BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Andrew McMahon, BAGHDAD, Iraq - When word spread last night that a suicide bomber had wounded four Marines guarding a checkpoint here, the news did not seem to fit the day.
Yesterday had promised a much different ending.
Members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines had driven into Iraq's capital to cheers, and residents of one street had awoken early to offer the Americans tea and breakfast. A group of neighbors stood by the roadside holding a sign that read: "We love you! USA." Thousands more applauded the long convoy of tanks, troop carriers and other machinery of war.
"It makes it all worthwhile" was the Marines' refrain as they watched what took on the fanfare of a parade.
Then as the night closed in on Baghdad, a man dressed in black and holding a grenade walked up to Marines blocking a road and pulled the pin. The blast cut the bomber in half and injured four Marines with shrapnel, some seriously. The bomber's hand still clutched the pin.
The tragedy, however, was enough for Marines to question what they had seen earlier in the day. One Marine stood underneath a clear night sky, puzzled about Iraq as if it were a riddle. How could Iraqis appear to be enamored with the Americans yet also produce people who would sacrifice their own lives to kill them? The Marine did not have an answer.
"I just want to go home," he said.
At the end of the day, the Marines camped at an electricity station in the northern part of the city. Eight-foot-high walls surrounded every side of the station, but the Marines would have preferred them much higher. They went to sleep with fears of snipers and terrorist attacks.
The morning had seemed so bright.
After two nights on the city's eastern outskirts, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines had traveled north and then turned south onto Highway 2 to drive deeper into the city.
They were welcomed all along their journey.
Families walked along the edge of the road. Cars swung on and off the pavement to give the convoy wide berth. Trucks tugged trailers packed with men, women and children.
Where everyone was going was not clear. About half appeared to be driving away from downtown, the other half driving toward downtown. All seemed comfortable venturing from their homes.
Their destination may have also been not a place, but an activity: looting.
People poured out of a military complex, hauling anything that was not bolted down: beds, mattresses, ceiling fans, generators, air conditioners, desks and chairs.
A public hospital was not spared either. For mile after mile, men, women and children could be seen carting off newfound treasures. People who could walk fine pushed wheelchairs away from this hospital. An old woman balanced an air conditioner. A donkey cart loaded down with mattresses made a slow getaway.
The Marines did nothing to stop the chaos. That is another job for another day, Marines say.
Maybe that's one reason the looters appeared to cheer the Marines more enthusiastically than does anyone else.
Most of the images of Saddam Hussein - in front of the military base and hospital - were undamaged. Destroying these images did not appear to be a priority until the Marines stopped near one intersection featuring a Hussein portrait in tile. Then a group of young men assaulted the Iraqi dictator's face with stones, knocking away his eyes and mouth. They pulled off their shoes and hurled them at what was left of the image. One man lunged at Hussein's face with a knife.
The Marines were most surprised by the welcome in densely built middle-class neighborhoods. Residents' two-story houses were made of concrete and sandstone and sported geometric designs on their gates and front walls. Most had a small garden in front. They all had a weather-beaten look as if their owners had once all enjoyed better times.
Children tore out of their homes with their parents in tow at the sight of the armored convoy of troop carriers, and ran alongside them for a block or more. An elderly couple pressed up against their front window, first appearing frightened, then smiling when a Marine waved. A gregarious man rushed toward the Marines with a cup of tea, asking them to drink with him.
It was such a gracious reception that many Marines wondered if they could ever expect such a reception in the United States after the war.
Lt. Casey Brock said the welcome helped dispel some of the uncertainties surrounding the war. Marines wondered whether they were fighting to destroy weapons of mass destruction or for oil. The people, at first, did not appear to be part of the equation.
But after yesterday's drive, he said, that assessment had changed.
"The people seem to think we're here to help them. I think the Marines had some questions about that while traveling up here," Brock said.
Corpsman Andrew McMahon, 21, of La Mirada, Calif., was heartened by the enthusiasm in the streets. But he didn't seem convinced that all Iraqis were happy to play host to them - a skepticism that spread after the suicide bombing attack.
He wondered if the Marines would change the lives of the poor and struggling he had seen all along the way. The old man guiding the donkey cart. The family trying to tease a crop out of the hard desert ground in southern Iraq. The people looting from the hospitals.
"Many people seem relieved that we are here," said McMahon. "But I think they realize that we can only do so much. We can't make their lives much better."