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Grasping Iraq

New Duranty: CAPT. SEAN MILLER shook his head like a big brother. He and his marines had just walked by a cluster of large orange garbage bins, American-bought, from which thieves had ripped the wheels, and now they confronted a cemetery entrance that Captain Miller had paid an Iraqi contractor to fix. It was still broken.

He snapped a photograph and moved on.

It was one more day on the job here in Anbar Province, where fighting has given way to fixing. But reconstruction was hardly the only thing on the captain’s mind. Falluja’s past as the epicenter of the Sunni rebellion was with him too.

“The road we just walked down, I lost three marines on that road,” said the captain, a compact 32-year-old company commander from Virginia. “I was wounded in Falluja too, so walking down these streets — it’s not easy.”

“Reconciliation,” he said, eyeing some Iraqi policemen nearby. “It’s a hard pill to swallow.”...

Battle-scarred marines and soldiers are now doing what they couldn’t fathom less than a year ago, working beside Iraqis who may have tried to kill them. Ordered to act as mentors and honest brokers, to suppress personal feelings for the common good, the troops are surrounded by a language they don’t speak, rejiggering alliances they don’t quite fathom, while they try to rebuild a broken, politically immature nation on bedrock American values of enterprise, tolerance, hard work and optimism. Horatio Alger and Audie Murphy — those archetypal “can do” Americans — once again are hearing “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” ...

Around lunchtime, Captain Miller and his marines walked to a second school, where the captain was treated like the mayor of a poor American city. He had expected to discuss awards for students who had recited passages from the Koran. But in the principal’s office, he found a handful of strangers.

“Who are these guys?” he asked.

For the next hour, they bombarded him with demands. Two men asked about a relative who they said had been detained several years ago.

A bearded man seeking work pushed forward a contract that included a $50,000 charge for a generator that Captain Miller knew he could buy for $8,000.

Captain Miller listened, initially calm. He took notes. But as the requests kept coming, he grew more annoyed, firing baffled glances at a marine sitting next to him.

Then a man in a leather jacket leaned forward. He told Captain Miller that another marine had promised to pay him for burying 535 Iraqis killed during the American assaults on Falluja in 2004.

“So someone told you we would pay you to bury dead bodies but never gave you anything in writing?” Captain Miller said.

The man nodded.

And Captain Miller lost his cool.

“Those guys were trying to kill me,” he said, his voice just shy of a yell. “You want me to pay to have them buried?”...

In the principal’s office, Captain Miller simply changed the subject. He returned to awards for the students, and agreed to tour the school so the bearded contractor could explain his proposal for the generator. Captain Miller, who hands out between $500,000 and $1 million to Iraqis every month, told the contractor that he would have to weigh the cost against other needs...