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Taking out the trash, to cheers, in Iraq

BAGHDAD—It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

After weeks of war, followed by more than a month without power and other essential services, much of this capital has begun to resemble giant garbage dumps. Street fronts and median strips are overflowing with huge accumulations of household rubbish, burned-out heavy equipment and, in some places, rubble from bombed buildings.

And none of it makes for a pretty sight.

So for the past week, the men of the U.S. Army's 535th Engineers Company have been pressed into service as sanitation engineers, charged with carting away as much of the mess as possible until regular garbage collection resumes, whenever that might be.

It's not exactly a glamorous job filled with glory. There are no medals for garbage duty.

"Unfortunately, it's not one of the more exciting missions we've had," said Sgt. Jeremy Thompson.

But residents love them for it, and hordes of schoolchildren gather around them to practice speaking English while their schools remain closed.

As the soldiers' 500-ton daily haul shows, trash collection is sorely needed in Baghdad.

"It's good that it's being taken away," said Kadhem M. Lazim, a teacher who lives near a lot full of rubbish in the west Baghdad district of Salam. "It's a bad smell."

Inside their 10-ton dump trucks, the soldiers keep their windows up to avoid the pungent odor of trash and swarms of flies. After a while, said driver Spec. Jathnael Taylor, "everything smells so bad, you're not as sensitive" to it.

On a recent day, the company's bucket loader filled six of its trucks with garbage eight times. The trucks then drove 15 minutes west to a landfill on the grounds of a former Iraqi military camp that still housed a surface-to-air missile launcher. The area was uninhabited, except for several dirt-poor families who live in straw huts there and were desperate enough to pick through the latest delivery of garbage.

There are empty cooking-oil cans, discarded shoes, eggshell cartons, tires, cigarette packages and yogurt cups. Last week, while clearing the lot, the soldiers found several mines and unexploded ordnance, Spec. Matt Dumais said, and Iraqis are worried that the creation of a dump at the site could create more problems. On Sunday, a group of schoolboys brought the police 20 large 70 mm rounds that they found in garbage piles in the lot.

"We worry about this," said Rabiah Rashid, who owns a food shop and delivery service in the area. "It's very bad. It's dangerous for the children."

Three military police units escort the company of engineers to waste sites to protect them from the ever-present risk of sniper fire.

It will probably fall to Iraqis to eventually remove the hundreds of shells of destroyed heavy equipment, including anti-aircraft guns, tanks and artillery launchers, that clutter their city streets. But as dump truck driver Taylor saw it, that might someday provide a booming business opportunity for enterprising Iraqis.

"Can you imagine how much money you could make from scrap metal here?" he said. "That'd be a very lucrative business here."


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

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