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101st Airborne sweeps into Baghdad among chanting, pressing crowds

BAGHDAD, Iraq—First came a trio of Apache helicopters, flying low with their guns trained on the ground. Then five Blackhawks, in a tight formation, dropped down and infantry soldiers filed out like a line of ants. Five more Blackhawks landed a few minutes later, with six following almost immediately afterward. The swarm continued a long while, dotting the sky with propellers and shadows.

The 101st Airborne Division had arrived in Baghdad.

The division's 2nd Brigade launched its calling card—the "air assault" of soldiers—into southwestern Baghdad on Friday, and spread out into the neighborhoods.

Other troops of the 101st drove trucks and armored Humvees into the city early Friday. 1st Lt. Tim Faulkner, who commands a platoon of the armored Humvees, looked around at the clusters of houses surrounding his unit and said, "There's no telling what we'll see."

As the troops were landing and rolling in, observers noted that the roadways were full of donkey carts and small trucks carrying gold leaf-embossed chairs and expensive sofas, presumably furnishings lifted from one of Saddam's palaces.

Passers-by waved white flags at the American troops from the backs of cars and tractors. The soldiers came from a staging area they'd set up Thursday night in a storage depot near the area of Nuwwar Salman to the south. They'd been steadily pushing north from Kuwait for the past couple of weeks, clearing out Iraqi military installations along the way.

The Humvees spent Friday morning scouting out landing zones for the helicopters and securing routes for the infantry to funnel into the neighborhood. When the caravan arrived, it rolled into a nearby town square. It was met by hundreds of people, lining the streets, who clapped and cheered.

Men yelled, "Welcome, welcome, mister," and young boys ran up, smiling, and gave high fives.

"It's not really how I expected it to be," said 1st Lt. Bill Reker. "I thought we'd come in guns blazing, meeting resistance."

Instead, they met chanting and clapping. Iraqis tried to trade dinars for dollars, and gave away bags of bread. It was like a movie set, where waves of extras screamed, "Mister, mister." The only explosions were made by U.S. soldiers detonating the mortars they found in buildings.

"I know the enemy's still out there," Reker said, "but he's not on every corner."

As night fell, the Humvee company made its camp in the courtyard of a girls' school. Children from nearby houses lifted themselves over the encircling wall and, for hours, repeated the words "money, money."

An inspection of the school revealed a large cache of ammunition, including AK-47 rounds and mortars.

By 9 p.m., as the 101st soldiers prepared to bed down, gunfire was heard from all directions in the adjoining neighborhoods. None of it was directed at the American troops, but it was difficult to know whether the shots were in celebration of the fall of Saddam Hussein or in defiance of the U.S. presence.

Spc. Antonio Gattis, a medic, patrolled the crowd, trying to keep it from sweeping into Army vehicles. A man offered to trade for Gattis' high school ring. Gattis refused, but the man continued to insist.

Although he was obviously tired of the routine, Gattis couldn't help but smile.

"I figured there'd be more fighting, but we got here and everything was all peaceful," Gattis said. "And that's a good thing."

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

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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