BAGHDAD, Iraq—Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade were surprised Wednesday when they returned to camp in northwest Baghdad to learn that Iraqis downtown were pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein and welcoming Marines with smiles and hugs.
Someone forgot to tell the people who'd been shooting at them all day.
Rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire greeted the soldiers throughout the day as they pushed along Highway 1, seizing crossroads to secure the roadway. At nearly every intersection, the Iraqis had positioned tanks and armored personnel carriers and opened fire.
They were no match for the Americans, who suffered no casualties. But the difference between the firefights the U.S. soldiers went through in the northwest and the scenes from just a few miles away worried some.
"It's like `Black Hawk Down' tenfold every time we drive down these streets," said Staff Sgt. Mike Hertig of San Diego, referring to the film account of sniper assaults on U.S. soldiers in Somalia. "You can lose focus, and that's when you gain more casualties. We go home when people say our mission is complete."
Throughout Baghdad, soldiers and Marines reported a strange mix of welcoming civilians and occasional firefights. But the welcomes clearly had many thinking of home.
Marines all day asked one another whether they thought the war was really over. After coming more than 500 miles from Kuwait, running through "Ambush Alley" in Nasiriyah and clearing weapons caches from several towns, the Marines now have nowhere to go but home.
Gunnery Sgt. Craig Lawrence, 41, a reservist, computer engineer and leader of the 3rd Platoon of the 4th Amphibian Assault Battalion, sat in his gun turret as a crowd milled around him in eastern Baghdad, cheering and clapping. The Marines howled as one looter took a bottle of Pinch Scotch whisky and presented it to a Marine. "I've been training for 20 years," said Lawrence. "But we never trained for this."
Iraqis turned out by the thousands to welcome Marines. They also looted government buildings, especially the Al Sinn Sports Complex, which held thousands of new athletic shoes.
"It's the end game now," said Capt. Mike Martin of Palm Springs, Calif., K Company, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Division.
Marines were amazed at the luxuriousness of the sports complex. There were meeting rooms and a lounge with temporary cots where Republican Guards had been garrisoned. The complex included a lawn, virtually nonexistent in arid Baghdad, a VIP room with a wide-screen television, and a rose garden.
"That place is perverse," said Lt. Tyson Belanger of Unionville, Conn. "It shouldn't exist in a city like this."
Marines in other units also were greeted by happy crowds only hours after taking fire from Saddam loyalists. The 1st Battalion 4th Marines pushed into Baghdad's Saddam City, a poor neighborhood of mostly Shiite Muslims, fighting pockets of resistance and occasional shots from rooftops.
But residents also gave the arriving Marines Sumer cigarettes looted from a nearby factory, and a crowd gathered outside the compound where the Marines set up for the night, close enough to touch many of the vehicles.
West of Baghdad, at the international airport, soldiers of Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, received mail for the first time in weeks, heightening their hopes, and feeding rumors, of going home soon.
"Rumor has it that we'll be leaving here and rolling south by April 29th," said Sgt. Kreskin Smith, 30, of Auburn, Ala. "It can't be soon enough for me."
"When I get back I'm going home to see the family and get some real food for a change," said Sgt. Rico Shuford, 25, of Montgomery, Ala. "I'm gonna kiss that ground, I'll tell you."
Still, there were reminders everywhere of the war. One Marine, looking for a place to relieve himself, found several rocket-propelled grenades under a bridge.
And the 3rd Brigade was often surprised by naked people; they'd removed all their clothes to show soldiers they had no weapons.
(Harper is traveling with the 3rd Brigade 3rd Infantry Division; Peterson, with the 4th Amphibious Assault Battalion. Contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Andrea Gerlin, with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines; and Drew Brown, with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.