BAGHDAD, Iraq — The man is clearly in distress. His eyes are moist and his big toe is encrusted in blood. Nine-millimeter bullet casings lie on the sidewalk outside his home, a Moorish style mini-palace that could be in a wealthy section of Los Angeles.
"I don't know if they wanted to kill me or steal my car," Abu Omar says of the bandits who accosted him in the street, then shot at him as he dashed inside.
A U.S. Army military policeman, Sgt. James Sybers, coaxes Omar into his plush living room, and a Baghdad police officer takes a report. Another MP bandages Omar's stubbed toe.
Sybers has little sympathy for Omar, who is better off than most Baghdadis and seems to be linked to the former regime. The 43-year-old customs official, who owns a Mercedes, has a portrait on the living room wall that makes him resemble Saddam Hussein more than he actually does.
Sybers is one of 2,000 or so MPs patrolling this city of 5 million people, the public face of the American occupation nearly two months after the capital fell. The mission now is keeping the peace: preventing Iraqis from killing Americans or each other.
Cruising around in Humvees, the MPs are seen across Baghdad, checking cars for guns, poking through yards for leftover explosives, greeting Baghdadis and jotting down their complaints.
In this manner, Iraqis meet their invaders, and the invaders try to make friends — or at least avoid making more enemies.
After 14 hours patrolling the sweltering city, Sybers is tired. Tired of wearing a heavy helmet and body armor. Tired of lugging around his M-16. Tired of explaining himself to Iraqis who don't speak much English. Sweat beads on his grimy face.
And there are the ubiquitous crowds of children. They pour out of every nook when Humvees roll past, leaping, waving and cheering in hopes of coaxing a weary American to wave back. Leaving Omar's house, Sybers has to push through a phalanx of children to get to his Humvee.
"Mister! mister!" they shout. Sybers feels like he's driving an ice-cream wagon. "The only thing missing is that 'Flight of the Bumblebee' music the ice-cream truck at home used to play," he says.
Each day, the 709th Military Police Battalion sends out two dozen patrols of two Humvees and six soldiers each. The patrols depart the 709th's base at a former culture center, cruising the streets of the more affluent, less crime-ridden western half of the city.
Sometimes the MPs are joined by officers from the rebuilding police force, to whom they will eventually bequeath the city.
Over two recent days, the 709th reported one killing and several shootings and stabbings. They conducted raids that seized guns and grenades. They discovered a 20-foot-long rocket, chased looters, monitored a demonstration.
Their reports read like the crime blotter in any American city: A man who answers the door is stabbed by thieves who steal his car. A 6-year-old girl is shot in the foot by an intoxicated neighbor. A husband and wife argue, and it turns ugly.
The patrols don't often snare criminals. But they seem to be placing a calming hand on west Baghdad.
There is sympathy for Iraqis, even looters, among the three men in a Humvee crew from the 1139th Military Police Company.
"They've been oppressed by the government so long that, once it's gone, I don't blame anyone for seizing whatever they can get," says Sgt. Kirk Broyles.
Broyles, 32, a tall man with goggles strapped to his sunburned face, is a member of the Missouri National Guard. Like the others in the 1139th, based in Harrisonville, Mo., he has been in Baghdad just two weeks.
For the group of fathers in their 30s and 40s, Baghdad patrol is an adventure.
"OK, Wertz, take us to the war zone," Broyles says to the driver, Spc. Chris Wertz.
The Humvee rumbles into the poor neighborhood of al-Washash, along a street of one-story concrete block houses. The street is crowded. Wertz toots the horn and men with pushcarts veer out of the way. Black-robed women with orbiting children press to the sidewalks.
Spc. Paul Linhart — whose nickname, "Linny," is scribbled in Arabic on his helmet — is the Humvee's public face. His upper body pokes from the roof, where he mans a 5.56 mm machine gun.
Kids shout in delight at the sight of the creeping Humvee and Linhart in his mirror shades. They hoot. They offer the thumbs up. They toast the MPs with empty soda cans.
One boy brandishes a toy machine gun that looks astonishingly like Linhart's.
Sgt. Chris Colon, a 37-year-old soldier in an accompanying Humvee, whacks his palm to his forehead at the sight, imagining some frazzled gunner shooting the boy by mistake.
With a thunk, a rock lands on the hood. Wertz gets hot and yells. "Who is throwing rocks?" Colon waves him off, saying it's probably just a boy caught up in the celebration.
"It happens every once in a while. No big deal," Colon says.
Pfc. Sarah Conner, 23, with dangling strands of blond hair and a ready smile, is a magnet. All but the most hardhearted Iraqis smile when they see her steering her Humvee through the vegetable market.
One boy jumps up to say "hi," and Conner, from Coventry, Conn., brakes to chat. She's met him before. "Hey, how have you been?" she asks.
Like the 1139th, the Hartford, Conn.-based 143rd Military Police Company is a National Guard unit. The team leader in this Humvee, Sgt. John Thompson, 37, is a Connecticut state trooper.
Atop the radio console, Conner has a spray of flowers poking from a Pepsi can. It's a gift from an Iraqi admirer. Baghdad enthralls Conner, as if it were still the city of The Thousand and One Nights.
"This place is beautiful. It's awesome," she says. "It used to be," says Thompson, noting the broken sidewalks and trash heaps.
"I think it still is," Conner counters. "I mean, look at this place."
She points to an enormous house with columned arches, dangling lanterns and a fringe of date palms.
"Baghdad is like a beautiful woman with a black eye," Thompson says, whose gray hair verges onto a sunburned neck. "It's got potential to be beautiful again."
Conner pulls up to an ice-cream stand to chat with a trio of Baghdad policemen sitting at a sidewalk table. Thompson quips that ice cream is to Iraqi police what doughnuts are to Americans.
A middle-aged Iraqi woman strides up. Her car has been stolen. She wants the Americans to find it.
An MP takes a report and gives it to the Iraqi officers to handle. That doesn't sit well with the woman, who confronts Lt. Michael Rossi, demanding immediate help.
"You destroyed the country, and now you won't do anything to help us," she says in English. "Please leave here."
As the commotion unfolds, a white Ford Bronco rolls slowly past. A man in the passenger seat jots notes as he observes the MPs. An Iraqi police captain jumps into his car and stops the Bronco as the MPs scramble to follow.
"That guy is the Iraqi Serpico," Thompson says of the Baghdad officer.
Pawing through the car, the Iraqi captain finds notes on distances between the ice-cream stand and nearby intersections. The MPs record the man's name and address before releasing him — "just in case he's on a list somewhere," Conner says.
Ahmed Abed Ali, 43, standing outside a police station in northwest Baghdad in a blue gown, is a messenger of optimism. He tells his neighbors to trust the Americans.
But some Americans, he says, have a tendency toward rudeness, and that can get in the way.
Once, when Ali took a seat inside the police station, an MP pulled him out of the chair, he says. "I told him, 'Saddam dealt with us in the same manner that you deal with us now.' "
After suffering through the invasion, Iraqis are now scrutinizing Americans' behavior, trying to decide whether to trust and support them — or whether to obstruct and oppose them.
It's a balancing act that plays out every day on the streets for U.S. soldiers as a boiling summer approaches: Keep the peace, keep reconstruction moving — and keep out of harm's way.
"We are watching to see," Ali says. "If the future is better than the past, we will put a crown on the U.S. soldiers' heads. If things get worse, maybe a fight will break out."