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thedrifter
04-05-03, 07:58 PM
By MICHAEL WILSON


WITH MARINE TASK FORCE TARAWA, Outside Ash Shumali, Iraq, April 5 The new mission is about as romantic and swaggering as it sounds: protecting the rear. Maintaining lines of communication. Some day, as cold adult beverages back home apply a shiny coat of historical varnish, this day may be recalled differently. Today, it can only be survived, the hours marked not by minutes but by mosquitoes slapped dead on pink necks.

Wars are fought with guns, but won with the roads behind them, the crucial lines of ammunition and food and fuel. The artillery unit of the Marine Task Force Tarawa, thick in Nasiriya combat two weeks ago, is now playing traffic cop along Highway 1, which leads to Baghdad, and a connector road that does not even have a name.

"They told me last night, `Watch the road,' " said Lance Cpl. John W. Skinner, 21, of Alpine, Tex. He did, night-vision goggles strapped above his new mustache, and saw nothing before his watch ended. Not much to talk about over Skittles with the boys the next day. "Who wants to watch a road?" he said.

The roads are roughly near the rear units of the First Marine Division, advancing toward Baghdad and a long distant memory here, where only the litter of spent meals-ready-to-eat pouches on the roadside show they ever passed through. The artillery battalion set up yesterday in a presumably once-fertile pocket of the Fertile Crescent, long gone dry. The town of Ash Shumali is across the street.

The marines' new neighbors greeted their arrival with dozens of boys and men along the side of the road holding out packs of cigarettes and shouting "One dollar! One dollar!" Others, recognizing the American love of the souvenir, traded Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein's face in the middle for American dollars. There was no set exchange rate: any dead president got a marine an etching of one who may be dead, but no one is sure yet.

By the time the convoy had passed, about a dozen Iraqi men had lost interest, huddled over a pornographic magazine tossed down by a marine. One man looked up smiling and gave a thumbs-up.

Before bed, marines took extra caution securing their gear, wary of light-footed intruders. There are few complaints about the camp, which is rather bucolic, with its sprinkling of palm trees.

Nightfall brought cooler temperatures and a mystery: explosions in the distance that the artillerymen did not cause. Someone, presumably Iraqis, fired artillery in the general direction of marine infantry units near Ash Shumali. They hit no one, but they caused a stir at the artillery command center because they went undetected on radar, suggesting they were fired from far away. A patrol crew was expected to inspect the points of impact today, and by the shape of the crater to get a rough idea of where the fire came from.

Perhaps in response to the shelling, Super Cobra helicopter gunships circled the town regularly today. "They've circled a lot longer than they normally would," said Lt. Col. Glenn Starnes, commanding officer of the artillery battalion, peering up through the camouflage netting that provided the only shade here. Marine patrols discovered several caches of Iraqi weapons and ammunition.

It is as hot as any man here has been since last summer, over 100 degrees. The battalion's surgeon, Lt. Jonathan Eckstein, 30, of New York, had to remind marines to drink water after he himself was suddenly seeing spots.

"I drank four bottles, and even then I didn't feel better until this morning," he said. The marines have backed off their "MOPP 1" level of chemical gear, laying aside the bulky coat and, when seated, rolling up the pants to the knee. "MOPP one-quarter," said Warrant Officer Elijah Ring, 29, of Jay, Me., the battalion's chemical-attack protection expert. His nickname is "Gas."

Even the Bible readings at this morning's prayer service in the sand seemed to stress pause and introspection. "We still have some enemies to deal with," said Lt. Kevin C. Norton, 34, of Alexandria, Va., the battalion's chaplain. "Enemies. The truth be told, a lot of our enemies are not up north. A lot of our enemies are here, in the heart."

Removed from the regimental command center and its communications antennae, officer and private alike relied on a handful of short-wave radios for the hourly BBC updates. They sat still as, some 70 miles away, reporters described the feats of the soldiers and marines and pilots slowly ringing the capital.

There is a desire to be there, in the fight, but the heat is sapping even that. "If we get home quicker, let's do this," Corporal Skinner said. "If getting us to Baghdad gets us home earlier, let's do that."

Lt. Col. Starnes, a man not known among his officers for extraordinary patience, said the unit should resign itself to the possibility of an open-ended, peaceful stay, for now. "We know our lot in life," he said. "We're rear support, we're not front line. We had our fight in Nasiriya."

Last night he noticed a couple of marines horsing around in the sand, wrestling, restless, hours before the mysterious artillery rounds fell. "Maybe those rounds last night were good," he said. "They'll keep people on edge. We can't relax too.

Sempers,

Roger