Logistical Support Area, Adder, South-Central Iraq - A half dozen members of the 36th Engineer Group, accompanied by Civil Affairs officers, an interpreter, and the commander of the 86th Combat Surgical Hospital, Col. Harry Warren, went into Nasiriyah on Friday to search for “anything we could use,” said Capt. Loyd Beal, the group’s supply officer. “Anything” included wood, electrical equipment, and office supplies.
Nasiriyah, a city that Maj. Esposito, Intelligence Officer for the 36th said has a population of 500,000, straddles the Euphrates River in south-central Iraq near LSA Adder.
As we approached the city the gray, dust-blown landscape we had been living in gave way to a green, oasis-like area with palm trees, green grasses, and water.
The Marines occupy Nasiriyah, maintaining several compounds throughout the city.
The first stop was one of these compounds.
Whenever a convoy stops, the soldiers get out of the vehicles and stand, their backs to the vehicles and weapons at the ready, looking for possible danger.
Marine guards walked up and down the sidewalk trying to keep people from stopping, but the unit’s four Army Humvees and the dozen soldiers guarding them turned into an attraction for the Iraqis. When I brought out my still camera and digital video camcorder almost every passing Iraqi under the age of 20 asked me to take their picture.
We drew a crowd.
The unit stood there for the better part of half an hour smiling, waving hello, taking pictures and turning down sales offers of cartons of cigarettes.
The crowd got so large and so distracting that Sgt. Maj. Bryant came over to me at one point and told me to “put those cameras away.” They drove around the city, stopping four more times, once again at the Marine compound, once at the hospital so Warren could “see it, inspect it, meet the guys” Beal said, and twice on city streets as the supply officers talked with Iraqi businessmen.
As we drove around we noticed that many people waved to us, smiled, or gave a thumbs up.
Iraqi children ran along our vehicle waving and yelling “Hello, Mister” as long as they could keep up with our Humvees. The most interesting stop was on in one of the side streets. A few Iraqi boys and girls had followed us from our previous stop. Within minutes dozens had gathered. They all wanted food, water, or their picture taken.
After convincing them we didn’t have any food some noticed that our names were written on our helmets or flak jackets.
Now they wanted us to write our names on pieces of paper. A dozen scraps of paper were produced from nowhere. The children closed in, one little girl brushed up against Specialist Daniel Starkey’s SAW (Squad AutomaticWeapon – a light machine gun).
He gently warned her away.
After 20 minutes of this, the strain of the constant attention of the kids was beginning to take its toll. Fortunately a Civil Affairs officer came by and introduced me to an English-speaking Iraqi named Haider Alaasam.
About 5-feet-5-inches tall with short black hair, a mustache, and tired gray eyes, Alaasam told me that he had an uncle in Washington D.C. named Mohammed. He wanted to give him a message.
“All your family is OK now,” Alaasam said. “We haven’t heard from you in a long time. It was hard times, but it is OK now.” I asked him how it was during the fighting. “We lived in bad times here because of the bombs,” he Alaasam said. “We buried many people; 27 in a schoolyard on the other side of the river.”
He mentioned a few other locations where people died or were buried, then talked about the feelings of the Iraqi people.
“We are very happy now, all the Iraqi people. You see it in the eyes of the children and the women. You saw it on the satellite channels. For 30 years we have lived in a bad situation. Saddam Hussein killed us. All of us are bodies without spirit,” Alaasam said.
He then talked about more immediate concerns.
“We want a new democratic government, freedom, safety, electricity and water. We are in the 21st century but without electricity,” he said. Because of the lack of water and electricity his daughter is forced to drink water out of the polluted Euphrates River and is now sick. “You can’t feel what we live now. You got your water and your food but we don’t,” he said.
An engineer, he said that he and 75 percent of the people lost their jobs because of the war.
“We are asking Mr. Bush to look after our life. America is the power now,” Alaasam said. He ended with a final plea. “I want my voice to get there.” I told him it would.
The officers came out of the building and got into the vehicles. As we drove off a few of the Iraqi boys discovered that the back flap of our Humvee was not tied down.
One reached in and took a bottle of water out of a box we had in the back. I noticed it too late to stop him. Another reached in. I could have stopped him from taking a bottle but realized he needed the water a lot more than I did.
As the Humvee picked up speed I gave him one.
In the end, the officers weren’t able to find the supplies they wanted. “Everything is so unorganized,” Beal said. All they were able to do was secure an Iraqi middleman who would find the things they were looking for.
The officers agreed to meet him again in two days.