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Thursday, March 13

Marines prepare to deal with large number of civilians in their path

By C. Mark Brinkley

CAMP MATILDA, Kuwait - There are hungry people in Iraq, civilians who are just living their lives as best they can, and the U.S. Marines say they have no quarrel with them.

``The key difference between last time and this time, I believe, are the abundance of innocents on the battlefield,'' said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the more than 20,000 Marines here who fall under 1st Marine Division.

A Persian Gulf War veteran who led the Marines into Afghanistan in 2001, Mattis has a motto he wants his troops to live by: "no better friend, no worse enemy."

Preparing to meet the enemy is something these Marines train for every day. Preparing to take care of newfound friends is something he wants them all to be thinking about.

``What we want to do is show them that we have no fight with Muslims,'' Mattis said Wednesday. ``We have no fight with the Iraqi people.''

Their fight, assuming he gets the call to bring one, would be against those who choose to support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. For civilians caught in the middle or Iraqi troops who lay down their weapons, the Marines are preparing to be supportive and welcoming.

The U.S. troops will be beaming broadcasts into the areas they're entering, urging the Iraqi people not to take up arms. Interpreters also will accompany the Marines, using bullhorns to warn locals that the presence of troops does not have to disrupt their daily lives.

``Our message is that we're not here to destroy Iraq,'' said Col. Steve Hummer, commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, one of the division's fighting units planted some 20 miles from the border. ``The plan is to have humanitarian assistance rations distributed throughout our vehicles.''

Those rations are similar to the field rations carried by the troops themselves but designed specifically with the local cultures and religions in mind. Such rations have been distributed in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom.

``In many cases, they're already hungry,'' Mattis said. ``We know that, so were going to have to feed them.''

He also expects to deal with surrendering Iraqi soldiers, whom he hopes learned from the first gulf war that U.S. troops will treat them humanely when they are taken into custody. In such situations, the main goal will be to move them to the rear of the fighting, to prevent them from having second thoughts and presenting a problem for the Marines as they operate.

``The most urgent task is to get them out of the area,'' Mattis said.

Despite all the war planning, Mattis hasn't given up hope that a peaceful resolution can be reached. But if war comes, he wants the Marines to be ready for the bad and the good.

``We want to show them that when this army comes to town, it's a whole new ballgame,'' Mattis said.

And if his should come across Saddam himself during the push north?

``I don't even know,'' Mattis said, smiling. ``He probably won't enjoy the encounter.''

--

Brinkley, a writer with the Marine Corps Times, is helping cover the conflict with Iraq for GNS.