AS SAMAWAH, Iraq—We stopped around 7:30 Sunday morning outside a village near As Samawah, northwest of Nassiriyah. We'd begun moving 17 hours earlier. So far, Apache Company had encountered no direct enemy resistance. But Baghdad still lay at least another day's drive away, and everybody expected that the situation would change drastically for us there.
Two columns of Bradleys, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and cargo trucks stretched from north to south across a flat, muddy plain. A kilometer ahead, dozens of fuel trucks and other vehicles were stalled along an east-west road, waiting for gas. Radio traffic indicated that the 3rd Infantry Division's Task Force 3-69 Armor and 2-7 Infantry were engaged in sporadic fighting up ahead. The sound of artillery thudded in the distance. But we were stuck in a massive traffic jam miles behind the action.
Dozens of Iraqi boys and young men came out from the village. They stood in waist-high fields of green wheat and gawked at the soldiers.
"Can you imagine," said David Gilkey, a photographer from the Detroit Free Press. "You're sitting at home on a Sunday morning, and this comes rolling through your town. It must be like looking at something from another planet."
Somewhere in the column up ahead, an artilleryman offered an MRE—short for meal ready to eat, a packaged ration—to one of the boys. He took it. The rest ran toward the column, eager for food and other handouts.
The boys seemed friendly enough. But senior officers remained wary of drawing a large crowd around their vehicles. One officer told me that just the night before a group of scouts from 2-7 Infantry had let a group of Iraqis get too close. A group of Saddam's guys were disguised among them, and they pulled out automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and started firing. Two men were hit before the scouts got away. The Americans responded by calling in an artillery strike.
An officer sent an order over the radio telling soldiers not to give the Iraqis any more chow. So, the boys moved down the column picking up used MRE packets the soldiers had thrown away. A group of five men, all of them in their late teens or early 20s, walked across the wheat field and stopped where I was sitting on top of a vehicle. I waved.
"Salaam aliekum," I said, which is Arabic for "peace be upon you."
"Salaam," one of them answered. He motioned with one hand to ask if I had a cigarette.
"Don't give him one," said First Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, Apache Company first sergeant. "Next thing you know, we'll have a hundred of them lined up over here."
I waved at the guy to indicate that I didn't have a cigarette. The group moved down the column, thick mud sucking at their bare ankles.
"Good morning," one of them called back to me in English.
"Jesus Christ, look at that dude," said a young soldier, sitting atop a M113 armored personnel carrier behind us. "It's freezing out here, and he's wearing damn sandals."
Beebe, Hibbs' driver, smoked a cigarette as he watched the Iraqis walk away. "These guys make me nervous," he said.
"I don't like having them around. Too many things can go wrong."
At a highway overpass about 800 meters to the south, a burst of heavy machine gun fire rang out. Artillery thudded in the distance. The Iraqis appeared unconcerned.
The Iraqis had started back across the wheat field toward the village when a lieutenant in a Humvee drove up. He got out and spoke the men in Arabic. They drew closer for a moment. Then one of them waved, and they continued on their way
I asked the lieutenant what he'd said.
"I told them we'd come to liberate Iraq and free the Iraqi people," he said. "That seemed to get their interest. But I also told them not to interfere with our soldiers and to stay away from our vehicles. They said OK."
As the Iraqis walked back toward the village, another burst of heavy machine-gun fire rang out from the overpass to the south. In the distance, a jet circled overhead, dropping flares. Another rumble of artillery shook the earth. The Iraqis kept walking across the field. They didn't even look up.
A few minutes later, our column lurched forward and we were moving again, churning north up a muddy dirt road. There were discarded MRE packets and other trash all along the roadside that soldiers had thrown from their vehicles.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.