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Saturday, April 5

Republican Guard out of sight, but are they just laying low?

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

Republican Guard out of sight, but are they just laying low?


The Detroit News

SUBURBS OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. Marines cruised up Highway 6 southeast of the Iraqi capital, but not so fast that they couldn't put two and two together.

Many of the young men lining the road Friday were barefoot. And the evacuated military trenches along every roadside canal contained plenty of empty boots.

"Some of the ones waving at us are the same ones who were in the fighting holes," said Vincent Crowley, 24, a sergeant with a front-line Marine reconnaissance platoon. "They know we're coming, and they don't want anything to do with it. Before we get there, it's over."

Or is it?

U.S. commanders on the ground are nearly ready to declare the Iraq campaign a military success. Yet as U.S. forces prepare to move on to the "nation-building" phase of this war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard remains a puzzle.

Are the thousands of Republican Guards who disappeared in the past week gone forever? Are they simply following U.S. warnings to drop their weapons and go home? Did many slink into Baghdad for a final fight? Or will they lay low until America loses interest and then try to wreak fresh havoc?

As more than 3,000 Marine tanks, trucks and troop carriers moved up Highway 6 last week, they left in their wake civilian scenes similar to the blank stares, dead ends and "I dunnos" Detroit detectives often find at gangland murders.

"Where are all the soldiers?" Maj. Mark Stainbrook asked a crowd of men gathered Friday morning in the town of Aziziyah some 40 miles southeast of Baghdad. Nearby, melted rifles still smoldered in an Iraqi military bunker hours after Marines blew through the town. There were uniforms on the ground, but no bodies.

No one answered Stainbrook's question.

By late morning, many Iraqis were smiling and waving from the shoulders of Highway 6. But in many spots it felt like cautious support, possibly because of the graphic evidence of overwhelming Marine power.

At one spot, a charred Iraqi tank still smoked, its turret blown off and laying beside the body. Farther up, blackened truck frames were all that remained from an Iraqi artillery position. Again, in both cases, there were no apparent human remains.

"It's like a high school football team playing against the NFL," said Lt. Col. Clark Lethin, the operations officer for the 1st Marine Division. "What would you do if you heard all of this coming at you?"

Beginning Wednesday, Marines moved the 75 miles from the city of Kut to the outskirts of Baghdad without a significant infantry battle.

On Saturday, an Army column of tanks did take fire from Iraqi soldiers armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers standing along a tree or fence line or shooting from highway overpasses. At one point, a city police officer stopped his vehicle, got out and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the column. The soldiers appeared to be from the Republican Guard, the American tankers said.

Small bands of Iraqis are also regrouping and launching daily ambushes on Marines. And on Saturday, skirmishes continued to pop up well behind the front line. Marine scouts traveling in small numbers also have been under regular fire.

"For three days in a row, we've tried three different ways to get some remaining units across the Tigris River," said Crowley, the reconnaissance sergeant. "We've been ambushed every day, and we're only getting a couple of hours of sleep a night."

Marine commanders insisted the ambush threat is minor. "They get off a few rounds, but we return it tenfold and they quickly go away," said Lethin.

If Marine commanders are right, and the fight is almost over, the massive job of nation- building may loom larger than battle. The tasks range from cosmetic details like picking up tons of meal boxes, water bottles and other military trash blowing along roadsides, to replacing glass shattered by bullets and looting at gas stations and restaurants, to somehow turning distrustful ethnic and religious clans into a working democracy.

"The rebuilding of Iraq will have a tremendous impact on how we are perceived in the Middle East for the long term," said U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who sits on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Part of the challenge for the United States will be cementing its image as liberator, not invader and occupier, in the Arab world.

"We need to help the Iraqis create a governmental structure that respects and reflects the needs of the Iraqis themselves," said U.S. Rep Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., who sits on the House International Relations Committee. "It is not the Americanization of Iraq but the democratization of Iraq by the Iraqis."

(Contributing: Detroit News reporter Deb Price, USA TODAY reporter Gregg Zoroya)