based on ID tags indicate they work for U.S. intelligence agencies and defense contractors, as well as the State Department. One correspondent described them as America's "government-in-waiting for Iraq."
The other day, during one of the now-routine incoming-missile alerts, this reporter noticed a familiar face leaving the basement shelter -- a bureaucrat perhaps seen at the American Enterprise Institute or some liberation-of-Iraq lobbying function.
"I know you," the scribe said.
"No, you don't," replied the middle-aged, gray-haired man as he hurried away.
A more outgoing fellow, spotted at breakfast, wore a crisp white shirt and neatly cinched tie. He looked like a Bible salesman, except for the trendy black shoulder holster (containing no gun, it turned out). He described himself as a "logistics officer."
For which agency?
"There are several agencies here," he said.
War is hell. But being stuck in a Kuwaiti visa office for an hour with Geraldo Rivera, America's most flamboyant TV war correspondent, isn't as bad as you'd think.
He and his four-person crew arrived by military transport from Afghanistan earlier this week, hoping to obtain credentials. Geraldo -- that's how the Fox correspondent introduced himself to everyone -- patiently filled out forms for his crew, submitting their letters of authorization and pictures, enduring the tedium just like any other hack.
Looking weary and a bit grimy, Geraldo wore rose-colored glasses and a safari hat slung on his back. He said with a deep sigh, "It's going to be my last war. I'm going to be 60 on July 4."
Some critics have found Fox's coverage -- especially the reportage of its embedded correspondents -- too rah-rah. "You always pull for the team you're with," Geraldo said, "and after all, it's our country."
Does his arrival signal anything in particular? He briefly contemplated the question, then grinned and said, "Victory is at hand."