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Iraq Journals

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Wednesday, April 9

In Baghdad, focus turns to survival

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

BAGHDAD, Iraq - On Wednesday, residents in Saddam City were focused on survival.

There is desperation beyond the wide smiles, thumb's-up signs and cheers of ``Good! Good! Good!'' from the people in this poorest section of Baghdad.

Iraqi soldiers continue to fire mortars near their homes.

"We think they are trying to cause civilian casualties,'' said Capt. Joe Plenzler, spokesman for the First Marine Division.

Helicopter pilots and medical crews flying over Baghdad said the scene from the air was full of smoke, scurrying people, gunfire and other confusion.

"It's a lot like the movie 'Black Hawk Down' " about the civil war in Somalia, said Marine Jeff Dansie, 32, who flies a helicopter on medical missions into the city.

The doctor in Dansie's crew, Mike O'Leary, said the kind of injuries has shifted as the battle has moved from the deserts of southern Iraq to Baghdad and other densely populated cities.

In the desert, there were a lot of amputations caused by Marines stepping on mines. In the city, "it's definitely getting a lot more grisly,'' O'Leary said.

Residents came out in droves this week to welcome American troops. But their mood will soon sour if the men with the guns don't quickly bring basic necessities.

"They gotta get somebody in here to help these people soon or we're going to have a great riot on our hands,'' said Sgt. Michael Taylor, a machine-gunner with the Fifth Regimental Combat Team.

Prewar promises by the Marines of delivering guns and butter at the same time have not panned out as planned.

The logistics of simply feeding and providing water to troops has been all the Marine supply chains can handle to this point. It took six hours today to travel from the Baghdad suburbs to nearby Saddam City, home to an estimated 2.5 million people, to drop off one day's supply of Meals, Ready to Eat, to front-line grunts. That's because of the difficulty in crossing bridges, keeping convoys together through crowds and finding troop locations within the huge, complex street network of Baghdad.

Saddam City residents are selling Iraqi cigarettes to troops for $2 per carton while begging for water at the same time. They are also lining up at emergency-aid stations meant solely for troops.

Fifth Marine Lt. Cmdr. Brian Schumacher is turning away many patients, but each day he is still treating a wide range of Iraqis with shrapnel and gunshot wounds from the war. He also is treating Iraqi babies for dehydration.

"They are in desperate need of health care. They are fairly well fed, but these people lack hygiene and have a total lack of sanitation,'' Schumacher said.

Health care workers "need to be here yesterday,'' he said. "There is an unlimited need for health care just walking down the street here.''

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the sole relief organization allowed to operate in Iraq during the war, continues to restock hospitals in Baghdad, spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said. The sporadic fighting on Wednesday, however, disrupted the work of the relief organization, which was reeling after one of its workers was killed Tuesday in the cross-fire.

"The last few days have seen a very critical emergency in the hospitals,'' Williamson said. "We had until today (Wednesday) been able to visit hospitals. They were overwhelmed with casualties. They were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. Much of the staff hasn't been able to get in because of the fighting, so they are relying on a depleted work force.''

Maj. Mark Stainbrook said he saw one water-treatment facility that had been looted. Much of the wiring and piping had been removed.

"We've got to stop the looting and craziness and get things secured,'' he said. "If we don't destroy the infrastructure and they do -- what's the point?''

But he added: "Everything is for our troops first. We can't win if our troops are hungry and thirsty. The best way to help the Iraqi people is to end this quickly and focus on security.''

Still, Marine public affairs teams, some of whom have been busy providing security for troop food convoys, hope to attack the water shortage problem this week. Marines are equipped with mobile water treatment centers that can provide fresh water in a short period of time.


Detroit News Staff Writer John Bebow, a 36-year-old investigative reporter, is covering the U.S. Marines in Iraq. Detroit News Staff Writer Deb Price contributed to this report.


Population: Estimates range from 1 million to 4 million; usually given at about 2.5 million extremely poor.

Religious affiliation: Almost entirely Shiite Muslim.

History: Started as an encampment of farmers from the predominantly Shiite south in the 1940s and 1950s. Was developed after the 1958 revolution by President Abdul Karim el Kassem and named Revolution City in order to lure unemployed from the south up to Baghdad to work.

New name: Renamed Saddam City by Saddam when he took power in the 1970s. Uprising: In February 1999, riots were put down by the Republican Guard. They started when a venerated Shiite cleric and his sons were assassinated.

- Detroit News research