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First major aid convoy expected to reach central Iraq

NAJAF, Iraq—The drive into Najaf, an especially holy city in Shi'a Islam, can raise your spirits.

In a country that can sometimes seem like an endless moonscape, the territory around Najaf is an oasis. Lifeless expanses of dust give way to a bit of moisture, knee-high green wheat, grazing camels and emerald palm groves.

People walk the roadside casually swinging sticks to keep oxen in line, waving and grinning at passing American soldiers who have taken over the region.

If plans stay on schedule, more the exception than the rule in wartime, 16 trucks sent by Kuwaitis and escorted by U.S. troops soon will roll in with food and water for the local folks—the first substantial humanitarian effort in central Iraq since the war started.

"We can show with An Najaf what the rest of the country can expect in terms of help," said Col. Timothy Regan, commander of the Army's 308th Civil Affairs Brigade.

But delivering butter may prove easier than ridding Najaf of its threat from guns.

The insecurity left behind in some Iraq cities during the push to Baghdad still vexes this city of 500,000, even if it is safer than Basra and some other places. A mosque that is a center of Shi'a Islam falls in an area U.S. troops here refer to as the circle of death.

Regan rolled into Najaf with a cadre of civil affairs officers and met with Capt. Don Sculli. Regan's outfit is a reserve unit, typical for the civil affairs soldiers that form a bridge between the military capture of a town and its transition back to normal. Sculli serves in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, leading a team of special forces medics and engineers.

"This road coming into the city is fine," Sculli told Regan. "And you can go down the main drag without a problem. But whatever you do, don't take a left there or you'll end up in trouble. People get shot up in there."

The Army chased out nearly all the Fedayeen paramilitary who took a stand at this city about a week ago. Still, a few men loyal to Saddam Hussein remain. And as long as they are here battling with U.S. special forces, Sculli said, it will be hard to patch up the city's infrastructure.

"The biggest concerns are, first and foremost, security, then the people worry about food and water," he said. "Especially water."

Because power lines and possibly transformers have been damaged during the fighting, water treatment plants are working below capacity. That leaves some neighborhoods with water for just a few hours a day. Some have none at all.

While Sculli's team has been working with local bureaucrats and technicians, those Iraqis remain jumpy about being seen as collaborators with the westerners. The Americans have turned to local Shi'a clerics as go-betweens, asking them for assessments of what the community needs.

Said Abdulmajad al-Khoei, a cleric and head of an international Muslim aid society, said he is trying to convince the people of Najaf that it is safe to work with the Americans. He believes Americans will not leave, as they did in 1991, before toppling Saddam's regime.

"Unfortunately for us, they came very late," he said. "Thankfully for us, they finally did come. Now this place will be liberated, and so will the rest of Iraq."

Yet he said the Iraqis want to wait until the war reaches a clear conclusion before cooperating too openly with the Americans, even those such as Regan who are focused on building the country back up rather than bombing it.

"The other towns will be liberated like Najaf, and then this will be easier," al-Khoei said.

In the meantime, Regan and Sculli talked of where to take the food shipment—a gift of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society—once it reached the city. First, Sculli made it clear that the food is not yet a pressing need. Second, it was unclear late Sunday when the trucks would arrive or how the food could be handed out.

"You can say it's just a symbol," Regan said. "But that shipment will get used and it will be appreciated. And it will be a strong signal to the rest of Iraq that we're here to help."


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