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Dispatch from the 101st

Villagers wave, smile but fear retribution

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2003
Dispatch from the 101st

photoTimes staff writer Wes Allison has been attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He is living and traveling with the troops as they are deployed abroad.

Reports from a region in conflict

DASIM, Iraq -- This dusty town is typical of the villages around Najaf, a cluster of crumbling, flat-roofed adobe buildings and palm trees hugging the stream coursing through the center of town.

A dirt road leading in, a dirt road leading out. Women in black robes on their haunches, cleaning stainless steel cookware in the river water. Barefoot children kicking a soccer ball in a dirt field as hard as concrete.

The people here are Shiite Muslims, the dominant people of southern Iraq, and Saddam Hussein has been rough on Shiite Muslims. His photo is conspicuously absent here, and men and boys smiled and waved and clustered around the U.S. soldiers who entered town Sunday morning, offering their first glimpse of the invaders or the liberators, depending on whose side you're on.

The 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division entered this small town and another much like it near the holy city of Najaf, where the 101st is preparing attacks aimed at uprooting the fedayeen militants and the ruling Baath Party enforcers ensconced there.

They came with Kadhim Alwaeli, 30, of St. Louis, a staff sergeant in the Free Iraqi Force, an army of expatriates trained and outfitted by the U.S. military to help overthrow Hussein and establish a working government.

Local residents seemed genuinely happy to see them, but also indicated it would take more than friendly waves and cigarettes to persuade them to renounce Hussein, inform against his strongmen and provide other support.

America has let us down before, they said, and Hussein is hard to kill.

"They are very friendly, but they still can't trust us," Alwaeli said. "They can't believe it. Saddam Hussein is a survivor. . . . How many assassination attempts? How many wars? They have given up getting rid of Saddam Hussein."

In 1991, as Desert Storm was ending, President George Bush encouraged the Shiite Muslims to rise up against Hussein, a Suni Muslim. But those who did received virtually none of the promised support from the United States, and tens of thousands were killed or driven south to live under the protection of the U.S. and British air forces.

Alwaeli lost two brothers, but he escaped to Saudi Arabia and joined the Iraqi resistance. He hosted an anti-Hussein talk radio show broadcast from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, until the United States granted him asylum in 1993.

He became a U.S. citizen five years ago, and now works as a media consultant in St. Louis. He grew up near Najaf, and this is his first trip home since the last war. He longs to see his parents and remaining siblings.

Young men and boys crowded around Alwaeli and the nine well-armed U.S. soldiers with him as they strode into Dasim from the 2nd Battalion's encampment in a nearby uncultivated field.

They stopped at a medical clinic, a large but dismal adobe and brick building with broken windows and a crumbling concrete roof. A man in a Hugo Boss T-shirt answered the knock at the gate, and soon a tall, middle-aged man with tired eyes and a long white robe appeared. He is considered the town doctor, though not truly a medical doctor, and a man of some importance.

As 70 men and boys crowded around to listen, Alwaeli asked him about fedayeen and Baath Party officials in the area, and asked for support for U.S. troops. The doctor, in turn, complained, and asked for tangible U.S. help.

He told Alwaeli the residents need food and medicine, and Alwaeli promised to work with the military to get both. The electricity has been out since the attack began 10 days ago. The kids need soccer balls.

When Alwaeli pulled him out of earshot of the crowd, he was more forthcoming. Many residents -- himself included -- fear Hussein's "snitches" will turn in anyone who speaks against him or helps the Americans, he said.

A psychological operations unit traveling with the 2nd Battalion also got a friendly but guarded welcome from residents of another nearby town, Ja'arah. U.S. forces have gotten similar reactions from Shiites in other towns as well, commanders and civil affairs officers say.

They tell the U.S. soldiers, "The last time we crossed out (Hussein's) picture, shot bullet holes in his picture, you guys left and he came down and kicked the s--- out of us," said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, which is traveling with Alwaeli and an Arabic interpreter.

Sgt. Bill Stalnaker also said residents told the unit's interpreter that police and government officials left the towns when the war started and haven't returned.

They took him and the translator to the town post office to see a mosaic of Hussein, the only homage to the dictator in town.

Dasim is a farming town. It is obviously poor, but better off than the clusters of straw huts and dilapidated adobe homes farther from water and farther from Najaf.

Irrigation allows lush green wheat fields and spare patches of pasture for sheep in the arid land around it. But everything -- the buildings, the cars, the dirty curs sniffing for scraps at the road -- carries the red-brown patina of the desert dust that blows from where the canals don't go.

As the entourage left town, Alwaeli told the U.S. soldiers that he tried to explain to residents that the Americans are here to stay, but not as an occupying force or ruler.

"The point is we are here to help them, we are here to protect them, and this is not 1991," Alwaeli said. "They're so scared, and they still don't trust us."

Soon after he returned to camp, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move closer to Najaf. It had moved infantry into attack positions near Dasim on Saturday night, but the enemy had shifted, and now the unit was needed in an area where it expected to engage Iraqi troops.

American artillery and mortars shelled part of the city Sunday night. The 2nd Battalion's B Company, which is set closest to the city, took mortar and artillery fire but reported no injuries. The company also captured 15 Iraqis.

Most were members of the Special Republican Guard trying to escape the city, and had tried to disguise themselves by throwing robes over their desert camouflage uniforms, Hughes said.

"The idiots have their boots on, and you can see their DCU bottoms."

The new orders required the Americans to leave Dasim as abruptly as they arrived. The unit's translator drove the area with loudspeakers, explaining they simply were leaving the immediate area, but not the region. The battalion's officers also asked him to tell residents the Americans were trying to restore access to an important supply route to market.

"All we can say is we're here to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and you have to go a little piece a time," said Capt. Chris Hennigan, the intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry. "It's a slow process."

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