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82nd Airborne's headquarters in a desert, surrounded by desert, coated by desert

SAMAWAH, Iraq—Driving up to the command post for the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade generates one immediate and coherent thought: They must have made a mistake. This place looks like a prison colony.

The 82nd's field headquarters, from which division commanders are leading much of the assault on the nearby city of Samawah, is as in-the-middle-of-nowhere as it gets. It's in the desert, surrounded by desert, coated in desert.

In a few days, 82nd troops have set up tents, a clinic, a prisoner-of-war pen, and a sophisticated radar and radio communications center. They have ringed the area with razor wire and plowed up defensive barriers with bulldozers.

The spotty artillery shelling and occasional bomb drops are easy to hear and, at night, see flashing across the sky. Soldiers, bushed from firefights with Iraqis, return here to get supplies or medical care or to drop off prisoners. There wouldn't be any other reasons to be here.

The only water is in cases of 1.5-liter bottles. Food comes in plastic bags, as the meals-ready-to-eat. I am ashamed to admit I have become something of a connoisseur. I know that the beef stew package includes M&M cookies or, as the package says, "pan coated chocolate candy cookies." The MRE's vegetarian versions are actually tasty, and the cheeseburger MRE is the first one swiped out of any case.

Local sheepherders and farmers occasionally ask for an MRE or bottle of water as U.S. vehicles pass. Soldiers keep weapons at the ready, since stories circulated in camp of paramilitary troops using children to catch the attention of coalition soldiers before an attack.

Without running water, of course, there are no showers. Any cleaning is done by baby wipes and is temporary at best. A quick breeze quickly sandifies you again.

For a desolate location, there is an abundance of small life in this part of Iraq, and it is all insect—flies, to be specific. From sunrise to sunset, they swarm. Landing on your hands, nose, mouth and food.

The soldiers, clearly accustomed to austere conditions, don't complain about any of it. They know there are months of this ahead. No need to gripe now, especially when there's a reporter who can do plenty of that for them.


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