The report on the U.S. military radio here apparently came in from a surveillance aircraft overhead — 1,000 Iraqi fighters were gathering in a nearby field. The Marines dispatched Cobra helicopters and sent a column of military vehicles rolling in that direction — only to discover that the Iraqis were all civilians with their thumbs up, saying, “Welcome, Americans.” That’s the way it was all day as the Marines moved into Baghdad’s southeastern suburbs.
For half a mile in either direction from where we were, we saw people — many of them young kids — looting anything they could get their hands on. There’s a tire warehouse near here, and Iraqi civilians were taking hundreds of the tires — some young kids were trying to roll huge military tires twice their size.
It appeared that members of the ruling Baath Party were nowhere to be found. All of the people we had been talking to for the past few days would not even comment on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — they would wave you away instead — but now they were not afraid to do that.
There was no police presence and no military resistance. The Marines were supposed to raid a series of buildings where they believed squads of Iraqi soldiers were waiting. But the raids were canceled because there was no evidence that anyone was there.
The Marines were moving through abandoned Iraqi positions, finding tanks and armored personnel carriers either burned or left behind.
U.S. commanders were still worried about mercenaries, the volunteers who have come here from Syria, Jordan and Egypt to fight alongside the Iraqis. They have been the fiercest soldiers the Marines have faced thus far.
The Marines did not believe there was a formidable fighting force in this area, but some of their officers were concerned they might let down their guard prematurely.
Earlier in the morning, I walked past the sergeant major of this battalion, and he was giving some younger Marines a piece of his mind. He was concerned that the overnight watch had not been sufficient, that there had been gaps in the 360-degree perimeter that Marines always establish around their camp and he was making it clear that he was not at all pleased by that.
(NBC News correspondent Chip Reid is traveling with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq.)