Warm reception for Marines as they cross Iraqi desert


WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Iraq - Men, women and children ran from their mud-brick houses, and from their fields and flocks of sheep and stood beside a highway in southeastern Iraq yesterday waving their hands wildly, making peace signs and grabbing their empty bellies, begging for something to eat.

This was the greeting members of the U.S. Marines Corps received as they rumbled in a long convoy of assault vehicles and Humvees deeper into Iraq during the third full day of the American offensive to end the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

"I started throwing out dollar bills," said Cpl. Daniel A. Lewis, 23, of Pensacola, Fla., a turret gunner on the amphibious assault vehicle. "But they looked at them like they didn't know what they were."

Lewis was one of hundreds of Marines in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment who poked their heads out of their armored vehicles, offering smiles, peace signs and thumbs up to Iraqi villagers. A few Marines tossed down ready-to-eat military meal packets, cigarettes and cash. Other Marines pulled out cameras to record the moment.

"Knowing that when you go home you can look back at the good times like this. You actually helped people. It makes you feel good," Lewis said.

Elderly Iraqi men and women dressed in long white and black robes countered by blowing kisses to the Marines. Young men put their fingers to their lips as if they were smoking, asking for cigarettes. Children ran alongside the dusty convoy stretching out their hands, begging the visitors for more of anything they could offer.

Many Marines have expressed concerns in recent weeks that the Iraqi people may view them as an enemy to be feared, not welcomed. Those concerns were put to rest yesterday for members of this battalion, at least along this stretch of road.

"When you come into a place like Iraq you don't expect people to be giving you the peace sign. It was a nice surprise. Things like that make your day," said Lance Cpl. Cody Maynard, 19, of Carlton, Ore. "When we saw the Bedouins, we thought they were going to split and take off running."

Instead the people living on this vast plain sprung to their feet and ran toward the military vehicles.

What these people knew about this war in this relatively empty swath of Iraq is unclear. The people the Marines met live in mud-brick homes where they grow tidy rows of crops in a desert climate.

Some people chased sheep by the side of the road. Others rode bicycles, which they stopped to observe what at first glance could be a terrifying sight, a long convoy of combat machinery that stirred up a storm of sand and dust.

But these villagers at least did not look afraid. If anything they might have been a little confused, not knowing the best way to greet the Americans. They waved, then taking a cue from the Marines, tried to imitate the thumbs-up sign.

The Marines savored the brief exchange. It was their first real encounter with Iraqis since crossing the border early Friday. Until yesterday, members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment had seen several Bedouins and rounded up some Iraqi soldiers who surrendered. But they otherwise have had more contact with the harsh landscape than with the people.

These Marines woke up at 3 a.m. yesterday to the news that Baghdad had been targeted by intense bombing, that their fellow Marines had forced the surrender of Iraqi troops and that U.S. forces were moving forward more quickly than expected.

From their vantage of the war, however, all was comparatively quiet. A stray dog wandered across the defensive lines, moving from foxhole to foxhole looking for food. Several oil well fires, the handiwork of Iraqi efforts to slow the invasion, burned through the night. Far off in the distance the sound of U.S. and British artillery fire could be heard.

The men of India Company wondered about the nature of the war. Their first days in Iraq have been slow, if not boring. They had expected more resistance from the Iraqi military. Dull seemed good, even excellent, but not what they had anticipated.

"I thought this was going to be a whole big battle," said Pfc. Clinton St. Clair, 18, from Springfield, Ore. "This place is boring."

Lance Cpl. Marcco Ware, 20, of Los Angeles agreed. "It really doesn't feel much different than being in Kuwait, although I know there is a threat here," he said as he sat in a foxhole yesterday morning after a sleepless night standing guard.

But unlike his foxhole neighbor, Ware didn't wish for battle.

"Just so long as we liberate the Iraq people, I'm fine," he said. "If it doesn't take one round of bullets to do it, then so be it."

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