Sunday 30 March 2003
Iraqi civilians fleeing heavy fighting have stunned and delighted hungry US marines in central Iraq by giving them food, as guerrilla attacks continue to disrupt coalition supply lines to the rear.
Sergeant Kenneth Wilson said Arabic-speaking US troops made contact with two busloads of Iraqis fleeing south along Route Seven towards Rafit, one of the first friendly meetings with local people for the marines around here.
"They had slaughtered lambs and chickens and boiled eggs and potatoes for their journey out of the frontlines," Wilson said.
At one camp, the buses stopped and women passed out food to the troops, who have had to ration their army-issue packets of ready-to-eat meals due to disruptions to supply lines by fierce fighting further south.
Civilians have remained largely out of sight since the invasion began 10 days ago. Towns and villages are virtually deserted, prompting speculation that most had shifted to safer ground before the fighting began.
Corpsman Tony Garcia said the food donation was an act of appreciation for the American effort to topple the brutal regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"They gave us eggs and potatoes to feed our marines and corpsmen. I feel the local population are grateful and they want to see an end to Saddam Hussein," he said.
"It was a lovely, beautiful gesture."
Khairi Ilrekibi, 35, a passenger on one of the buses, which broke down near the marine position, said he could speak for the 20 others on board.
In broken English he told a correspondent travelling with the marines: "We like Americans," adding that no one liked Saddam Hussein because "he was not kind."
He said Iraqi civilians living near him were opposed to Saddam Hussein and that most were hiding in their homes and were extremely tired.
Lance Corporal David Polikowsky stood guard over 70 POWS near the broken down bus, saying how grateful he was for food cooked and donated by locals, which included oranges.
Looking on warily at the POWS he was guarding, who included two Jordanians, as well as an Iraqi colonel, captain, major and second lieutenant from special forces and the regular army, he said he had been moved by comments from local civilians.
He said they told him: "We welcome you. What is your name? We will pray for you."
He said another group of POWS, largely conscripts, had been moved south.
"They told me they wanted to go to America after the war. I said where. They said California. I said why? They said the song Hotel California and they left singing Hotel California."
Soldiers with this marine division -- on the east of a two-pronged thrust toward Baghdad -- have seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war so far.
They battled their way through heavy fire at Nasiriyah, Sharat and Rafit before pausing to resupply within 250 kilometres (180 miles) of Baghdad on Thursday.
Prisoners have been taken and pockets of displaced people carrying white flags have been seen along the way. Some have waved, others have asked the marines for cigarettes and water.
But US troops have been keeping a wary distance from civilians, mindful of reports that some Iraqi forces were mingling with civilians in order to drift through American lines and launch surprise attacks.
Ambushes and harassing fire along the massive communications lines to Kuwait in the south have caused casualties and disrupted supplies of water, food and fuel to the frontline troops.
Garcia and Wilson are attached to a Shock Trauma Platoon with the Marine Expeditionary Force and have treated about 20 civilians for war-related wounds in the past five days.
As troops munched on their feast, one medic warned the food could have been deliberately contaminated.
He was quickly disregarded as the hungry marines forged ahead to make a fondue out of a donated tin of Australian processed cheese, but the potatoes were eaten before the cheese could melt.
"Man I never thought a boiled egg could taste so damn good," one burly marine observed.
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