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Notes from correspondents in Persian Gulf

KUWAIT CITY—War may be hell, but Listerine-flavored whisky is merely awful. And in a country that bans all alcohol—say, Kuwait, a bag full of rum can be heaven.

As hundreds of American journalists grew bored here while awaiting a possible war with Iraq, some of their talk turned to how to get alcohol cheaper than the $150 that smugglers get for a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky.

Security guards at Kuwait's international airport X-ray all arriving baggage, looking for liquor bottles but not particularly taxing the ingenuity of parched news correspondents.

One television network producer sneaked in a Listerine bottle filled with whisky. Although it was washed repeatedly before it was refilled with booze, the whisky still tasted like Listerine.

Others used backpack-like water bladders, the plastic bags from the insides of cardboard boxes of wine, or put bottles of liquor in their jacket pockets and walked past the airport guards.

One Miami Herald correspondent went one better when he took a break in nearby emirate of Dubai, where liquor is legal: He bought a two-gallon plastic bag meant to be used as a camper's solar-heated shower.

Filled with four fifths of aged Bacardi rum, it sailed through the X-ray machine and a check by a guard who opened the reporter's suitcase and felt the bag of sloshing liquid but never figured out it could be alcohol.

"Bottle?" the guard asked the correspondent.

"Nope. No bottle," the journalist answered.

The golden liquid has been flowing out of a 1-inch red plastic shower nozzle, and bag is now much thinner than it was when it arrived.

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WASHINGTON—In an attempt to erase any trace of a French accent from the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, on Tuesday ordered the cafeterias in the three House office buildings to start serving "freedom fries" and "freedom toast."

"This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France," said Ney in a statement.

The future of French bread and French dressing, not to mention French cuffs, French doors, French horns and French kisses, remains uncertain.

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CAMP MATILDA, Kuwait—When the Marines meet Iraqis, at least one Marine will be able to speak their language.

Cpl. Joseph Kelada, a reservist and Tampa, Fla., native, learned Arabic from his parents who came to the United States from Egypt in the early 1970s.

"I overheard my parents all my life," said Kelada, 25, a real estate agent and mortgage broker. "But I tried all my life not to learn it."

Still, his mother gave him formal Arabic lessons before he left home. She wanted him to be prepared for any eventuality, for as a young girl in Egypt she had heard tales of Saddam Hussein's cruelty. She told her son they had a saying, "When you go on a picnic with Saddam Hussein, you don't come back."

Thanks to his mother, Kelada now has an ear for the language and is able to detect different Arabic dialects.

"It's like the difference between Texans and people in New Jersey," he said.

Kelada has coached other Marines in basic phrases to use when speaking to captured Iraqi soldiers. And, as a member of the headquarters and supply company of the 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion, he is in a unit that can utilize his language skills to work with Iraqi civilians.

"Something needs to be done," Kelada says while talking about Saddam Hussein. "It's time for him to go. What happens afterward is what I'm worried about."

And while Kelada shares a heritage and language with Arabic people, his upbringing, experiences and attitudes are purely American.

"I don't feel I'm tied to them," he said. "But I understand where they're coming from."

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ALLIED FORCES CAMPS, Kuwait—Two years ago, Christopher Lile signed up to be all he could be to find a way to pay for a college education and because, he says, "I needed a little discipline."

Today he finds himself on Saddam Hussein's doorstep, packing an M-16 rifle and squinting to keep sand and sun from blinding him.

Although he doesn't bubble over with enthusiasm, he doesn't complain about his service-for-tuition bargain.

"I wasn't thinking about war when I signed up," said the 20-year-old who grew up in the Missouri cities of Independence and Warrensburg. "But I knew it was a possibility."

For most of his service, he has been based in Germany working as a radio operator for Alpha Company of the V Corps' 32nd Signal Battalion. The battle training his outfit has been through makes him confident that he will be in little danger if he goes into Iraq in a Humvee.

He displays a quiet, steely demeanor and calls home when he can to comfort his nervous parents in Camdenton, Mo.

"I'm not really worried," Lile said. "I get a chance to fight for people who can't."

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CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait—Wednesday night, 35 mph winds whipped up yet another sandstorm at the Army's Camp Virginia in the Kuwaiti desert—the third in a week.

Hundreds of lost and confused soldiers looking for their sleeping tents wandered in circles through the night because of no visibility.

By 9 p.m., the sandstorm was in full sway and everyone—even in the tents that were still standing—was caked with ashen silt, choking on sand and complaining about how they can't get a break at Camp Virginia.

Sgt. Nathan Muncy, who got caught outside in the sandstorm for an hour, expressed what many soldiers at Camp Virginia were feeling: "Any comfort we get out here in the desert turns out to be a mirage.''

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(Juan Tamayo, Patrick Peterson, Scott Canon and Meg Laughlin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NOTES

Iraq

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