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Children a haunting reminder of Iraqis' condition

ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hundreds of Iraqi children stand by the side of the road, waving at the U.S. troops.

As thousands of Marines and soldiers head north toward Baghdad in massive convoys that snake to the horizon, the children line the route through the desert.

Some hold empty water bottles, begging for a drink.

Many just smile, some with looks of apprehension, others with looks of joy. Most hold up Iraqi money, wanting to trade for American cash.

The children are dirty and look tired, and almost all of them are barefoot on the hot sand and gravel.

They use deliberate gestures, trying to communicate.

A little boy in a white flowing gown, tattered and flowing in the breeze, taps his mouth and then pats his belly, over and over. Others just hold out both hands, palms up, hopeful and eager, looking desperate.

Most are out in the open desert, and you can't be certain where they live. You search the horizon and see a small brick hut, off in the distance, the only building in sight, but there's no other sign of life, just the waving children. Only a handful have parents with them.

The trucks drive by, about 45 mph, and the children are left in a cloud of dust. At times, on the wrong side of the wind, they become almost invisible.

Sometimes there are so many military vehicles on one road at one time that it turns into a massive traffic jam, heading toward Baghdad.

The trucks come to a stop and you can hear the voices of the children: "Mistah!"

"Money, money."

In one stretch through a small city, a place that was the site of a nasty firefight just a few days earlier, about 80 children stand by the side of the road, holding up blue boxes of Iraqi cigarettes.

The Marines call it gasoline alley: Every time you go through there at night, you get filled up with lead.

But daylight brings out the children.

Four children are selling bottles of Pepsi, and a man is selling bottles of whiskey out of his coat.

A boy holds up a Playboy magazine, a gift, apparently, from an American soldier. The Marines laugh and shower him with candy as he flashes them pictures of pinups. "Smart kid," somebody says.

The Marines have been told not to give the children any food or water. It creates chaos, they have been told, because the children swarm the trucks. As the Marines say, if you give a child a bottle of water, there's no way to be sure he will be the one who gets to drink it.

But you can't help it.

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Westlake, of Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion, sees a tender little girl in a purple dress. Barefoot. Sad eyes. Dark hair. She looks like an angel, full of innocence.

He tosses her a piece of candy and it whizzes by her head. He feels bad but he is glad it didn't hit her.

He's a hard-charging Marine, an expert with just about every gun in the corps. And he never shows a soft side. Not until now.

The next day, Westlake sees the girl again, on the trip back south to Camp Viper, and he can't get her out of his head.

"How do I go about adopting an Iraqi?" he asks. "I could put her in my sea bag and take her home with me. She's just adorable."

A boy stands outside an empty brick building, about the size of a two-car garage. It doesn't have windows or a door, just a flat roof that bakes in the sunshine. He wears a brown shirt, torn at the bottom. He stands without moving, as a giant convoy of Marines goes past. He holds up his left thumb and smiles. I point at him and he smiles even harder.

Is he hungry?

Where are his parents?

What will become of him?

What will become of his country?

He's about 3 years old, with dark eyes and a big smile, just like my youngest child.

Our convoy keeps moving. Keeps pushing forward. The boy is long gone, but I keep thinking about him, wishing I could do something more.

We keep driving. Keep seeing more children. After a while, it gets so sad, so depressing, I can't look anymore. I can't even wave.


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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES-CHILDREN