To some Iraqis, the Americans are heroes

Christians and Kurds are the biggest supporters, but there are signs that ties can be built with others, too.

Coalition troops are dug in and watching their backs across much of Iraq, but in some parts of the country the crowds are still offering hugs and kisses, not gunshots.

At a church in Baghdad on Friday, young mothers brought their babies over to be photographed with a small group of soldiers, children squealed with delight and scrambled all around the Humvees, and older people sent their regards to George Bush.

"We are extremely happy for their liberation of our country. We were waiting a very long time, and we are sure [the Americans] will bring us a happier future for us, and particularly for the Christians," said Jacqueline Joseph, who put her 5-month-old son Laith into the arms of Sergeant First Class Jim Caldwell.

"This is just the third time in over 100 days we've gotten the chance to go out and meet some people. It makes it all worthwhile," said Caldwell, who is from Savannah, Ga., and part of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

The soldiers were providing security for a chaplain who spoke briefly during the ordination ceremony for a new minister - a special event in the small Christian community.

Numerous soldiers in Iraq say one of the biggest worries they have is distinguishing between friend and foe, and the church event was "like a breath of fresh air," said First Lt. Darren Hearn, a Delaware native who is also with the 3rd Infantry Division, which is based at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

"Having dealt with people that don't like [us], coming here and dealing with a loving people is very refreshing. You don't want to let your guard down, but it's just a very comfortable situation. It makes you feel like a human being again," Lt. Hearn said.

The Army has found, however, that other situations that seemed friendly turned deadly without warning. The soldier who was shot in the head at Baghdad University about 10 days ago had gotten to know students by their first name - but then someone else came out of a crowd and fired the shot.

Another soldier was shot in Baghdad recently while he was buying a CD as part of a group shopping trip, though the military later described the mission as civil outreach, according to an officer familiar with the incidents.

For coalition forces, the challenge is to continue outreach programs to Iraqis, which have the potential to lower tensions and build bridges between the very different cultures, while at the same time maintaining acceptable levels of security in a hostile environment.

Even soldiers with the civil affairs units - those with the most training in working with civilians - say that much of their time is spent in Baghdad behind the rings of security that surround the coalition headquarters, which are in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

The majority of the Coalition forces have little or no training in dealing with civilian populations and work that would normally be handled by police departments back home.

Even the simplest outreach missions are causing headaches.

On Sunday there was a ceremony with local officials in Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq, to hand out 600 soccer balls for youth programs. The Americans were greeted with open arms. People constantly came up to the small group just to say "thank you," and banners praising Bush were draped along the streets.

But the trip north to Kurdish areas was delayed two or three times, Don Eberly, the senior adviser to the Ministry of Youth and Sport for the Coalition Provisional Authority told the local officials.

"We have been struggling and continue to struggle with very basic issues - security, communications, transportation," Eberly said in response to questions from Iraqis about how quickly youth and sport programs would expand.

Civil-affairs soldiers have been trying for the last month to find a way to get 60,000 soccer balls into Iraq for distribution.

Some commercial airlines have balked at the risks of flying into Baghdad, and land supply lines from Kuwait to Baghdad give preference to pressing needs such as food and water. Some trucks have also been attacked in recent weeks, and the drivers who were working as subcontractors were killed. The Iraqi managers of the train line that runs from the Basra area north to Baghdad told the Americans they feared the entire shipment might be looted if it were sent that way.

The balls given out Sunday were part of a partial shipment of 2,000. The rest of the order is still in Pakistan.

Some of the problems the coalition forces are dealing with come from Hussein loyalists and criminals, but even the friendly Christians at the Baghdad church had some frank advice for their new friends.

Samir Ahad, a member of the church council, said he witnessed one scene involving an American officer that he still finds unbelievable. A convoy of American vehicles was stuck during a recent traffic jam in Baghdad, and instead of imposing some order at the intersections up ahead, an officer leaned out of his Humvee and started waving his pistol wildly, threatening nearby cars.

"I can't understand this," he said. "Would that be acceptable in America?"

Ahad said it's also difficult for Iraqi Christians to find answers to some of the questions their Muslim friends ask.

"They see all the uniforms and the guns, and they ask us, 'Is this Christianity?'" Ahad said, adding that many people here "think America is only drugs and sex and weapons, because of Hollywood."

Christians and Kurds are the biggest supporters of coalition forces in Iraq, but there are small signs that relations can be built with other communities, too.

"The American soldiers, they were very kind to us. They helped us with rebuilding a fence," said Siad Abraham, a groundskeeper at the Hamdullah and Toma Mosque in Baghdad, who said the troops based nearby also helped provide security to the mosque.

And across religious and ethnic divides, the coalition forces still have the potential to capitalize on their role in following after an especially brutal dictator.

"Saddam was like a vampire. He needed blood all the time," Abraham said.

Back at the Baghdad church, Abdul Masih said, "Give my peace to Mr. Bush.

"I love him," he added. "He saved us from the criminal."

And in Sulaymaniyah a little girl trailed after the Americans as they left a restaurant, shyly smiling and repeating over and over, "Thank you. Thank you."

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