FALLOUJA, Iraq — As he navigated his Humvee through rubble-strewn streets, Lance Cpl. Sunshine Yubeta articulated a question key to the Marines' mission here.
"I wonder," said the 23-year-old from Madras, Ore., nodding toward several sullen-looking men on a corner, "if they hate us or like us."
It's a quandary at the heart of U.S. policy in this city, which was once an insurgent stronghold. Having routed the guerrillas late last year in combat that left much of Fallouja in ruins, the U.S. military needs the cooperation of residents who fled the fighting and are now returning.
The U.S. knows that, to keep the insurgents from reestablishing a clandestine headquarters here, it will need information from residents if fighters try to move back.
In addition, U.S. officials hope for at least a modicum of participation from Fallouja in the Jan. 30 national election, to help bolster the credibility of the fledgling Iraqi government.
At five heavily guarded entry points to the city, military interrogators are selectively asking returning residents whether they have heard of the upcoming election and, if so, which, if any, candidates they support.
The goal, officials say, is not to influence how Iraqis vote but to gauge how well residents of politically isolated Fallouja understand the changes that have occurred in their country since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.
The Americans have set up relief centers in the city to provide food and water to residents and toys to children. By some estimates, the U.S. has earmarked $150 million to rebuild the city. The Iraqi government is preparing a compensation program.
In addition, Marines patrol the littered streets, talking to residents, asking for information about insurgents and handing out water, juice, cigarettes and snacks, some of which have been sent to the troops by their families in the U.S.
Posters offer rewards for the capture of insurgent leaders, although apparently there have been few takers.
Outside the Humanitarian Assistance center tents, Iraqis stand for hours to receive water and food packets stamped with a U.S. flag and the words "A Food Gift From the People of the United States of America." Hands are marked to prevent a return for seconds. Iraqis gather here not only for aid but for a chance to work in the assistance program, a job that pays about $8 a day.
One center is just blocks from the site where a mob killed four private U.S. contractors in March.
Many of those in line Thursday were hungry, cold, and appeared dazed by the events that had turned their city, which was untouched in the initial U.S.-led invasion in 2003, into a battlefield.
"I didn't do anything wrong, but the Americans destroyed my house," said Sami Fafaj, 49, holding two bottles of water and two food packets.
"I want America to rebuild my house and give me money for what they have done," said Fayed Abdullah, 37, collecting food for his seven children.
"The Americans are rich and strong, but sometimes I wish they had never come to Iraq."
Although public expressions of anger directed at the Americans seem rare, many Falloujans appear to feel they have been wronged by U.S. forces.
"Fallouja did something bad and God sent the terrorists to punish us," said Mehdea Salah Jassam, a neighborhood sheik. "Then he sent the Americans to punish us some more."
Although older residents may seem fatalistic, the younger ones show signs of impatience.
"We are not free to move in our own city," said Maged Haraj, 20. "We want to be free."
The young Marines say they are confident that residents will come to accept that the destruction was necessary to rid Fallouja of the insurgents, whom the locals called mujahedin.
"Any time we can interact with these people is good," said Sgt. James Regan, 29, of San Antonio. "They can see us for what we are. I asked one of them, 'When was the last time the mujahedin gave you water or food?' Never."
As the patrol vehicles prowled the streets, children ran after the Humvees begging for anything available. Adults asked for rice, water or cigarettes.
Some told horror stories of months living under insurgent control.
"I have a nephew that they beheaded," said truck driver Adnan Mohammed, flanked by two children. "You are our destiny."
But other Iraqi men remained on the curb, offering no smiles and returning no waves. One gestured in disdain. Some refused to ask for handouts but instead sent children to bring back items, particularly cigarettes.
For the Marines of Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, these are the same streets where they engaged insurgents in block-by-block combat. Nine colleagues were killed.
"We lost a good Marine right over there," Regan said. "He had just three weeks to go before he would have left Iraq."
On a patrol this week, the Marines checked houses where they had found large caches of weaponry during the November assault. Some had collapsed; others had enormous holes in the roofs or walls.
"It's kind of bad we destroyed everything, but at least we gave them a chance for a new start," said Navy corpsman Derrick Anthony, 21, of Chicago.
Those who have returned are living a meager existence. In this western sector of the city only a handful of food stalls have reopened, although a black market is said to exist. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been imposed.
But the urge to return is powerful, even when home is barely habitable.
"I'm happy now that I can come back to my house," said a 15-year-old boy, adding that life with the insurgents was not that bad. "We left them alone and they left us alone."
In many ways, the "hearts and minds" tactics are straight from the Marine Corps' "Small Wars Manual," written in the late 1930s to preserve information about successful campaigns against insurgents in South America and elsewhere.
In preparation for Iraq, officers were ordered to reread the manual, particularly the section on insurgencies. One rule it discusses is maintaining moral superiority in the minds of the populace by stressing that the fighting was the insurgents' fault. Amid the destruction here, it is not an easy rule to follow.
"It's hard to look these people in the eye after blowing everything up," said Staff Sgt. Travis McKinney, 31, of Vallejo, Calif. "These people were just victims."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times