In war's dust, 'fog,' a yearning to communicate

Tuesday night the phone rang at the Alkeysi home in Al Atmeay, a prosperous Baghdad neighborhood near the city's largest university. This sound was, in some ways, more startling than the explosion of a bomb, as Real Alkeysi hadn't even heard from her sisters across town since the beginning of the war.

Yet, miraculously, on the other end of the line was her brother Khadouri, who had moved to America and lived in New Jersey. "How did you call? How did you get through?" Ms. Alkeysi asked excitedly into the phone.

Meanwhile, in Havelock, N.C., Elizabeth Clingersmith was enduring a blackout of e-mail from her husband. On the news they said the weather was bad in the Middle East, so Tom - a marine in Iraq - probably just couldn't get through.

Still, Ms. Clingersmith was restless. The TV soaps she normally loved weren't holding her attention. During an ad she ran to check her PC - even though she'd done that three minutes earlier, an exasperated friend pointed out. "You never know," she replied as she pounded up the stairs.

Last week, sandstorms both real and metaphorical drifted across the face of the US-led conflict with Iraq. For some, lulls in this weather allowed brief moments of clarity and communication. For others the dry, blowing grit seemed an embodiment of the phrase "fog of war."

When the storms lifted, the landscape seemed changed. Fighting that was predictable in its opening days had turned unscripted. It was a phase-shift that produced wildly varying emotions in people around the world.

• • •

Clouds rolled in over the desert vastness of Kuwait all Tuesday morning. By midday they blocked out the sun. Bad weather was coming, and in this part of the world, bad weather can be really ugly - 50-knot winds plus rain, lightning, and dust all swirled into one.

Yet at 5:45 pm, two US F-16s sat on the end of a runway, cleared for takeoff and missions over Iraq. "Saw" - that's the call name of one US Air Force captain - took off first. "Thumper," another captain, followed him into the gathering storm.

It was after midair refueling, as they crossed into Iraqi airspace, that they got hit. Or rather, seemed to get hit. "Hey, One, I got struck by lightning," Thumper said. She sounded excited.

Saw's plane was glowing too, with a white-green light from the nose past the canopy. But Saw, the more experienced pilot, knew it wasn't lightning. It was St. Elmo's fire, an electrical discharge.

"Oh, I've never seen that before," said Thumper. She sounded awed.

Thousands of feet below, the forces of nature were even more Biblical. Howling winds swept reddish-brown dust hundreds of miles. US armored convoys ground to a halt. Plans for over 1,400 sorties by US and coalition warplanes were scrapped.

The mission of most of those who made it into the air was to bomb Republican Guard military positions. Capts. Saw and Thumper, for instance, simply punched coordinates into fire-control computers, and launched satellite-guided munitions into the darkness below. Then they returned to base, landing through lightning-filled clouds, the bursts making it seem as if hundreds of flashbulbs were going off around them.

But concentrating on the Republican Guard meant other targets went untouched. Baghdad telecommunication equipment remained up and running even though US commanders were becoming concerned about the Iraqi regime's continuing ability to control troops and broadcast its view of the war around the world.

• • •

Whatever this meant for the war effort, it also meant that Real Alkeysi (not her actual name) could still hear from America.

Her brother Khadouri had been trying to call her every 20 minutes virtually without ceasing since the war began. Bip-bip-bip-bip - 11 digits punched into the phone, over and over.

Tuesday night, for some reason, it finally went through. Real quickly told him the news. The home, near the center of the city and surrounded by lush plum and orange trees, had been shaken and rattled as missiles struck nearby. But it hadn't been damaged, and so far everyone in the immediate family was safe.

She told her brother that she was scared, and she wanted the American people to stop the war. Then the line went dead.

• • •

At the same time US troops and their families at home were experiencing similar communications problems. The blowing grit was playing havoc with the computer systems, many of them shaky contraptions hacked together by experts who ranked low in the military hierarchy but high in colleagues' esteem.

Lack of e-mail was, in fact, beginning to make Elizabeth Clingersmith a little desperate.

Her friends had already told her she was becoming a little too dependent on her electronic lifeline, what with her reception of more than 500 e-mails a day from her husband, her relatives, and a support network of Marines and their families around the world.

But Andrew, the six-year old, was distraught over his father's electronic silence. Kierstin, the oldest, had just gotten a B on her report card - the second ever in a school career filled with As.

Elizabeth checked the PC one more time - and there it was, a flow of messages from Iraq, as if a pipe had finally been uncorked.

"Don't sweat the little things, and don't sweat the big things either, because there is nothing you can do about them," Tom wrote in one message.

"I miss you," he wrote in another.

• • •

When the sandstorms settled down in the middle of the week more than private messages began to flow. News from the front increased, as well, and the tone of it was noticeably different. US troops and US reporters had been exposed to the realities of war. It was not a videogame, or an exercise.

US officials denied that their plans had gone askew, and that their pause before the gates of Baghdad represented unforeseen delay. In the Middle East itself, however, many Arabs saw things differently.

Take the matter of the downed Apache helicopter.

In Cairo, mild-mannered carpenter Ibrahim el Khoury was rising as usual at 3:30 a.m. But by midweek he was unusually eager to get up. An imam in the devout neighborhood of Ain Shams, he was bolstered by the rising turnout for morning prayers at the mosque.

And he felt that Allah was hearing those prayers, and deciding to strike back. How else could a mere farmer have downed an enemy Apache helicopter, as they said on TV? He was on an errand into town when he heard, and he was so excited he completely forgot what he was supposed to buy - nails. The long kind.

On Wednesday, just before 6 p.m. prayers, a few neighbors came by to tell him that a young Arab woman had managed to blow up two US tanks. After prayers he went to a friend's house to see if there was footage of this event, and if it was true.

He was not an idiot. He knew the Iraqis stood no real chance against the US military. But for him the absence of defeat constituted victory.

"Every day that the Iraqis strike back is a victory day," he said.

• • •

But in Chula Vista, California, TV footage of the Apache symbolized something completely different - oppression.

The Iraqis shown celebrating around the downed aircraft must have been paid by the ruling regime, or coerced at the point of a gun, said Abbas Naama, patriarch of a family of Iraqi exiles.

A pharmacist at a nearby drugstore, Abbas fled Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. Then a colonel in the Iraqi Air Force, he rebelled against Saddam following that defeat. Threatened with death, he escaped with his family to Saudi Arabia, and thence to this arid suburb of San Diego, which boasts one of the largest populations of Iraqi-Americans.

In America the Naamas both embraced the new and tried to cling to the old. Their home today boasts posters of Kobe Bryant and the Anaheim Angels, as well as photos of a recent family hajj, the trip to holy sites in Saudi Arabia all Muslims are asked to complete in their lifetimes.

On the mantel are a tiny Eiffel Tower and a water cube with mosques and minarets. Yet outside is a "For Sale" sign. The family has packed its bags and is ready to return home in the wake of what its members believe is Saddam's imminent demise.

Late in the week, her jet black hair wrapped tightly in a cream-colored Arab scarf, mother Sabria Namma munched pistachios nervously as she flicked through satellite broadcasts of Arab-language TV.

"We are watching TV night and day waiting and waiting for that minute when American troops will kill Hussein and free Iraq," she told an interviewer while shells flicked into a wastebasket. "Then Iraqis will be openly free to embrace their liberators, and the world will see America did the right thing."

• • •

Thursday night it still appeared that Iraqis weren't welcoming American and British troops with open arms, however. Even hunger did not necessarily ensure applause and cheers.

A delivery of water and food to beleaguered Safwan, Iraq, by the Kuwait Red Crescent produced reports of both pro-Hussein cheers and a mad scramble for humanitarian aid.

The image seared itself into Rudolph von Bernuth's mind: mobs of young men descending on trucks and grabbing food. It took him back to 1979, when he himself was trying to get food to refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.

There would have been a riot had not Thai marines been present to fire warning shots into the air.

"We're going to have to work very hard to avoid chaos" in Iraqi humanitarian aid deliveries, said Bernuth, now director of emergencies for Save the Children, to an interviewer on Friday.

He had had a frustrating week. On Tuesday, he briefed top members of his organization for a meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which was canceled. He had already bought chemical protection suits for the Save the Children staff in Kuwait poised to enter Iraq. On Thursday, he decided to buy them flak jackets as well.

Meanwhile, coverage of events still focused on the military dimension, at least in the United States. He wanted more focus on the misery in Basra, where many civilians had become malnourished even before the war began.

"If you had 10,000 people leave Basra and go to refugee camps," he said, now that would generate an outpouring of giving."

• • •

Friday also saw a lull on People's Pavement, a little spot of protest in the heart of London's Parliament Square.

Brian Haw, a talismanic peacenik who has been fulminating virtually nonstop for a week to any passerby who is interested, is resting his vocal cords. So the motley inhabitants of this place, who have been sleeping rough for days, are napping, or waking from naps, or sipping donated coffee. A knot of protesters listened skeptically to a man from a group called Rainbow Connection, who espoused an "idealistic, futuristic, almost mystical" creed that seems to involve abolishing politics and replacing it with something else.

Edwin Linton took it all in. A noncommissioned officer in the Gulf War, he quit the British Army afterward and since has lived the life of a drifting protester, leaving behind a wife and children for the streets, working for a group that helps troubled ex-servicemen like himself find their feet.

On Friday he predicted to a passerby that soon there will be more work for him to do. Behind every report of firefights and tank battles and skirmishes, he said, there are dozens of human beings who will never be the same again.

"How many are going to come back and end up like I did, because the Army will not help you?" he asked.

• • •

In North Carolina Elizabeth Clingersmith was just waiting for her husband Tom to come back, period.

In the early '90s she did some work in commercials. She'd even been a promotional gorilla for Ape 92, a radio station in her hometown of Flint, Mich.

But her husband is the family movie star. A few years ago, the director of the move "Rules of Engagement" wanted some real marines to serve as extras, and Tom got a part. He's in six scenes , most noticeably where he wrestles another marine in the background as the real stars converse.

On Friday night, Elizabeth slipped her DVD of the movie out of the case, and popped in the player. The house was dark and quiet. She pulled a pillow to her chest. Somewhere in the world a war was raging for real. For now, she would watch her husband's chiseled face flicker across the screen in a Hollywood war.

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