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Yule in Qatar: Troops Make Do if Not Merry : Military: For 900 Americans in Tent City, it’s no place to spend the holiday. But they are coping.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A radar screen on the front of the greeting card shows a small, shadowy object being locked into missile-firing position. On the left side are the images of several bulky objects with horns on their heads. Dead center is what looks like a sleigh, with a fat guy inside. “If we can’t have a merry Christmas,” says this cheery greeting from the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron, “neither can you.”

Welcome to Tent City in Doha, Qatar, home of the 900 or so American troops you don’t see on television every night, who aren’t deployed in the fabled Saudi Arabian desert, who weren’t on President Bush’s whistle-stop Thanksgiving tour and who won’t be going anywhere you ever heard of for Christmas.

Doha is one of those places that make the “Where the heck is. . . ?” T-shirt people rich, where geography teachers ask what country it’s the capital of and get back answers like Tibet and Zaire. In fact, it is the capital of a small Persian Gulf emirate with about 350,000 devout Muslims, where alcohol is largely forbidden, where ham is a bad word and where you might not exactly want to celebrate the holidays, all things considered.

But none of this is stopping the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron or its umbrella organization, the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. When every other soldier in the Western and Arab worlds was flooding into Saudi Arabia, the wing touched down without fanfare Aug. 31 in Doha. It is now home to a fleet of F-16 fighter jets preparing to accompany the U.S. military into Kuwait, should the opportunity arise. In the meantime, it’s Christmas in Qatar. Why not?

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The Santa Claus-in-the-bull’s-eye Christmas cards went out to sister fighter squadrons back home at the beginning of the month.

At the makeshift tent area that sprang up on a parking lot at Doha Air Base, Christmas trees decorated with cigarette packages and soda cans have sprung up under camouflage-netted sandbag bunkers and recreation tents all over the camp. The bulletin board outside the mess tent advertises a Christmas Eve candlelight service, and someone has crossed out candle and scrawled in flash .

The bulletin board also lists starting times for classes on depression, life trends, loneliness and broken relationships--the symptoms of waiting four months in a desert emirate for a war that may happen, or may not.

“It is sad at times,” said Airman 1st Class Judy Edgeroy, one of 46 women deployed at Tent City. “But we’ve made this place comfortable. We’ve made it into a new home, I guess.

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“As far as the war, everybody thinks different,” she said. “A lot of people feel like we shouldn’t have a lot of American people killed so we don’t have to pay $3 a gallon for gas. I just think we signed our names on the dotted line for a reason, and this might be it.”

Large tents, each home to eight to 10 soldiers, stand in rows along the gravel, laid out like neat neighborhoods. There is a clinic, a recreation center, a volleyball court, a mess tent serving two hot meals a day (including cat food for Bebe, the terrified kitten who got rescued from a fire and grew into Tent City’s fat, purring mascot) and the administration tent. The latter carries a cardboard sign with a continual reminder from Col. Joe Emma, commander of the combat support group: “Look sharp, think positive, be tough and make it happen.”

Then there’s the post office tent. Incredibly, more than 8,000 letters a day addressed to “Any Serviceman” are pouring into Doha from people in places like Delaware and North Dakota.

“How’s the weather down there?” inquired 13-year-old Aaron Stehling of Sauk City, Wis., in one missive that arrived on Christmas Eve. “Sorry I can’t send you any snow. At least I can send you this letter. I hope you guys come home soon.”

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Another envelope contained a Christmas tree fashioned from red and green construction paper with the words “Merry Christmas. You Can WIN!”

For the last few months, Tent City residents have been able to phone home a couple of times a month via a shortwave radio network that allows them to hook up to family members waiting at their home air bases, or call straight home via the military’s phone lines.

“I talked to my mother in New York City, and it was great,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Toro. “I couldn’t get her off the phone. She kept crying.”

“We talk to our families, and they tell us they miss us,” said Sgt. William G. Evans of Las Vegas. “They tell us to stay busy so we don’t miss them. But you know, it’s hard when you usually have two people taking care of the kids at home and now you’ve got one. I just tell my wife I’m proud of the job she’s doing. I know my job’s hard, but sometimes I think hers might be harder.”

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In the mess tent Monday, fixings for Christmas dinner were already under way. Airman 1st Class Christopher Bailey was slicing hundreds of cucumbers into a bowl. For today’s feast, there will be 35 beef roasts, 32 turkeys, 14 hams, 95 pies, mashed potatoes and vegetables.

Bailey ticked off the ingredients on his fingers. “Everybody gets a good meal. It gets their belly good and satisfied--maybe they won’t think about everything else,” he told a troupe of reporters touring the kitchen.

“Could you please downplay the ham?” a worried U.S. Embassy official, mindful of reaction in the local Muslim community, whispered to one of the journalists.

Capt. Abdullah Mohannadi, one of the Qatari air force’s security liaison officers, said as far as he’s concerned, Christmas is Christmas, and it ought to be celebrated, even if it’s in Qatar.

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“We are together,” he said. “I think this problem has created something new in the world. All the world has been gathered together to solve just one problem. The Americans, they are the same to us. You know, everybody respects soldiers, and we work as a team. They do their pray, I do my pray, and we live in one house.”

Once Christmas is gotten through, though, January comes, and with it, the looming Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations for Iraq ‘s withdrawal from nearby Kuwait. Somehow, it’s hard to forget Jan. 15 on Dec. 25.

“Now, at least, we have something definite to look forward to,” said Tech Sgt. Ricardo Febles. “Just the waiting has been wearing down people. Now, the deadline builds up your adrenaline. As days go by, you can see it building up inside you. We’ll be sending a couple of weapons to Saddam (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) if he doesn’t get his act together. ‘To you from us, special delivery.’ ”

“I would do an awful lot to hold out for a peaceful solution,” said Master Sgt. Russell Wynne of Palm Springs. “But the reality of a peaceful solution is waning so fast. There’s always part of you that wants to hold out and says, ‘Let’s see, let’s see.’ I want to go home, but I’d stay here a year and a half if I thought that would do it. But as far as ready, we’re ready now.”

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