Two U.S. Army trucks full of prepackaged meals pulled up to a mud brick village south of this southern city today to find curious eyes peering out of glassless windows.
Hundreds of people ran out to greet the trucks, but the residents didn't find what they wanted.
"This is no good for us," said Khadder Aramish, 29, watching other residents of his village clamor around the trucks. "We have food rations. But we have no water, no electricity, no gasoline. We can't do anything."
The food drop was not intended to be a comprehensive humanitarian aid mission -- most of that will be left to nongovernmental organizations and international aid groups waiting for southern and central Iraq to become more secure before moving in. Instead, it was an attempt by Army combat troops to do public relations work in areas suffering from more than a week of battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The challenge U.S. troops face after taking control of Samawah, a city of 140,000 people about 150 miles south of Baghdad, is something that could be repeated in towns throughout Iraq. U.S. military officials often talk about "winning the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people, but conditions in Samawah and surrounding villages suggest that a lot of work awaits.
Since early last week, most of Samawah's electrical lines have been dead, and running water is unavailable in almost all neighborhoods. Most businesses remain closed, hospitals are not able to function, garbage festers uncollected and looting is pervasive.
Many residents have been forced to walk to the Euphrates River to fetch muddy water. U.S. forces with the 82nd Airborne Division have set up checkpoints throughout the city, which means moving around can be extraordinarily difficult. It can also be dangerous: Firefights between U.S. and Iraqi fighters have broken out daily, though the frequency has diminished in recent days.
Just north of the river, in one of the most populated sections of the city, the streets were more crowded than they have been since the fighting started last week. Early in the afternoon, people gathered near a footbridge. Some jumped in the river to bathe and swim, a reprieve from temperatures of 90 degrees and higher. Many lugged buckets back to their homes.
Khalil Ibrahim, a surgeon at the city's main hospital, lives near the river's bank and watched his neighbors gathering water despite his advice.
"There will be an outbreak of many communicable diseases," said Ibrahim, 35, who has lived in Samawah for his entire life. "This water is not clean."
The toll of the fighting on civilians has been difficult to gauge, but it's clear there have been significant numbers of casualties from shrapnel and gunshot wounds. Ibrahim, who has continued to work at the hospital despite a shortage of supplies and no electricity, said he estimates that 100 civilians and about 50 Iraqi military and paramilitary fighters have died from war injuries in the last week. Hundreds more, he said, have been wounded. U.S. military estimates indicate about 400 Iraqi military and paramilitary troops were killed during the fighting for Samawah.
Commanders with the 82nd Airborne blamed the tactics of the Iraqi forces for the civilian casualties. Soldiers have reported that paramilitary forces have used civilians as shields, ambulances as transport vehicles and schools as bases of operations. Reports that members of Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia group loyal to President Saddam Hussein's government, used the hospital as a base were echoed by Ibrahim.
That hospital was spared in the bombing because civilians urged the military not to target it, said Col. Arnold N. Gordon-Bray, commander of the division's combat brigade in Samawah. But many civilian areas were hit, Bray said, because that is where the Iraqi fighters have taken shelter.
Division officers tried to tell civilians that help was on the way, to explain that the combat division's job was fighting the Iraqi army and the supporters of Hussein and that other groups would soon help the city get back on its feet.
"We're the shooters," said Maj. Mark Stock, operations and planning officer for the 2nd Battalion of the 325th Infantry Regiment, which is temporarily based in Samawah. "There are other assets that will be brought to bear, but it will just take a little time. Until we get a secure environment, it's tough to get those services here."
Samawah was not a prosperous city before the fighting started. Most areas are very poor. People with salaries have no way of cashing their paychecks because banks are closed. Prices for staples in the few stores that are open have shot up: tomato paste has increased from about 75 dinars to about 250, for example. Eggs have doubled in price, according to residents gathered in neighborhoods near the river.
A 36-year-old teacher, who did not want his name published for fear of retaliation in case Hussein's supporters regain power or return, said conditions in the city were much worse than they were two weeks ago. He said he wanted U.S. troops to stay in the city for protection, but he also wanted them to repair the damage from gunfire and mortars coming from both sides. He said he heard about U.S. and British plans of "liberating the Iraqi people" via the BBC, and it's a concept he supports.
The United States and Britain "promised us a better life," said the teacher, whose school has been closed. "We want to get the gift of this war [after being] terrified too much."
Much of the job of dealing with Samawah's local population in the early days of the war has fallen on Capt. Tom Mikelski, 30, with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. He has become "the de facto mayor of Samawah," he said, assigned to finding solutions for pressing civilian needs and helping residents establish their own long-term methods of dealing with them.
He said that many of the current problems -- including water and electricity -- could be solved in a matter of days. Most of the town's infrastructure was spared during the fighting, including the main water systems and the electrical plant, and he said returning them to service is a matter of finding the right civilians familiar with the systems and giving them the authority to restore service.
"I think this city could be operational in a period of weeks, not months," Mikelski said.
Civilian affairs officers this weekend started holding meetings with local citizens who might be able to assume local leadership positions. Officials with the departments controlling transportation, public works and communications have been participating, and Mikelski said he hoped one of them would assume a leadership role.
"We're hoping one of them will kind of stand out from the rest," said Mikelski, of Racine, Wis., He also stressed that a U.S. presence would be required in Samawah to provide security and give potential leaders confidence.
"The people here don't have a definite idea about what the government will be," Ibrahim said. "They just want a fair government."