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For Some GIs, Peace Is Harder Than War : Iraq: ‘All the homeless, all the hurting,’ one says of civilians. ‘That’s something I didn’t need.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guarding the peace may be tougher than fighting the war for the forward scouts of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division.

After spending months in the lonely desert and then devastating a division of the Iraqi Republican Guard during the ground war, the young soldiers and their giant tanks have rumbled into a new position six miles inside Iraq, guarding the northernmost U.S. checkpoint on the road north to Iraq’s rebellion-torn second city of Basra.

None of them liked what they saw: dozens of Iraqi children begging for food, hundreds of ragged refugees camped in the desert, burned-out cars and trucks, shattered homes and farms.

“This is the one part I didn’t want to see,” said Pfc. Reuben Perez, 20, of La Puente, Calif. “All the homeless, all the hurting. When we came through the refugee camp, man, that’s something I didn’t need.”

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The U.S. troops disarm Iraqi soldiers trying to head south and send them back. They let civilians through to nearby towns and give chocolate and applesauce to the children. And they wonder what the war has wrought.

“It’s really sad,” said Sgt. Paul Brooks, 22, of Denver. “I’m a soldier. But I’ve got a family back home. We’ve got little kids come up and see my gun, and they start crying. That really tears me up.”

Capt. James Bell, 29, of Charlotte, N.C., said his unit had seen only Iraqi soldiers and empty desert until they arrived in this wind-swept highway outpost.

“This is the first time we’ve seen civilization,” he said. “And it’s really sad.

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“It just tears your heart out to see a baby crying because he needs medicine. And there’s nothing we can do. We’ve got a doctor in the rear, but we can’t take care of all these people.

“I tell you, the fighting in combat we saw was easier than this.”

The scouts led the 1st Division’s charge into Iraq on Feb. 24. After a fierce artillery bombardment of Iraqi lines, they raced north, collecting prisoners and looking for trouble.

They found it after midnight: Iraq’s Tawklana Division, supposedly the crack tank forces of the Republican Guard. Dark and at a distance, most of the U.S. troops--who suffered one killed and five wounded in action--never saw the death and destruction they inflicted.

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“At night, you kill and you roll on by,” said Specialist Heath Oncale, 20. “You don’t stop. You don’t have to see anything. It wasn’t until the next morning the rear told us the devastation was total. We’d killed the entire division.”

Here, under a harsh sun and the menacing cannons of their M-1A1 tanks, they are seeing the effects of war. Hundreds of refugees arrived Friday, carrying meager belongings as they walked or drove up in overloaded cars and vans.

Six Egyptian men walked by, carrying stuffed suitcases on their heads. An English-speaking 35-year-old Iraqi microbiologist from a Basra suburb drove up, begging for help for a sick aunt with liver and kidney trouble.

“Life is miserable,” she said. “No food. Only tomatoes. The people drink dirty water. No sleep at all. No drugs. No pharmacies. No hospitals. No treatment for any patients.

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“No rice, no fish, no bread, no sugar, no wheat flour, no corn oil, no vegetables, no fruit,” she said, and then began slapping her hands as she spoke.

“Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” Slap. Slap. Slap.

An Egyptian woman clutched her 2-month-old daughter, Houda, in a torn blue blanket. Her husband, Messad Mohammed, said they lived by a bridge west of Basra and had survived weeks of allied bombing.

“We saw death with our own eyes many times,” he said.

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Two Swiss delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross drove up. Each day, they drive north, hoping to get into Basra, where troops loyal to Saddam Hussein continue to battle anti-government rebels. Each day, Iraqi troops turn them back at a checkpoint 10 miles up the road.

Four Iraqis and Palestinians, arrested by Kuwaiti police and then dumped at the border, suddenly appeared in a car headed north. One Palestinian, Ali Yassin, had a broken leg in a dirty cast.

His companion, Kazem Moulud, 31, said he was an Iraqi vegetable vendor in Kuwait who had turned himself in to police in Sulaba six days ago. The result, he said, was six days of being blindfolded and severely beaten.

“They had wooden clubs,” he said. “They beat me on the bottom of my feet. Then they beat me on my back. Then they put me on my back and raised my legs and beat me on the back of my legs. And there are some things I’m ashamed to show you.”

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As TV cameras clustered ‘round, he pulled up his long gray dishdasha to show blood-red welts and black bruises covering his thighs, waist and up his entire back.

Nearby, a 26-year-old U.S. sergeant just shook his head watching. The Iraqi was probably an army deserter, he said. And even the children, he warned, could be dangerous.

“Some kids come running up with cluster bombs,” he said. “They don’t know what they are. They think we’ll give them food for it. Man, I’m just glad I live in the States.”

Sgt. John Lapotaire, 25, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander, spoke of his home in Oklahoma, and then of the unwashed children who line the roads in nearby Safwan chasing cars and begging for food.

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“At least we can go home,” he said emotionally. “These people got to stay and live with this. When I get home, I’ll remember this more than the fighting. All these kids begging. This is the hardest part.

“The Iraqi soldiers are armed,” he added. “The little kids aren’t armed. They’re just hungry.”


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