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Separating friendlies from hostiles

Marines watch for tattoos, shoes to detect paramilitaries

From Art Harris

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U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Castaneda tries to communicate with two Iraqi men stopped at a checkpoint Friday south of Baghdad in central Iraq.

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CENTRAL IRAQ (CNN) -- U.S. Marine Cpl. Jim Tomlin has gotten to know the subtle signs that might indicate if an Iraqi man dressed as a civilian might be a soldier or Fedayeen Saddam member. But the sign he saw Friday was anything but subtle.

A bus full of men in civilian clothes had been pulled over at a checkpoint. While one man was being questioned, he drew a finger across his throat, Tomlin and others on the bus said. Asked what that meant, he responded with a glare.

Tomlin, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, learned Arabic in a year and a half of training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. He was helping Charlie Company, a light armored reconnaissance unit with the 2nd Marine Division, interview Iraqis suspected of being possible paramilitary fighters about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

"What you're saying is you want to kill me," Tomlin said to the man.

The Iraqi nodded.

"You're saying you want to kill me?" he asked.

The Iraqi grinned and glared.

At that point, a gunnery sergeant grabbed the man, threw him to the floor and bound his hands behind his back with plastic handcuffs.

The Iraqi was "crying like a baby," the sergeant said, and Tomlin said the other 30 men on the bus "knew we meant business."

He has interviewed hundreds of Iraqis for possible military ties over the past two weeks, but said this was the first time he had been threatened in that way.

About 15 of the men on the bus sported suspicious tattoos, including an Arabic character corresponding to an "F" with wings sprouting from it -- indicating the recipient was a member of the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary group that has waged guerrilla-style attacks on advancing U.S. and British forces.

Tattoos are becoming indicators of military ties for paramilitary groups like the Fedayeen or Iraqi troops who don civilian clothes to blend in. They generally do not travel with weapons.

Tomlin said the Iraqi who threatened him had a scorpion tattooed on his hand.

"Tattoos are a very good guide," he said. He also looks for military haircuts, identification cards, and the condition of a suspect's feet and his shoes.

"If his feet are in good condition, there's a good chance they've been wearing good shoes or military boots," Tomlin said. "If their feet are beat up and they're wearing sandals, they could be farmers."

In the past two days, Charlie Company has detained about 70 suspected Iraqi troops or paramilitaries, sending them to headquarters for questioning. The unit is patrolling the main highways into Baghdad to keep them open for supplies to reach troops moving toward the Iraqi capital.

The reconnaissance unit has been sending patrols into small towns and villages south of Baghdad, and some Marines have reported ambushes by people using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in recent days.

Six men in civilian robes were questioned and detained earlier this week. Each had military haircuts or nice sandals, Tomlin said.

"Their feet were in good condition and several had nice watches. I asked where they were going," he said. "One man said, 'To a funeral for our cousin, who drowned while fishing.' "

The Marines said that sounded fishy and sent them south for further questions.

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