Staff Sgt. Chris Fritz set out for a meeting with the mayor of Musayyib to discuss the needs of the city in a convoy of nine armored trucks equipped with .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 automatic grenade launchers. He was protected by three dozen Marines wearing full body armor and carrying assault rifles and assorted mortars and grenades.
The convoy rumbled up to the Musayyib city hall around 11 a.m.
"Excuse me, is the mayor here? We have a meeting," Fritz said to a man standing near the entrance.
"No, I'm sorry," the man replied through Fritz's interpreter. "We have a new mayor today. This is his first day, but he has not come yet."
Five minutes later the new mayor, Mahdi Abdul Hussein, whom Fritz had never heard of, came walking up the street.
Fritz took the meeting with him.
It was all in a day's work for Fritz and four other members of a Marine civil affairs team based at the Anacostia Naval Station, one of just two such units in the Marine Corps. The team's unenviable task here is to build peace in the middle of a war.
The men are reservists who were placed on active duty to lead reconstruction efforts in the northern part of Iraq's Babil province, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. Fritz, 35, is a real estate agent from Springfield. The team's leader, Capt. Alex Wright, 31, of Baltimore, last worked at his family's medical practice near Towson. Cpl. Boris Diaz Manzur, 26, of Fairfax, is an engineer. Lance Cpl. Julien Werbicki, 19, of Washington, is an engineering student at Montgomery College in Rockville. Rounding out the team is Lance Cpl. Brian Kim, 19, also of Fairfax.
Outside the team's barracks, above a bunker, is a sign that reads "Washington D.C., 6,224 miles."
A day on the job with Fritz revealed the challenges facing U.S. troops assigned to what are called civil-military operations in Iraq. U.S. officials regard the country's reconstruction as critical to winning over Iraqi sentiments before planned elections in January.
"Our whole mission is to interact with the populace," said Fritz. But just getting to the populace can be challenging.
The convoy that would transport Fritz left the gates of Camp Iskandariyah, the forward operating base for the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, at midmorning Thursday. U.S. military vehicles had been attacked several times with roadside bombs and small-arms fire in the preceding weeks, according to Staff Sgt. Jason Jones, of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, who was leading the convoy.
In a last-minute briefing, Jones told the Marines that their mission was to escort a member of the civil affairs team to the city council building in downtown Musayyib, about 15 miles south of the base. "Remember, it gets real congested down there," he said. "Nothing has changed in the situation with the enemy."
Fritz, who is both intense and exceedingly polite, sat in the passenger seat while Diaz drove an armored Humvee.
The convoy turned south on Highway 9. The Marines scanned the sides of the road for potential bombs in cardboard boxes, mounds of garbage, concrete blocks and melted asphalt. The vehicles traveled at 35 mph and stayed at least 100 feet from one another "so we don't have more than one vehicle in the kill zone at the same time," explained Fritz.
"Distance! Distance! Too close, keep more distance!" Fritz warned Diaz.
Someone had scrawled "No No USA" in English on a white concrete wall. Fritz waved at the Iraqis. Some waved back and smiled. Others glared. A boy no older than 5 laughed and pointed both index fingers at the passing vehicles, as if he were shooting.
Sandbags, a coil of razor wire and a six-foot log protected the entrance to the Musayyib city hall.
When Hussein, the new mayor, arrived, he told Fritz that he had just been elected by the city council. There was no explanation of what had happened to the old mayor, who had arranged to have Fritz meet with him and a group of sheiks from Jurf al-Sakhr, a restive town on the west side of the Euphrates River. Hussein invited Fritz inside.
The mayor's new office contained a lacquered wooden desk set up in front of two facing couches and chairs. The ceiling had four gaping holes. Six members of the city council joined the meeting.
"I am Staff Sergeant Fritz. I'd just like to congratulate you on your election," Fritz said as the new mayor smiled and nodded. "How long are you going to be mayor?"
"I don't know," said Hussein.
"I hope your term is long enough to do some good for the people of Musayyib," said Fritz. "Now, what are some of the things we might be able to help you with?"
"Well, I am new," said Hussein. "But the most important thing is security."
Members of the city council then took turns peppering Fritz with complaints. One told him that the new, U.S.-trained Iraqi police officers were cowardly and ineffective. Another told him that the military had alienated local sheiks by failing to provide their sons positions in the new police forces.
Another, who identified himself as Mohammad Khalil, said the military had recently detained prominent sheiks who had wanted to help U.S. forces stamp out the insurgency.
"These sheiks wanted to cooperate, and you go and capture them," Khalil complained. "You've got to check your information. You've got to check with the city council and the chief of police. Maybe someday you'll get some information and come and arrest me."
Fritz answered each complaint calmly and politely. He explained that he did not know why the sheiks had been arrested but said "they must have been doing some bad things to the coalition forces and the Iraqi people."
Another member of the city council, Sataa Alhamdani, told Fritz that security in Musayyib had deteriorated since U.S. forces toppled former president Saddam Hussein.
"Look, the American Army came to remove Saddam Hussein, which was very good for the Iraqi people," said Alhamdani. "The first few months the situation was normal. But after a while the terrorists came from Baghdad, and now the whole world is fighting America all across Iraq."
Alhamdani glared at Fritz.
"You are using the Iraqi people as armor for the U.S. military," he said. "I don't want to say this -- I never thought I'd hear myself say this -- but we want Saddam back. For all the violence and terrorism that we are living through, I have to say we want Saddam back. . . . You asked us what we want? What does it matter if our children can't go to school because of the security situation?"
Fritz nodded politely. "My goal is to work with you to make Iraq the great country it once was," he told the mayor and the city council.
The session ended with the mayor and city council agreeing to another meeting in the near future. Fritz rose, picked up his helmet and rifle, and shook hands with Hussein and each council member. He walked out into the hallway, where other Iraqis gathered around him to ask questions and lodge complaints.
Fritz walked outside and got back in the Humvee. Diaz steered into traffic. The convoy inched through the Musayyib market area, which was filled with people selling produce and meat in the broiling afternoon. Men stared at the passing vehicles.
"All these guys are thinking, damn, if I only had an RPG," said Diaz, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade.
Fritz looked from side to side.
"Hell, this is almost like driving on M Street," he said.