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Balancing Act Begins for U.S. Forces

April 10, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Horns honked, men waved, children surged forward for hugs. Smiles and upturned thumbs appeared everywhere. Said one U.S. Marine: ``I’ve got marriage proposals already.″

But there was the other side, too, personified by Sama Samira, a 21-year-old college student arguing with U.S. troops at a barricade and blaming them for chaos and looting. ``We need freedom, but not from your country,″ she said. ``This makes us very miserable.″

For U.S. forces in Baghdad, Thursday marked the start of a balancing act. Some made friends, most tried to avoid making enemies and others just stared at Iraqis trying to process the new American arrivals.

A top priority was preventing attacks from people who appeared to be civilians: Four Marines were wounded Thursday night when an apparent suicide attacker detonated explosives at a U.S. checkpoint in central Baghdad.

Despite that, the day had been filled with less menacing encounters. Outside the Iraqi Interior Ministry, cars zipped by and drivers honked horns and waved to Marine combat engineers on guard duty outside.

``My thumb is getting tired,″ said Kurt Gellert, 27, a Marine from Atlantic City, N.J., who was standing guard at the compound. ``It’s actually pretty cool. It’s like all this was worth something now.″

Gellert, who reported marriage proposals from a few flirtatious Iraqi women, also said he received invitations from passers-by to visit their houses and use the telephone to call home. ``That,″ he said, ``was tempting.″

Many reported similar encounters.

``The people have been great, real friendly, offering us food and a place to stay,″ said Pfc. Desmond Lackey of Jay, Okla. And some Iraqis have already begun selling items, such as cigarettes, to U.S. soldiers.

But at one bridge over the Tigris River, U.S. troops have fired warning shots at civilians trying to cross. Soldiers remain concerned about suicide attackers and fighters mixing with civilians and sneaking up on American troops.

At several locations, Iraqis and American troops spent most of Thursday talking and eyeing one another across hastily erected barriers of concertina wire and sandbags.

Most of the troops with A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment recently returned from a tour in Kosovo and felt comfortable talking to civilians near the barricades.

``Think of it as Kosovo on steroids,″ Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings counseled one soldier. ``Only there are guys out there with RPGs who may try to kill us.″

At some checkpoints, Iraqis are waving at Americans and pointing at their stomachs, saying ``Hungry! Hungry!″ and begging for food and water.

Language, too, is presenting a challenge.

Forces from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines were trolling Baghdad on Thursday to find translators, hiring English speakers off the street.

Lt. Dave Fleming, platoon commander of Kilo company of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, said the entire battalion had only two translators at its disposal.

The shortage of translators has caused difficulties throughout the entire march from Kuwait, with Marines at checkpoints yelling at people telling them to stop or go home, and confused Iraqis struggling to understand.

On Wednesday night, at one checkpoint, an Iraqi man drove on a motorcycle. Marines screamed at him to stop, which he did _ about 30 feet in front of them.

They yelled at him to turn around, a command he clearly couldn’t understand. Finally, one Marine sitting atop a Humvee took out his 9 mm pistol and fired a warning shot into the ground. The man yelped in fear, spun around and rode off.

``The only thing that I could do to tell these people to disperse is to give a firm look and point,″ Fleming said.

For some young Americans, the simple shock of being in Iraq _ and being away from American culture on demand _ is beginning to set in.

``I just wish they had a McDonald’s,″ said Sgt. John Kruger of Adrian, Mich. ``My girl is going to have some waiting for me when I get home.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ AP correspondent Ravi Nessman contributed to this report.

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