Hospitality and peril for troops

Transition: Despite the warm welcome from Iraqis, soldiers are told to stay alert in crowds.

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Locals offer them hot tea, bread, boiled chicken, gifts of Scotch, even marriage proposals. Yet commanders of the 101st Airborne Division warn their soldiers again and again to stay alert among the crowds of Iraqis.

This is an odd, in-between time for American troops. The large-scale fighting appears to be over, and the division is shifting to what officers call "support and stability operations," but the dangers have not passed.

"We're in kind of a transition," said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, who leads the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. "It's not like flipping a switch where you go from one to the other. You can't assume everybody is your friend."

Some things have not changed. The rules of engagement still permit soldiers to shoot anyone showing hostile intent. Soldiers still tell people who need medical care to go to clinics or hospitals rather than offering them aid.

But the focus clearly has moved from an adversarial stance to something more collaborative.

"Honestly, I didn't believe the Iraqi people would embrace us at all," said Sgt. John Bose, 25, of Staten Island, N.Y., who is living with the rest of Alpha Company amid the gardens of a water treatment plant. "On TV, I saw people rallying in support of Saddam. I guess that's what they were forced to do."

Friendly crowds mingle with soldiers at the gate. Teen-age girls in blue jeans flirt innocently, as boys ogle the weapons. Women watch from balconies as they hang laundry.

The other day, a middle-aged man in a late-model Mercedes 500 sedan drove up, stopped his car and opened the trunk. He reached in and handed a soldier a bottle of Scotch, aged 12 years.

"For you, my friend," he said.

The man started back toward his car, then returned. He opened the bottle and took a sizable swig, then gestured for the soldier to do the same. He wanted to celebrate the moment. When the soldier said he could not drink, the man shrugged and drove away.

Yet the same day, another unit within the 130-man Alpha Company encountered a local man bearing an AK-47. They yelled at him to drop the gun but he kept walking toward them. They shot him to death.

A few days ago, a group from Bravo Company was dispatched to a forlorn-looking neighborhood where a dozen surface-to-air missiles were found. The houses were surrounded by bare ground strewn with trash.

Among the residents were Hussein Ali and his family, who thanked the soldiers by cooking them a chicken dinner.

"They have nothing but are still willing to share," said Sgt. Joshua Schultz, 27, of Nashville, Tenn. "A lot of these people said they had family who were killed by the regime."

Another household served platters of fresh-baked bread. Their neighbors invited a soldier who could speak passable Arabic to afternoon tea, lasting three hours.

Ali and a dozen family members had stood outside when the missiles were carted off and a 57 mm anti-aircraft gun was exploded by Army engineers. Between blasts the neighbors passed around tea and bread.

Sgt. Rick Carpenter, 25, of Cincinnati was standing in front of the school that houses Charlie Company when he spotted a young woman of perhaps 20.

"She kept giving me this look," he said. "Then she'd look down, all shy." Her mother walked up with a man who acted as translator. She asked if Carpenter was married.

Yes, he said, puzzled.

The mother demanded to see a picture of Carpenter's wife, Eun Young. When he showed it to her, she was not convinced.

"Marry my daughter," she said. "She's more beautiful." The mother also asked him if he loved his wife. Of course, he said. Don't worry about that, she said.

The mother offered to talk about the matter further with Carpenter over a meal at her home. He declined.

No matter, she said. She promised to return in the morning.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.