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U.S. troops celebrate Christian holy day in Muslim city

BAGHDAD—There were no chocolate bunnies, jelly beans or cream-filled eggs to mark Easter at Baghdad International Airport Sunday, just simple early morning religious services in a hangar and a terminal gate, followed by a hot meal.

Like dozens of military troops across newly liberated Iraq, hundreds of Army soldiers still feeling the fatigue of recently concluded battles gathered at services here, sang hymns and offered prayers for their fallen comrades. Many of the U.S. Army's 200 chaplains accompanying troops in the country led similar services, according to V Corps chaplain Col. Douglas L. Carver.

But the irony of American forces holding Sunday services to celebrate one of the most important Christian holidays in a predominantly Muslim world capital was not lost on Carver or his worshipers during the Protestant service in the waiting area of Gate D41 at the airport, formerly called Saddam International Airport.

"It's unbelievable," the chaplain said. "Here we are, celebrating right in the middle of the Islamic world, preaching Jesus Christ."

And in northern Kuwait, the scene was similar for U.S. troops waiting to continue their assignments and enter Iraq.

In the desert encampment of 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, the chaplain leading the service asked each soldier to say why he was thankful.

When it was Maj. William Walski's turn, he said: "Five hundred and seventy-three soldiers—573 soldiers still alive and healthy."

The tank unit, based at Fort Riley, Kan., has been training and preparing in the harsh conditions for two weeks. The soldiers are eager to move into Iraq and put their tanks to use for whatever assignment they get. For many soldiers, the wait is frustrating.

Still, they found reasons to be thankful. For Easter dinner, they got steak and lobster on a Styrofoam plate, a can each of non-alcoholic malt beverage and hard candy, trucked in from an Army kitchen a few miles away. The steak was tough, and the lobster lacked butter. Still, it was steak and lobster.

Spc. Roberto Coto had his own reason for being thankful. He learned that on Saturday, his wife, Taneika, gave birth to a son, Alex, who weighed 8 pounds.

Coto, a 24-year-old tank loader from Houston, called the birth his "Easter present."

"Can't wait to meet him," he said.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+EASTER