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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 November, 2003, 17:31 GMT
Iraq's unbridgeable divide

By Jonny Dymond
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

After the downing of a US helicopter in Iraq with the loss of 15 soldiers, BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond in Baghdad finds a revealing divide between the reaction of US troops and that of Iraqi civilians.

Soldiers search crash site
US soldiers said attacks on them were part of their "daily routine"
"There I was," says the young national guardsman, sitting round a table with his colleagues, "knee deep in discarded grenade pins, dead Iraqis all around me, in my left hand an empty 45 still smoking at the barrel."

"You ask: 'Was I scared?' Goddamn right I was scared - scared there weren't any more Iraqis left to kill!"

The guardsman is kidding. His comments are irony, Florida National Guard-style.

In the early evening in the former Officers Club in Baghdad, eight young guardsmen sit around a plastic table playing games, smoking cigarillos and telling tall tales.

The Third Battalion was called up the day after Christmas; they have been in the country for going on seven months now.

Given the relentless attacks on US forces, climaxing with the shooting down of a Chinook helicopter on Sunday which killed 15 American soldiers, you might expect morale to be at rock bottom.

This was not, after all, what many of them joined up for.

How, I asked them, do the attacks on American troops affect how you feel about the job?

"It don't!" shouted out one. "Not at all," said another, "it doesn't throw off the Third."

"People have a really odd idea about how we feel about that kind of stuff," explains a guardsman in his mid-twenties.

"There's no way it can change what we do. We have to get out there, we have to make sure that the populace is safe, we have to do our job.

"It doesn't even faze us any more, it's just part of our daily routine.

"As odd as that sounds, you can get used to anything."

Gnawing irritation

One guardsman sits silent, but with a little prompting he opens up.

US troops patrolling suburb in Baghdad
US troops said they were not prepared for the length of the Iraqi operation
"All the time you hear explosions, some of them close, some them real far away," he says.

"Nothing prepares you for the first time you get out there, for the first time, the first explosion."

There is a lot of talk about rock-bottom morale; there was nothing like that on display in the Third Battalion.

But there was a gnawing irritation about the way they had been treated.

"What actually hurts," said one, "is being away and not being able to get back to our lives. We need to get home. We want to get home."

"We weren't prepared for how long this is taking," said another.

"And we can't plan anything because every time we got a date [for return] it got pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. We make certain plans for things and it always [falls] through."

'No names, pictures'

All of the men agree on one thing - they make sure they do not tell their families what it is like to be here.

When I heard that news [the helicopter attack] I was pleased for one reason; this attack might push the American authorities to rethink about what they are doing in Iraq
Iraqi civilian in Baghdad
Fifteen minutes drive across town, a different ceremony is taking place around different looking tables.

At the Al-Shomour restaurant in central Baghdad, the breaking of the Ramadan fast begins.

Diners who have been without food for 13 hours wolf down hummus, beetroot, salads, lamb and rice on bread.

Relaxing after their meal with sweet tea and cigarettes, a group of doctors - educated, English speaking - talk about the attacks that have rocked Baghdad over the past couple of months.

"No names, no pictures," is the first comment.

So, how did they feel when they heard about the loss of 15 American lives in the helicopter crash on Sunday?

"When I heard that news," says one, "I was pleased for one reason. This attack might push the American authorities to rethink about what they are doing in Iraq."

Sincere

"I don't believe that the attack on the United Nations was done by Iraqis," throws in another diner.

Wounded flee bombing of Red Cross building in Baghdad
Some Iraqis felt bombs targeting embassies and aid agencies encouraged the US to stay
"I don't think a Muslim will go and put a bomb in a children's school, or in a mosque, or between houses."

So who is carrying out the bombings that killed so many at the UN, the Red Cross and the Jordanian embassy?

"What about the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], to leave the area for the Americans and for the English?" asks one man.

There is nodding around the table.

The bombings of embassies and international organisations, will , says another, "give the Americans a good reason to stay here, to stay in Iraq".

One can only imagine the response of the men at the Third Battalion headquarters to that theory; but the men at Al-Shomour are perfectly sincere.

It is yet another illustration of the unbridgeable divide between the residents of Baghdad and the men who came to liberate them.


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