View Full Version : Friendship Develops With Iraqis, Troops

07-12-03, 07:10 AM
Jul 11, 2:23 AM EDT

Friendship Develops With Iraqis, Troops

Associated Press Writer

KARBALA, Iraq (AP) -- Toddler Hiyam Kadhem couldn't contain her excitement when she spotted Robert Garcia entering the compound. Flashing a big smile, the 18-month-old Iraqi girl ran to the Marine officer and threw herself into his arms.

Safe in his embrace and with a disarming laugh, she playfully removed his camouflage hat and placed it on her own tiny head.

Hiyam, her five siblings and parents have found themselves in a peculiar situation. Their apartment in an abandoned school sits in the middle of a U.S. Marine base.

"She is my favorite," Garcia, of Paterson, N.J., said of Hiyam, a bubbly child with curly hair and a ready smile. "She is the most gregarious of them all and that's why she is my favorite."

In an Iraq where encounters between ordinary people and American soldiers are increasingly fraught with tension and suspicion, Hiyam and her family are a rare example of a close relationship between Iraqis and U.S. occupation forces.

When the Marines moved into the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala in April, they decided to make the school their base. Hiyam's father Kadhem Abdel-Hussein pleaded with the commander to be allowed to stay, and he agreed. Now, the family shares the grounds with about 180 U.S. Marines.

It is a situation that is not without its dangers in a country where people perceived as close to Americans - or those who talk to them regularly - are viewed with suspicion.

For the time being, however, Abdel-Hussein and his wife know they are safe in the company of the Marines. Unlike most of their countrymen, they say they dread the day the Americans pack up and leave.

"God willing, they will stay here forever," Abdel-Hussein's wife, Hasna, said as she breast-fed Hiyam. "They treat us well."

Abdel-Hussein said some people in the city had threatened him and warned they would "teach me a lesson" for his close ties to the Americans.

But he said he and his wife are better off than they were before the troops came. The Marines pay them each $4 a day to clean the base, a windfall for Abdel-Hussein, who made just $3 a month as a guard at the school before the war.

"We weren't able to eat meat but now my financial status is better. Thank God, we eat the best food," Abdel-Hussein said as he sat on the floor of his small room, smoking a cigarette and drinking tea. "Everyday the Marines come to our house and sometimes they eat with us."

Abdel-Hussein said his four daughters and two sons are spoiled by the troops, who bought a bicycle for every child and constantly give them sweets. The kids love it.

"I love the Americans because they always play with us, buy us gifts, sweets and bicycles," said Zeinab, 11. "If they ever leave, I will be bored."

As the weather cools down a bit late in the afternoon in Iraq's baking summer, the children go out to the school's ball field to ride their bicycles, or play soccer and volleyball with the troops.

Abdel-Hussein's son, Zeid, 7, said a U.S. Marine once asked him if he would exchange his bicycle for a military vehicle.

"I said no," Zeid said confidently as he rode his bicycle in the playground.

Lance Cpl. Michael Cowles, of Omaha, Neb., said the Marines also enjoy the unusual relationship.

"It has benefited the American forces here because now the Americans live and work intimately with Iraqis. ... We feel we are family with them," he said.

For the Marines' top commander in Karbala, who also lives on the base, the family is a temporary replacement to loved ones the troops left behind.

"The family has been adopted by the entire unit here. I think a lot of the Marines miss their own kids and miss their own families and this family has really acted as a surrogate family for the Marines," said Mathew Lopez of Chicago.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.