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U.S. Troops Get Drinks, Warm Welcome in Iraq Town

by Sean Maguire (Reuters) Monday, Apr. 07, 2003 at 2:27 AM

AZIZIYAH, Iraq (Reuters) - Cheering Iraqis handed out soft drinks and offered cigarettes to U.S. Marines on Saturday, warmly welcoming the troops and making throat-slitting gestures at pictures of President Saddam Hussein.

AZIZIYAH, Iraq (Reuters) - Cheering Iraqis handed out soft drinks and offered cigarettes to U.S. Marines on Saturday, warmly welcoming the troops and making throat-slitting gestures at pictures of President Saddam Hussein.

The Marines rolled into this town, 50 miles southeast of Baghdad, to tackle any pockets of resistance from Saddam loyalists bypassed as the U.S. vanguard swept toward the capital in the last two days.

Instead they saw hundreds of young men heading away from the capital, apparently deserting the Iraqi army. Senior officials of Saddam's Baath Party had fled the town, residents said.

Happy crowds milled around the Marines' armored vehicles, asking in faltering English if they had come to free Iraq or take their oil, as the Iraqi leadership has repeatedly claimed.

A loud hurrah went up as a Marine told the crowd that the U.S.-led forces had come to liberate them.

"Thank you for coming, now I don't have to serve in the army," said Taha Ahmed, 35. "All of us have run away from the Iraqi army, we don't want to fight, we are tired of war."

U.S. troops expressed disappointment in the early days of the invasion when instead of an expected welcome from Iraqis they met stiff resistance.

The Marines were slightly bemused by the warmth with which they were greeted in this medium-sized town but accepted the bottles of soft drinks they were offered and politely declined the cigarettes. A girl in a blue vest held out a pink flower to a passing U.S. vehicle.

"It sure beats having to shoot them," said one Marine, sweating heavily in his protective anti-chemical weapon suit under the blazing sun. The reception in Aziziyah mirrored the friendly atmosphere this correspondent saw in many Iraqi towns passed through in recent days.

BAATH OFFICIALS FLED

All Iraqi forces and senior officials of Saddam's Baath Party had fled the town two days previously, leaving the locals to loot and burn their offices and tear down posters of Saddam, said Sirown, 21, who was too afraid to give his family name.

Sirown said he had come to Aziziyah from Baghdad to escape the bombing of the Iraqi capital.

His friend, Ali, 27, pulled out a large bankroll, pointed at the picture of Saddam that graces each Iraqi banknote and drew his finger across his throat with a smile.

"People are very happy now. We couldn't speak before because the Baath Party would kill them. Now everything is OK," Ali said. He said the first thing he wanted any new government to change was the banknotes.

"Will we have new money or will we have dollars?" he asked.

The crowd were curious, querying how long the U.S. forces would stay, what would happen to oil revenues, when U.N. food distribution would restart and when the power and water supply would come back on.

Some asked why U.S. forces would have to stay up to two years in Iraq and when they would have their own army again.

"Will we have democracy and clean water soon?" asked Malek Farhan, who said he was a town councillor. He wondered if Saddam was still in power in the capital or if U.S. forces already in the city had succeeded in finding the Iraqi leader.

Many of the men on the streets said they had deserted the Iraqi army, either by walking away, abandoning their uniforms, or bribing their commander to give them discharge papers.

Along the main highway to Baghdad hundreds of young men in civilian clothes with short haircuts were walking away from the capital. Most appeared to be deserters trying to put distance between themselves and the continuing fighting.

"Thank you for coming. For 17 years I've been running away from the army," said Hassan Zebun, who said he was unable to marry or buy a house since he could not get a job with his deserter status.

Marines searched the town for weapons abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces and discovered mortar rounds, rocket propelled grenades and thousands of rounds of machine gun ammunition.

Many towns captured by the U.S. Marines in the Tigris valley were lightly fortified, but the defenders melted away without ever seriously using their bunkers and trenches. Sizeable amounts of ammunition have been found and destroyed.

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