The road, sticky with mud from an overnight downpour, passed through a narrow alley of blast walls and into a heavily guarded U.S. military compound. Inside, a battle-worn Marine staff sergeant pruned the miniature roses that ringed a small grassy courtyard, where a fountain burbled in the middle.
This is the last military outpost on the violent frontier that surrounds insurgent-held Fallujah, a city about 35 miles west of Baghdad that the U.S. Marines last entered six months ago. Since pulling back, the military has approached only to within about a mile of the city limits, to this secure zone. It feels like a small oasis -- until a mortar round explodes outside, as it did on Saturday morning, sending everyone running for their battle gear and, once it is donned, raising their eyebrows in that universal sign of relief: Whew. Still here.
It was the second close call of the day. A mortar shell whizzed between two military vehicles on the ride to the outpost earlier that morning, landing in a cloud of sand and dust a short distance away. In western Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, a suicide car bomb on Saturday blew up beside a Marine convoy, killing eight and injuring 10, in the deadliest attack since 17 Marines died in an assault in April.
In spite of the dangers for both the U.S. military and Iraqi civilians traveling to see them, Fallujah residents come to the compound almost daily to apply for jobs, lobby for building contracts, register damage claims and for other reasons. The mayor of Fallujah showed up twice last week with a wish list of reconstruction projects.
"It's our only window into the city," said Lt. Col. Leonard Defrancisci, a civil affairs officer assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1 of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "It's our glimpse of what's going on."
The Marines call this place the FLT, or Fallujah Liaison Team, where the military is trying to help solve day-to-day problems for people in the city even as U.S. and Iraqi forces prepare for a major offensive.
The timing of the offensive depends on interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose U.S.-backed government is negotiating with local leaders over the presence of foreign guerrillas in the city. Allawi reiterated on Sunday his desire for a peaceful solution but warned anew that he was losing patience with the negotiations.
"We have now entered the final phase of attempts to solve Fallujah without a major military confrontation. I hope we can achieve this, but if we cannot, I have no choice but to secure a military solution," he said.
For many of the Fallujah residents who turn up at the Marine outpost, the compound is their first face-to-face encounter with the men and women in camouflage who have been vilified by the insurgents and who often roam the highways in heavily armored vehicles wearing dark, futuristic eye protection that makes them look more alien than human.
"They're not used to Marines," said Cpl. Andrew Carlson, a Marine reservist from the 4th Civil Affairs Group, based in Washington. "The only thing they hear about us is that we're evil."
Carlson, a bartender at Portner's in Old Town Alexandria, stood at the front gate, nicknamed the lemonade stand, when a rocket recently was launched from a truck stop next door. It narrowly missed the compound.
"We've got suicide bombers, snipers driving by, mortars," he said. "But we still have to be smiling. They know this is the place you're supposed to come if you have a problem or you know someone who has disappeared."
A contractor who is building a dining facility at a nearby Iraqi National Guard installation stopped by to see the Seabees, the engineering and construction arm of the U.S. Navy that is administering reconstruction contracts for the Marines.
The contractor complained that a competitor had hired away his workers, which could delay his project schedule.
Lt. Cmdr. David Hahn, a naval contracting officer who lives in Guam, listened across a wooden table as the man explained the fix he was in.
"You have just discovered a concept called competition," Hahn told the contractor, who declined to be identified.
"Maybe in a democratic country, but this is not a democratic country," the contractor replied, a sly grin on his neatly shaved face.
"Maybe in the future -- " Hahn replied before the contractor cut him off.
"No, no," the contractor said, still smiling but shaking his head.
Hahn agreed to speak to the competitor.
Another order of business on Saturday was to pay an Iraqi police officer for clearing a patch of reeds on a stretch of roadway where the insurgents were hiding explosive devices aimed at passing American convoys.
When the police officer went in to burn the reeds, he found two large bombs, radioing them in as "two large voices" discovered there.
Lt. Col. Edgar Vaston Howell III, a reservist in the 4th Civil Affairs Group and the officer in charge of the outpost, paid the officer $3,000 for the job.
"We think what he's done already can save American lives," Howell said. "When someone meets us more than halfway, we try to show loyalty."
Howell, who lives in Ashburn, Va., said the outpost serves as a neutral meeting place where Iraqis and the Americans can do business.
"Iraqis come here all the time," he said. "We have heavy security here but we also try to put on a friendly face."
Lance Cpl. Ryan McCaffrey, a Marine reservist of the 4th Civil Affairs Group who works at L.L. Bean in Tysons Corner, said if the outpost did not exist, most Iraqis from the area would only see the Marines at a checkpoint.
"We have a different mind-set than the grunts," he said. "We're supposed to win the hearts and minds here. We can actually be friendly. One of the best things we did out here was get a guy who was shot medical care. Maybe later he'll be less likely to pick up an RPG and kill us."