BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Tension mounts as Staff Sgt. Mario Ribas listens to a resident of this war-torn city emphatically make his case for the return of his AK-47 assault rifle.
Marines found two weapons lying in high grass inside an apartment complex soon after arriving to patrol a Baghdad neighborhood. An accompanying M1A1 Main Battle Tank crew staged outside the walled residential area radioed Ribas after watching Iraqi men pitch the rifles onto the lawn. Attached to 1st Tank Bn., the Marines are part of Alpha Co., 1st Infantry Bn., 7th Marine Regiment, from Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"If you have a weapon, you have to keep it inside. Tell your people they can't have a weapon visible while we're in the area," the 32-year-old Miami-born Ribas calmly tells the man as a growing number of sympathetic Iraqis try to enter the conversation.
"We have to protect ourselves against thieves. That is why we have them," the man repeatedly states with growing frustration.
As the crowd grows, the Marines repeatedly extend their arms forward as a warning to the gathering Iraqis to keep their distance. Ribas doesn't budge but doesn't raise his voice either. After he's relatively assured that the man's intentions are as stated, he instructs his Marines to pass the weapons back to their owners.
"[The Iraqis] are allowed to have weapons for their protection against thieves and looters," says 1st Lt. Jonathan Bonnette, a Headquarters Plt. executive officer for Alpha Co. "If they keep them in their homes and out of sight, we don't have a problem with it," he says.
Still, the Marines take the magazines "to give us time to get out of the area," says Ribas, indicating the precarious nature of patrolling an area where friendly gestures can turn deadly in seconds and where civilians and combatants are too often indistinguishable.
"You really can't tell. You have to kind of take their word for it," says Cpl. Adam Sommer, squad leader, 2nd Plt., Alpha Co., 1/7. "If these guys seem pretty up front and they just want to protect their families, then we give them that right while trying to keep out of harm's way as much as possible."
Soon after entering Baghdad, Marines began patrolling the city's neighborhoods "looking for bad guys," said Bonnette. Part of the Marines' mission is to act as an on-the-ground barometer of Iraqi sentiments.
"We're talking to people to get an idea of their attitude toward the Marines and for what's going on in their city and country right now," says Bonnette. "Hopefully, they'll give us information about where to find weapons and ammunition that are cached in buildings."
Some have come forward with information regarding hidden weapons caches and possible locations of remaining hostile elements. But when the Marines first arrived, Iraqi civilians were more standoffish, unsure of the Americans intentions. "I think they wondered whether they were being liberated or conquered," says Capt. Douglas Schaffer, Alpha Co.'s commanding officer from Columbia, Md.
But contact with the local population is "improving" the relationship.
"They're coming out and saying 'Down with Saddam' and 'We love you,'" Schaffer said.
Children often crowd around the patrolling Marines like rock-star groupies seeking autographs for their soccer balls or just a chance to say "hello." Little girls offer flowers as a sign of affection. Iraqi men of all ages engage the Marines in conversation while women stand in doorways waving and smiling. Some come forward holding babies to hand off to their husbands. Others offer the Marines cold water.
"One lady asked if we wanted to stay for dinner," says Pfc. Christopher Light, a young Alpha Co. machinegunner from Concord, Calif.
Like many of his peers, Light arrived in Iraqi with just a few months as a Marine under his belt. "I've been in for nine months," he says, smiling. "Our [School of Infantry] instructors were telling us to train for war."
Some SOI graduates linked up with the unit after it deployed to Kuwait. Veteran infantrymen like Ribas, who patrolled in Somalia, mentor and train Marines like Light "day and night" to help hone their infantry and leadership skill, says Ribas. In Somalia, he adds, "We were shot at a lot more."
But Baghdad is still a very dangerous place. The Marines are finding "lots of weapons," including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mines, says Schaffer. "There are still bad guys and there are still shots being fired," he adds.
In mid-April, gunfire and explosions were heard throughout the city at any given time of the day. Accounts of American fatalities from hostile Iraqis circulate amongst the Alpha Co. Marines.
"We know [the Iraqis] are friendly, but there's still a guy out there who doesn't like us," says Pfc. Jason Rodden, an Alpha Co. team leader from Arkansas. "You can't get lackadaisical or it will come back and bite you."
The Marines keep on their toes. When the distinct "pop" of an AK-47 breaks the relative calm of one of 1st Plt.'s afternoon patrols, Marines reacted swiftly and aggressively. One team clambers over a wall in the direction of fire while another skirts along the wall with weapons at the ready. A quick house-to-house search fails to produce the shooter.
Five minutes later, the Marines load up in amtracks and humvees to travel back to their base camp. Along the short return route, the Marines will wave a dozen times to Iraqis offering salutations. The minute-to-minute transitions from warriors to goodwill ambassadors require discipline, maturity and courage but the Marines believe they are positively impacting Iraqi lives.
"The country is liberated and the people know it and they tell us that every day. They're very happy we're here. They are looking forward to a free government, which our government has promised, and a freer way of life," Bonnette said. "That makes it all worthwhile."