FALLOUJA, Iraq — Marines and Navy Seabees are seeking Iraqi contractors to repair and refurbish mosques in an effort to dispel the notion that the United States has declared war on Islam.
The effort is proceeding more quickly in the surrounding nearby villages than in this Sunni Triangle city where Marines and insurgents waged bloody combat for three weeks.
The Marines have a growing list of mosques that villagers would like help in repairing, renovating or expanding. Few, if any, village mosques were damaged during the fight, but the Americans said that fixing the mosques could elicit more goodwill in return than almost any other construction project.
"The mosques are part of their communal life, and that's what we're here to improve," said Lt. Col. Colin McNease, officer in charge of the civil affairs unit of the 1st Marine Regiment. "This is a good way to demonstrate that this is not a war against Islam."
In Fallouja, where insurgents used mosques to store weapons and as vantage points to fire on Marines, the process of using U.S. money for mosque projects will be tricky.
For one thing, Americans can't travel into the city without a heavy military escort. The Marines and Seabees also will need to rely on Iraqi contractors to provide cost estimates and construction plans before any money can be allocated.
The mosque repair program was part of the original Marine plan to win friends and bring stability to Fallouja. That plan was suspended after the Marines surrounded the city April 5 and imposed martial law in response to the killing March 31 of four U.S. civilian contractors.
In the rural areas, where fighting was lighter, and anti-U.S. sentiment less strong, Marine engineers and Seabees have been able to make their own construction estimates. Cultural sensitivities can complicate matters.
In the tiny village of Secher, for example, engineers took pictures of the one-story mosque only after getting permission from a dozen village elders. To view the interior, they had to wait until the prayer rugs were removed.
When Marines asked villagers what they needed most, mosque repair was the overwhelming choice. The one-story masonry building has a leaky roof and cracked walls and lacks electricity and running water. The villagers in recent years hired a contractor but were disappointed with his work.
The villagers also would like a minaret added so the mosque will be visible from outlying areas and its public address system more powerful in broadcasting the daily call to prayers.
"The most important thing you can do is the mosque," said Qasin Abed Solyhan, leader of a delegation that met Thursday with Marines. "God bless you."
"Life outside the city revolves around the fields, the school and the mosque," McNease said.
Plans are for the U.S. to pay Iraqi contractors, who will hire Iraqis as laborers. The Seabees are attempting to devise an apprenticeship program in which residents of Fallouja -- where unemployment is said to exceed 70% -- can learn basic carpentry, plumbing and other construction skills.
Several mosques in Fallouja were damaged during the fight. A minaret was destroyed by a Marine tank to keep insurgents from using it to rain down machine-gun fire on Marines in the battle-scarred Jolan neighborhood. Another mosque was damaged by a laser-guided bomb dropped by an Air Force warplane.
From the beginning of the Marine involvement here, civil affairs specialists have sought to counteract propaganda that the U.S. is attempting to destroy Islam. Pamphlets and messages from sound trucks were used. When fighting broke out, the U.S. changed its message: "Terrorists are attempting to dishonor the sanctity of mosques in your area by using them to conduct attacks."
With the Marines no longer in daily skirmishes with the insurgents, the message of the information campaign to Iraqis has shifted, but the message that the U.S. is not warring on Islam remains.
"I don't think we will ever get away from that theme," said Capt. Kurt Gordon, spokesman for the 1st Marine Regiment.