Medical care, food major weapons in information war

Marines seek to win Iraqis' sympathies, show U.S. comes as liberator

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHUMULLI, Iraq - Residents of this farming community southeast of Baghdad believed they had good reason to fear the approach of American troops. According to what Iraqi government officials have told them, the Americans planned to steal their land and kill all their young men.

But a convoy of U.S. Marines rumbled into the community's palm fringed streets this week to attempt to prove them wrong.

The Marines came bearing gifts of medical care, water and food for the community of 30,000.

The gifts were weapons in the second front of the United States' war in Iraq. Not only does the United States have to defeat the Iraqi military, it also must win the sympathy of the Iraqi people.

"It's about winning the information war against Saddam Hussein," said Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, who organized the delivery of aid. "He's publishing lies. Let's teach them that they are lies. We have to let them know that we are here as liberators, not as conquerors."

Their M-16 muzzles pointed to the ground, the Marines walked to the edge of town and using a loudspeaker announced to a group of residents that their troubles were over. The Americans had come in peace to offer their townsfolk help, they said. Whether the people of Shumulli needed it was not clear.

When one Marine officer announced that they would be providing free medical care, a man stepped forward looking confused. "But we have a doctor," said the man.

Well, we are bringing you water, the Marines informed the crowd gathering in the dusty commercial district of town.

"But we have plenty of water," replied another man, pointing to a rusting water tower.

Food, it turned out, wasn't a problem, either.

A visit to the doctor

Intelligence officers interviewing the Shumulli residents said that Iraqi President Hussein's Baath Party recently delivered a six month supply of flour, sugar, salt and other staples to the townspeople.

So the Marines' food and water weren't needed, but the medical care was welcome. More than 50 men and children lined up to see doctors and corpsmen set up a medical center in what appeared to be the remains of a gas station or market.

A man hobbled in missing a foot from an amputation many years ago and received a fresh gauze wrap. An old man complained of a headache and was sent away with aspirin. Others waited in line for three hours or more for advice on backaches, high blood pressure, scrapes, bumps and bruises.

Little boys envious of the attention heaped on a boy who had injured his arm started cutting their fingers with broken glass for the chance to visit an American doctor.

"It's a lot more than we expected," said Dr. Mark Brodie, a Navy physician as he helped corral patients into the makeshift clinic cordoned off with duct tape.

Brodie said overall the health of the residents was good.

"Some of them just want their hands held, but that's OK," he said.

Shumulli is little more than two or three blocks of mud-brick businesses and houses bordered by rows of tall palm trees. Nearly all of the businesses were closed except for what appeared to be a convenience store advertising Pepsi and 7UP.

In the middle of town, a giant painting of Hussein overlooked the offices of the Baath Party headquarters. Here, a Marine reconnaissance unit discovered a safe filled with Iraqi bank notes.

For most of the day, the Marines sat down with children, who asked to touch their rifles and marveled at the watches, knives and flashlights dangling from their body armor.

Asked what they thought about the war, most of the children hung their heads, giggled shyly and said they were afraid to speak about such things. But Sallah Hassan, cradling his baby daughter, who was suffering from pneumonia, was not shy about his opinion.

"It's good," Hassan said of the American visitors. "I want them to stay. All Iraqi people wish they stay here because Saddam Hussein has killed our people." Hassan said he had fled at the beginning of the war to stay with relatives in Shumulli. Since arriving he has heard residents telling stories about the horrors that would follow the arrival of American troops.

Hassan, however, said he didn't believe the stories.

`Why war?'

A group of young men standing at a blockade of Marines questioned the presence of the troops, confused about why the Americans would enter their town when the United States was after Hussein in Baghdad.

"Why war?" asked one man to anyone who would listen. "The U.S. want oil. I think the U.S. came to Iraqi to help Israel."

Others seemed less interested in politics. Men and boys - most of the women had been sent into the countryside when U.S. forces approached- ran to the Marines offering local cigarettes for a price.

Nicotine-deprived Cpl. Matthew Wheaton, 23, of Portland, Ore., exchanged a pair of sunglasses and a flashlight for one cigarette.

"I never wear the sunglasses, and the flashlight doesn't work," he said, defending his purchase.

Later in the day, two packs of cigarettes were going for $2.

Lance Cpl. Robert Kerman, 20, of Klamath Falls, Ore., sat atop a Humvee watching a crowd of Marines and Iraqis cutting deals for cigarettes, trying to talk with sign language and Arabic phrase books, or laughing with each other like old friends.

Last week, during the Marines' aggressive push north, Kerman lost a friend in an ambush in which 40 Iraqis were killed.

"This is surreal. We are killing these people, and then we turn around, and we are befriending them," he said. "I don't feel right doing this. If they knew what we had done to their citizens I don't think they would be laughing and smiling."

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