FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Marines here avoided a riot recently when local citizens grew upset because they couldn’t get cooking fuel.
Swift reaction, endless patience and nerves of steel aided Marines in defusing the situation. Without their intervention, the crowd could have been as explosive as the propane they were seeking.
Marines from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment’s Personnel Security Detachment were on a routine patrol through Fallujah recently when they encountered a large group of frustrated and irritated Iraqi locals. The crowd, which swelled to nearly a thousand at its peak, was gathered at an Iraqi government propane distributing center just outside the city limits.
The battalion received several reports from factory officials of large crowds – including some reports of armed insurgents – trying to force their way into the factory walls in a desperate attempt to refill empty propane tanks.
This factory doesn’t support individual tank refills, however. Smaller distributing groups are supposed to fill large tanks and take them to various points where local families can exchange empty tanks for full ones.
Iraqi citizens are given government ration receipts, called “Patakas,” in order to claim their share of propane. They use the gas for cooking and fuel various appliances in their homes because natural gas lines and electricity are often not available here.
“You could see the desperation on these people’s faces of how critical the propane really was to them,” said Sgt. Michael A. Brown, an infantryman from Roxbury, Mass.
Marines and armored vehicles spread throughout the factory’s grounds to keep an eye on the growing crowd forming in front of the factory. Other Marines moved to the front gate to help sort out the manager’s concerns.
“Initially we were set up around the mass of people as a kind of show of force to let them know we were there to make sure things didn’t get out of hand,” said the 34-year-old Brown. “But we all soon realized that without our direct help, that just wasn’t going to happen.”
The crowd grew to more than one thousand people who were growing increasingly frustrated. Nearly one hour passed after the Marines first pulled in.
Screaming, pushing, arguing and fighting suddenly erupted while Marines attempted to form lines and a system to delegate how the propane was to be distributed.
“There weren’t any lines or organization when we got there,” said Cpl. Brian Sueffert, a radio chief from Pittsburgh. “It was just a giant group of people all to trying to shove their way forward to get their propane.”
Children, women and men all fought furiously for a position where they could get to the front of the newly formed lines. Marines maintained their patience as they were caught in the middle of the crowd. The situation was growing out of hand and was on the verge of becoming dangerous for Marines and local Iraqis alike.
“Things started to escalate real quickly and the safety of the Marines who were doing all they could to help get the Iraqi’s fuel started to be questioned,” said Lance Cpl. Edgardo A. Arroyo, a 21-year-old infantryman, from Springfield, Mass.
Iraqi and Marine officials made the decision to shut down the factory to individual members of the crowd and allow only those with the capability to fill and carry larger quantities to enter. Once they had refilled, they could return to their private distributing points and citizens could make the proper exchange.
“It was a big risk for us to stay out there and deal with what started to look like an angry mob for as long as we did, to try and bring some sort of order to their situation without anybody getting hurt,” Arroyo said.
“I could understand their desperation to get their propane, but we were surrounded by thousands of pressurized tanks that could have made the situation real bad if things escalated any further,” Brown added. “They all began to realize that we wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Marines soon calmed the crowd and they dispersed from the factory gates.