U.S. troops grimly confront residue of gulf war--hungry and ragged refugees WAR IN THE GULF

March 18, 1991|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,Los Angeles Times

SOUTHERN IRAQ -- Guarding the peace may be tougher than fighting the war for the forward scouts of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division.

After spending months in the lonely desert and then devastating a division of the Iraqi Republican Guard in the ground war, the young soldiers and their giant tanks have rumbled into a new position six miles inside Iraq, guarding the northernmost U.S. checkpoint on the road north to the rebellion-torn city of Basra.

The soldiers don't like what they see: Iraqi children begging for food, hundreds of ragged refugees camped in the desert, shattered homes and farms.

"This is the one part I didn't want to see," said Pfc. Rueben Perez, 20, of La Puente, Calif. "All the homeless, all the hurting. When we came through the refugee camp, man, that's something I didn't need."

The U.S. troops disarm Iraqi soldiers trying to head south, and send them back. They let civilians through to nearby towns and give chocolate and applesauce to the children. And they wonder what the war has wrought.

"It's really sad," said Sgt. Paul Brooks, 22, of Denver. "I'm a soldier. But I've got a family back home. We've got little kids come up and see my gun, and they start crying. That really tears me up."

Capt. James Bell, 29, of Charlotte, N.C., said that his unit had seen only Iraqi soldiers and empty desert until they arrived in this wind-swept highway outpost. "This is the first time we've seen civilization," he said. "And it's really sad.

"It just tears your heart out to see a baby crying because he needs medicine. And there's nothing we can do. We've got a doctor in the rear, but we can't take care of all these people," Captain Bell said.

"I tell you, the fighting in combat we saw was easier than this."

The scouts led the 1st Division's charge into Iraq on Feb. 24. After a fierce artillery bombardment of Iraqi lines, they raced north, collecting prisoners and looking for trouble.

They found it after midnight: Iraq's Tawklana Division, supposedly the crack tank troops of the Republican Guard. Dark and at a distance, most of the U.S. troops, who suffered one killed and five wounded in action, never saw the death and destruction they inflicted.

"At night, you kill and you roll on by," said Spec. Heath Oncale, 20. "You don't stop. You don't have to see anything. It wasn't until the next morning the rear told us the devastation was total. We killed the entire division."

Here, under a harsh sun and the menacing cannons of their M1A1 tanks, they are seeing the effects of war. More refugees arrive each day, carrying meager belongings as they walk or drive up in overloaded cars.

An English-speaking 35-year-old Iraqi microbiologist from a Basra suburb drove up, begging for help for a sick aunt with liver and kidney trouble.

"Life is miserable," she said. "No food. Only tomatoes. The people drink dirty water. No sleep at all. No drugs. No pharmacies. No hospitals. No treatment for any patients.

"No rice, no fish, no bread, no sugar, no wheat flour, no corn oil, no vegetables, no fruit," she said, and then began slapping her hands as she spoke. "Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" Slap. Slap. Slap.

Sgt. John Lapotaire, 25, a Bradley fighting vehicle commander, later spoke of his home in Oklahoma, and then of the unwashed children who line the roads in nearby Safwan, Iraq, and beg for food.

"At least we can go home," he said emotionally. "These people got to stay and live with this. When I get home, I'll remember this more than the fighting. All these kids begging. This is the hardest part.

"The Iraqi soldiers were armed. The little kids aren't armed. They're just hungry."

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