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With fingers crossed, soldiers await local transportation

NAJAF, Iraq—For weeks, Army Capt. Kathleen Jacobson has been dreaming about trucks: They do show up. They don't show up. There are camels instead of trucks. When there are trucks, the tires are flat.

At the Army's tactical support center, Bushmaster, in central Iraq, Jacobson's life has been trucks for two weeks—ever since she and Maj. Mark Stone contracted with four Iraqi middlemen to use local trucks to haul supplies for the 7th CSG, an Army corps and combat support group. The 7th CSG is moving about 1,000 soldiers and satellite dishes, tents, truck parts and tons of equipment—enough to feed and supply an Army—north of Baghdad.

To get from Kuwait to Bushmaster, the 7th CSG used humvees and huge Army tractor-trailers, dull green and beige vehicles that traveled in convoys. But almost all of these trucks left with other units, which meant 7th CSG was stuck in the desert, all packed up with no way to go.

So Stone and his assistant, Jacobson, gingerly suggested to 7th CSG Commander John P. Gardner, a no-nonsense colonel who likes to play strictly by the book, that they hire locals to transport their stuff. Gardner was hesitant but said yes. Then, the real headaches began.

Each Iraqi middleman wanted the entire contract. Jacobson and Stone, however, had to share the wealth and hire several contractors, who controlled 40 trucks making repeated runs.

Each contractor complained about the others.

Then, the captain and the major had to write the contracts ever-so-carefully: The drivers would provide water for bathing before prayers. They would be allowed time to pray. They could take family members. They would have 12 hours on and 12 hours off.

The soldiers could not frisk them or point guns at them. Soldiers had to address them with respect and be polite to them. And on and on.

The contracts, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, were written over and over. The arguing among contractors continued. Jacobson had truck nightmares. Stone got increasingly quiet. At briefings Gardner asked: Would the trucks show up? Would they make the long haul across Iraq without breaking down? Would it all go smoothly?

Definitely, said Stone and Jacobson, although they had no idea.

Jacobson hired translators and met with the contractors over and over. Until judgment day: Monday. The night before, she didn't sleep. Stone didn't want to get out of his cot at daybreak because he was so afraid the plan would fail.

But he and Jacobson drove their humvee five miles to where the trucks were supposed to be. They held their breath. They joked about getting fired from the Army. And they squinted into the distant sand dunes.

There, on the horizon, like an oasis were—trucks. A caravan of long trucks that stretched as far as the eye could see. At least 40 huge trucks. Not just any trucks—certainly not dull Army trucks. But multicolored green and blue and red trucks, with painted mosaic designs and red velvet curtains hanging in the windshields. Blue and yellow and red light bulbs studding the cabs. Trucks with jingles, tassels and fake jewels glued on the sides.

But they were trucks, and they worked. Stone and Jacobson cheered. Then, they walked a half-mile to inspect the trucks, waving at the drivers and their families in each one. Ignoring the plastic pitchers hanging from the hydraulic systems, the mattresses tied to the top of the cabs, the posters of women in hejabs on the backs. As they walked, it started to rain—an unexpected blessing that brought the drivers out of the trucks, cheering.

The sun was out. The rain poured. A rainbow appeared. But Jacobson and Stone were so dazzled by the trucks and the covenant kept that they hardly even noticed.

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

Iraq

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