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thedrifter
04-16-03, 08:10 AM
Camping in the City: Troops Rough It in Baghdad
Wed April 16, 2003 07:23 AM ET


By Matthew Green
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Imagine a camping trip...in a parking lot. In a city. In a war zone. A week after entering Baghdad, the typical U.S. Marine lives life in the city much as he did in the desert.

His food comes in packets, sleep is grabbed on the ground, and the threat of attack has not gone away. Officers fear Saddam Hussein loyalists are waiting for them to lower their guard.

"The enemy, who's patient, and has all the time in the world now, will see that weak link," said Lieutenant Colonel Jim Chartier, briefing officers of the First Tank Battalion.

"Death here in Baghdad is not more than 400 meters away."

Troops still wear their armored vests and Kevlar helmets, rifles swinging by their sides wherever they go, though they have changed out of sweaty chemical warfare suits.

Local cuisine is not even discussed. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) -- 24 varieties of pre-cooked dishes with crackers included in every one -- shipped from factories in Texas, South Carolina, Indiana and Ohio.

Marines -- and correspondents like this one still attached to U.S. military units -- sleep on their vehicles, in tents, or on foam mats on the concrete. Just like in the desert, nights twinkle with stars. War switched off the lights in Baghdad and they have not yet been put back on.

TIME TO MOVE ON

Organized as a "force in readiness" for swift overseas operations, the Marines are itching to move -- keen to hand over their patrolling duties to the U.S. Army and return home to wives, relatives, and that long dreamt of beer.

"While we're here we're going to try to do some good, but it's not our job," said Corporal Adam Malik, 23, patrolling a residential street. "The only time we stay in one place is when we're getting ready to attack something."

Marines, occupying Baghdad east of the Tigris river, say they are due to head south for duties elsewhere in Iraq in the next few days but the homecoming parade back in the United States still seems a long way off.

So far, toilet facilities have not improved much. Marines gathered around the Martyrs' Monument -- a memorial to the dead of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war -- use rows of bushes, although some have sunk pit latrines.

Officers describe proper hygiene as "mission critical" -- but creature comforts in Baghdad are not a priority.

"We're not here to make ourselves comfortable," said Major Michael Purcell, 32. "We're here to get the job done."

At least you can now have a hot shower. Chemical warfare experts have turned gear for cleansing contaminated tanks into an outdoor unit for spraying down grimy Marines.

SO NEAR, YET SO FAR

Perhaps the biggest difference with life on the road is that the luxuries of civilization now seem tantalizingly close.

Cars sweep down a highway passing an assembly point for Marine tanks -- whisking people living something closer to a normal life to their homes and entertaining off-duty troops.

"In the desert you get bored, the same old people," said Private First Class Landon Moore, 20, chewing on a dried meat treat from MRE No. 1 -- "Grilled Beefsteak."

"Here you get people driving by every day, shouting at us and different stuff," he said, seated on an armored vehicle.

Marines have met many more Iraqis than before they arrived in Baghdad. Some have offered them glasses of tea while their children clamor for autographs. Others have shot at them.

The hotels of downtown Baghdad are only about three miles to the west, but for troops in suburban bases, they might as well be on another planet.

A mobile PX -- the military store -- arrived on a truck on Tuesday for their first chance to spend money since they crossed into Iraq.

It sold American cigarettes, olive green T-shirts, energy drinks from home, baby wipes for scrubbing away dirt, tins of chewing tobacco...and not a great deal else.

Other forms of stimulation are harder to come by.

A well-thumbed copy of a pictorial magazine popular with some Marines has disappeared from its hiding hole in Amphibious Assault Vehicle No. 7. Nobody seems to know where it is.

Sempers,

Roger