Latest News

U.S. soldiers facing many challenges as peacekeepers

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Each morning Iraqi men wait in a dusty street and desperately wave their identity cards, hoping they'll be chosen to clean the presidential palace where American officials are planning the reconstruction of Iraq.

After a representative from Kellogg, Brown & Root, an engineering and construction unit of the Houston-based Halliburton Co., chooses the day's laborers, Staff Sgt. David Denson of Columbus, Ohio, has to turn away 100 to 300 others. He sometimes faces a near-riot of people who need the $2-a-day jobs, just barely enough to survive.

As America's swift military victory has turned into a combination of police work, humanitarian relief, civil engineering and nation-building, Denson and tens of thousands of other U.S. soldiers are facing much greater and more varied challenges than they and their superiors in Washington anticipated.

Iraqis are turning to American forces to fix electricity shortages, revive the legal system, hand out food and medical supplies, vet political candidates, keep hard-line Shiite clerics at bay and root out senior Baath Party members. Some senior U.S. officials are increasingly worried that the heavy armored units that won the war may be ill-suited to winning the peace.

"Back up! Back up!" Denson shouted one recent day, removing the more persistent would-be workers by grabbing them firmly by their arms. "It's over. There are no more jobs today."

"It breaks my heart when they leave pissed off with me. These guys have families and they were making a living before we came over and fought against their country," said Denson, a tank commander with Bravo Company and the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga. "I never imagined this. I'm a tanker. My mission is to seek and destroy. I'm not used to this humanitarian stuff."

American soldiers still roar through Baghdad on tanks with "Come and Get Some" emblazoned on their turrets. They take machine-gun fire at night and come under attack from rocket-propelled grenades. But they also are playing the guitar for Iraqi children, handing out jobs and emergency monthly payments, evicting looters and protecting squatters.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm doing a policeman's job, and I'm an infantryman," Pfc. Clayton Harper, 21, of Hurricane, W.Va., a member of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 3-15 Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, said as he tried to settle a neighborhood dispute during a routine patrol behind al Yarmouk Hospital.

At the hospital, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Shirley of Hinesville, Ga., also with Alpha Company out of Fort Stewart, Ga., thought he would mainly be chasing looters. Instead, he was cultivating hospital sources in the quiet of the night in order to uncover employees who were stealing medicine, threatening co-workers for cooperating with the Americans and siphoning off the hospital's fuel supply.

In his first week at the hospital, Shirley had to evict members of al Hawza, an influential Shiite religious group, who had taken over the hospital's administration and, he said, were paying doctors to turn away patients who weren't devout Shiites.

Then he had to deal with people with knives and guns who were posing as relatives and coming into the hospital to kill patients to settle long-standing feuds. Then there was the assistant pharmacist in the emergency department who was caught with 35 bottles of cough syrup in his pants and heartburn medicine in his pockets.

"We thought when we got here it would be a routine `sit around and watch for looters' thing. It has been anything but that," Shirley said. "I'm just a regular infantryman, and they came and said, `We need you to investigate the hospital.'"

Iraqis have criticized the American forces in general and the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in particular as not doing enough to stem looting, carjackings, kidnappings and assaults. But in Baghdad, the American military is managing allies and fighting enemies under difficult conditions.

"The problem is you don't know who's a friend, who's an enemy," said Mohamed S. Ali, 24, of Miami, a National Guard reservist attached to Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 124 Infantry, who is helping to provide security for ORHA at the Republican Palace.

"They have a lot of people cleaning the palace, and from what you can tell a majority of them were Iraqi soldiers in the past. Maybe they do like you, maybe they don't," said Ali, who's an emergency room medic back home at Miami Children's Hospital. "Maybe they want a job; maybe they want a better life. But you still don't know; maybe they're out to get you."

Many Iraqi workers single out Ali for conversation because of his name.

"We try to keep it professional," he said. "Too much interacting might get our guards down and might push their limits to thinking what they could do."

Like many other soldiers, Ali feels the strain of being away from his family and job. He left behind a leaky roof, a 4-year-old son and a wife who works long hospital shifts.

"We have a roof over our heads, we're not living in sandstorms and we have showers," said Nelson Rodriguez, 27, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., another National Guard soldier guarding ORHA and the Republican Palace. "But at the same time it's hard, because it's tedious. Day in, day out, the same security mission. But you can't become lackadaisical because once you do, there will be something to worry about."

"We'll do whatever mission they give us to do, but you're thinking about all these things back home, you're thinking about your career, your family, your loved ones and you don't have a date to go home," said Rodriguez, whose regular job is as a fund-raiser for firefighters and police in Broward and Dade counties. "That's the first thing they ask you, when are you coming home, and you don't know."


(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-soldiers