Guarding attackers' rear, amid mosquitoes, boredom

Marine task force watches roads on which supplies will reach units in capital

War in Iraq


WITH MARINE TASK FORCE TARAWA, outside Ash Shumali, Iraq - The new mission is about as romantic and swaggering as it sounds: protecting the rear.

Someday, as cold adult beverages back home apply a shiny coat of historical varnish, this day might be recalled differently.

But now, it can only be survived, the hours marked not by minutes but by mosquitoes slapped dead on pink necks.

Wars are fought with guns but won with the roads behind them, the crucial lines of ammunition and food and fuel. The artillery unit of the Marine Task Force Tarawa, thick in Nasiriyah combat two weeks ago, is now playing traffic cop along Highway 1, which leads to Baghdad, and a connector road that does not even have a name.

"They told me last night, `Watch the road,'" Lance Cpl. John W. Skinner, 21, of Alpine, Texas, said yesterday. He did, night-vision goggles strapped above his new mustache, and saw nothing before his watch ended. Not much to talk about over Skittles with the boys the next day.

"Who wants to watch a road?" he said.

The roads are roughly near the rear units of the 1st Marine Division, advancing toward Baghdad and a long-distant memory here, where only the litter of spent meals-ready-to-eat pouches on the roadside shows they ever passed through.

The artillery battalion set up Friday in a presumably once-fertile pocket of the Fertile Crescent, long gone dry. The town of Ash Shumali is across the street.

The Marines' new neighbors greeted their arrival with dozens of boys and men along the side of the road holding out packs of cigarettes and shouting "One dollar! One dollar!"

Others, recognizing the American love of souvenirs, traded Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein's face in the middle for American dollars.

There was no set exchange rate: any dead president got a Marine an etching of one who might be dead, though no one is sure. By the time the convoy had passed, about a dozen Iraqi men had lost interest, huddled over a pornographic magazine tossed down by a Marine.

One man looked up, smiling, and gave a thumbs-up.

Before bed, Marines took extra caution securing their gear, wary of light-footed intruders. There are few complaints about the camp, which is rather bucolic, with its sprinkling of palm trees.

Nightfall brought cooler temperatures and a mystery: explosions in the distance that the artillerymen did not cause. Someone, presumably Iraqis, fired artillery in the general direction of Marine infantry units near Ash Shumali.

The shells hit no one, but they caused a stir at the artillery command center because they went undetected on radar, suggesting that they were fired from far away.

A patrol crew was expected to inspect the points of impact yesterday and, by the shape of the crater, to get a rough idea of where the fire came from.

Perhaps in response to the shelling, Super Cobra helicopter gunships circled the town regularly yesterday. "They've circled a lot longer than they normally would," said Lt. Col. Glenn Starnes, commanding officer of the artillery battalion, peering up through the camouflage netting that provided the only shade here.

Marine patrols discovered several caches of Iraqi weapons and ammunition.

It is hot, over 100 degrees. The battalion's surgeon, Lt. Jonathan Eckstein, 30, of New York, had to remind Marines to drink water after he found himself suddenly seeing spots.

The Marines have backed off their "MOPP 1" level of chemical gear, laying aside the bulky coats and rolling up the pants to the knees. The new look was "MOPP one-quarter," joked Warrant Officer Elijah Ring, 29, of Jay, Maine, the battalion's chemical-attack protection expert.

Removed from the regimental command center and its communications antennae, officer and private alike relied on a handful of short-wave radios for hourly British news updates.

They sat still as, about 70 miles away, reporters described the feats of the soldiers and Marines and pilots slowly ringing the capital.

There is a desire to be there, in the fight, but the heat is sapping even that.

"If we get home quicker, let's do this," Skinner said. "If getting us to Baghdad gets us home earlier, let's do that."

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