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Soldiers march amid a smiling peril

Published April 3, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq - It was the kind of situation that unnerves cops and soldiers alike, especially when the crowd doesn't understand English. Gobs of people pressing against their lines, reaching for their hands, flashing the thumbs up.

A friendly, curious crowd in which armed enemy fighters or Iraqi spies were most certainly taking cover.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division began Wednesday morning by marching through the narrow streets of this ancient holy city, day three of an aggressive campaign to wrest it from Islamic militants and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party officials who have ruled by fear for years.

Now it was time to convince the locals that they were safe.

Thousands of citizens of Najaf had come to watch the Americans, seemingly unconcerned by the bombs and artillery shells landing nearby, and they became more emboldened by the hour.

Tentative at dawn turned to curious by 8 a.m. to downright chummy by 10 a.m.

"If this doesn't tighten your a-- up, I don't know what does," said Sgt. Brandon Neal, 29, of Gainesville, Texas, his rifle at ready as he looked at the crowds.

Telling friend from foe would be near impossible, and he was standing just a couple hundred yards from a bombed out building near the mosque where U.S. forces had engaged the enemy several times before.

As they moved out in two single-file lines on either side of the street, with the vehicles in the middle, soldiers of B Company were having trouble keeping the residents from crossing their lines.

Old and young alike reached out to touch them, shouting "good" and "thank you" and "welcome."

Boys darted in and out of the twin columns, and small groups inserted themselves between platoons. The soldiers tried to shoo them away while scanning the rooftops, doorways and intersections for snipers or suicide bombers. They were sweating profusely in their chemical suits. It was going to be a long walk.

That's when it started: A melodic chant from the loudspeaker mounted on the Humvee driven by an Army civil affairs unit. It was a common Arabic song every child learns and every adult knows.

Children began clapping their hands and the adults laughed. The interpreter called. They answered. They fell back from the soldiers and listened to him as the convoy crawled through the dirt streets, passing barefoot children, women in black veils, and men with sport coats over their gray and brown robes.

"Can I get your attention?" Kadhim Al-Waeli, a staff sergeant in the Free Iraqi Force traveling with the 2nd Battalion, called in Arabic.

Al-Waeli, 30, who settled in St. Louis after escaping Iraq 12 years ago, filled his message with praise for Mohammed, assurances that Saddam Hussein's power is slipping and that the U.S. troops are Baghdad bound. They can take back their town. Everyone seemed to relax.

"Can I get your attention," Al-Waeli called through the loudspeaker.

The crowd called back: "Let's get it on."

Soldiers had no clue the message but they appreciated the effect. The literal translation to this call and response doesn't quite do justice to the meaning. Al-Waeli compared it instead to the familiar Southern Baptist cant, "Can I have a witness?"

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