'Rock-star' marines begin to rebuild in Iraq's south
NASIRIYAH, IRAQ — Little Abu wears green jeans with the zipper down. Barely old enough to speak Arabic, he knows no English. But he can still communicate with his new buddies. He puts out a fist, and a marine bops his fist on Abu's. Abu does the same thing back. Then they knock fists straight on, and smile.
"We taught them that a few days ago," says Gunnery Sgt. Randy Burns, who is with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "Now it has spread all over the city."
With the fighting finished, marines with the 15th MEU in Nasiriyah have been using the gesture to teach the city's kids a new way to show friendship. These early ambassadors appear to have bought the US some goodwill during a difficult transition period from war to civil society.
Electricity still remains out in much of the city and medicine is in short supply. But the marines put in a purification system on the Euphrates River to provide potable water. Navy Seabees are starting to make temporary fixes to plumbing, wiring, and buildings around the city. And the visibility of US forces has secured the city enough to allow the first humanitarian groups to return.
Over the past two weeks, the marines headquartered in the city's university have become well-acquainted with their neighbors.
When these marines say, "There's Osama," they aren't talking about bin Laden but a child in the street. They then point out Osama's father and brother.
The residents are just as eager to learn names. The marines have been enjoying rock-star status here, and children ask them to sign their name on their hands and arms. The girls, who were initially shy, have started giving the troops fresh-cut flowers in bouquets and garlands.
"We've gotten thanked out here a lot more than we have at home," says Sgt. Nick Guthrie. While troops will often say they don't like the clean-up phases of conflicts, these marines clearly enjoy the relationships they're forming as they try to get the city up and running.
Schools have been closed since the war began. So have most of the businesses and government offices. "The whole place is shut down for awhile," says Sergeant Burns. The idling of the city initially left a lot of people loitering in the streets. "When we first got here we were overwhelmed with people."
They had barely taken control of the city when a pregnant woman approached them for help. The marines got her to a field hospital just in time for her to give birth. They tried to name the baby Liberty, but "it didn't stick."
Day by day, signs of normalcy are starting to return. Far fewer people were hanging around on the streets Wednesday, and most were trying to hawk sodas or beads.
Dozens of residents took a break from the heat by swimming in the Euphrates - the venerable but nonetheless skinny river that looks too humble and inviting to be the progenitor of ancient civilization.
An amusement park nearby still appears closed. It and the university are among the few places where grass grows. The neighborhood adjacent to the university is obviously among the city's richest. Modern architecture and palm-tree landscaping hint at a wealthier past in Iraq.
"We are not some African country, like Somalia," says Abu Ahmad, a car salesman who lives near the university. Iraq is a rich country, he says, but the wealth was squandered on wars. He hopes that, like postwar Germany and Japan, the new government of Iraq will forswear an offensive army. "We need democracy. Same as USA, we need it."
Before the economic decline of the last decade, Iraq had a relatively educated population. Evidence of this is still audible on the street, as some of the adults have taken English or Spanish classes at the university.
There will be no more classes there, at least until the Marines find a new headquarters and the facilities are substantially renovated. Chalkboards with chemistry equations barricade some of the doorways, while shattered glass litters the floor of an empty room. Before US forces arrived, most of the equipment was moved out for safekeeping.
But other, more urgent reconstruction jobs beckon in the city.
As residents find unexploded ordnance, the Marines send out crews to dispose of them. Many electrical poles have nests of wires dangling from them.
In the meantime, the Americans are still novelties. The children love encouraging the marines to dance. They will crowd around to watch anyone "disco," and will try to imitate the moves.
When adults spot military radios, they ask if they can use them to call their relatives living in the United States. And there's always each other's languages to learn.
"They'll teach you how to say 'Get out of here,' but then when you tell them, they won't go," says Sergeant Burns with a smile.