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Iraqi heat wave kills, withers U.S. soldiers

BAGHDAD—An oft-repeated bit of local wisdom replaces the weather forecast this time of year in Iraq:

The first 10 days of August melt doorknobs, the saying goes. The second 10 days brown the dates on palm trees. The third 10 days, finally, open the door to winter.

"Well, that third 10 days needs to hurry up and come," said U.S. Army Sgt. Frederick Wilson, his face shiny with sweat at a checkpoint in Baghdad on Sunday. "It seemed like on the first of August, someone hit a switch."

Temperatures rose to a scorching 135 degrees across Iraq last week, causing a U.S. soldier's death Saturday of heat-related complications and sending dozens more to seek emergency treatment for dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke, military officials said.

Troops who sweat rivers underneath 30 pounds of body armor and equipment reluctantly rose from under palm trees to search people at checkpoints Sunday. Some sported blisters from the ever-present tubes that snake from their mouths to backpack water bottles.

"Captain Stinky" and "Nasty Boy" are nicknames earned by soldiers who forget deodorant before heading out on daytime patrols. On August nights, soldiers said, they peel off their uniforms to find layers of salt on their bodies from evaporated sweat. Then they gather to watch satellite news of the heat wave across Europe and laugh at Parisians complaining of a comparatively brisk 95 degrees.

Maj. William Thurmond, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, could confirm only one heat-related death of a soldier this month, though there have been reports of at least two others. The soldier who died Saturday was attached to the 3rd Corps Support Command and collapsed of apparent heat stress while riding in convoy north of Addiwaniyah, in southern Iraq, according to the military.

"We've had others with heat cramps and heatstroke," Thurmond said. "Temperature is definitely a factor sometimes, but some guys just overheat from sheer exertion."

Sgt. Johnny Lee Ferree's aunt from Oklahoma caused a minor riot in the 1st Armored Division last week when she mailed her nephew in Baghdad a pack of instant cooling compresses. So many soldiers wanted one, Ferree said, he made them pick numbers between one and 100 as a diplomatic way of doling them out. A soldier who didn't choose a lucky number still grumbled Saturday about being "robbed."

"This heat just slows you down," Ferree said. "You make one fast move and you just start gushing sweat."

Pvt. Kyle Chittenden left his home in Georgia last winter and first stopped at a base in Germany. He then flew to Kuwait for 17 days of acclimatization, which the military requires for troops deployed in extreme heat. But a couple of weeks in balmy Kuwait did little to prepare him for the blistering sun over Iraq, he said.

According to the local proverb about August, Chittenden figured, he had 10 days down, 10 to go before cooler weather.

"I can't wait," he said. "But as long as we've got cold water, we'll be OK."

Even Iraqis, whose art and literature is infused with thousands of years of desert life, said they never really adjust to August. Ice cream cones turn to puddles in seconds, door handles burn fingertips and mothers shield babies under their traditional black robes. The highways are littered with overheated cars and pieces of rubber from blown-out tires, while the lines are long at mechanic's shops. Families wealthy enough to afford air conditioners can't use them most of the time because of widespread power outages.

"We are used to this hot weather, but the Americans can't endure it," said Eman Hassan, at a popular Baghdad ice-cream shop Sunday with her daughters. "I wish I could give them tips on how to deal with it, but I can't. You have to be Iraqi to survive here at this time of year."

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

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

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