Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar, 5763

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Syrian border diarist: Only trouble in Iraq seems to be news


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | NEAR THE SYRIAN BORDER, IRAQ The kids say it's going to be all right. I'm embedded with Tiger Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, out of Fort Carson, Colo. We crossed into Iraq 11 days ago, and we've travelled from the Kuwait border up through the Karbala Gap into western Iraq and out to the Syrian border. In every town and village we passed through, children lined the streets, grinning and waving and giving us the "thumbs up" sign.

The behavior of the children is a reasonable indication of the attitude of their parents, thinks First Sergeant Jim Gowdy of Apache Troop. "If Mom and Dad were telling them the Americans will eat their livers, the kids would be afraid to approach us the way they do," he said.

As we were coming up from the south, through the region populated primarily by Shi'ia Muslims, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein, we expected a friendly reception. But the extent of the greetings were a bit of a surprise, because American convoys moving north toward Baghdad were not a novelty by the time we were coming through.

The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is the first conventional American unit to go west of Ar Ramadi, so the kids out here were seeing American troops for the first time. And these are chiefly Sunni Muslims, thought to have been more loyal to Saddam.

Our encounters with adults also have been mostly pleasant. Major Paul Gass heads a six person civil affairs team attached to Tiger Squadron. He and his interpreter, Staff Sergeant John Pullen of the 66th Military Intelligence Company, haved shared tea and roast goat with a group of shepherds, who were clearly delighted to be hosting Ameriki, and politely turned down invitations to meals and tea in three villages they visited. At a checkpoint, Iraqis whose cars were being searched for possible contraband arms were grinning and offered us cigarettes.

There is some ambivalence. An onion farmer west of Hut who spoke broken English approached our convoy during a maintenance halt. "Thank you thank you for rid of Saddam," he said. But then he asked: "When you go back Ameriki?"

Here in the Wild West, Tiger Squadron is relieving a company of British Royal Marines, who have been in the area for a month. Al Qaim, on the main road into Syria, and the surrounding region is a hotbed for smugglers. And this is the area from which Scud missiles were launched at Israel in the first Gulf War. But the Brits say they've taken no casualties from hostile fire. They say most of the locals are friendly, and that some who were initially hostile are warming up.

By no means everyone is friendly. There have been two incidents in Fallalah, a town near Ar Ramadi, where soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and from Saber Squadron of the 3rd ACR had to fire into a crowd to suppress rioting. A grenade thrown at Saber squadron soldiers wounded five, two seriously. A rock was thrown at one of our vehicles on the road march here. And as we crossed from Kuwait into Iraq, one of the locals gave our soldiers the finger.

But friendlies and passives seem far to outnumber hostiles.

These observations from the back of a Hummvee on a road march do not constitute a thoroughly representative sample of Iraqi public opinion. But likely they are a better reflection of it than what you have been seeing on the television news.

Even when television journalists are professional and unbiased - which isn't as often as it should be - what they show is still a distortion of reality, because of the nature of the medium. People know where the TV cameras are. They come to where they are when theant to make a political statement. A crowd of thousands shaking their fists in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad may reflect Iraqi public opinion. Then again, it may not.

Journalism also has a bias against good news. It isn't exciting. Right now, I'm cursing my luck because I'm with Tiger Squadron instead of with Saber in Ar Ramadi where the "action" is. Trouble is exciting. Trouble is news. But an emphasis on trouble can present a distorted picture of reality. The reality seems to be that though there are pockets of hostility, a substantial majority of Iraqis are glad we came, and do not - at least not yet - resent our presence.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jack Kelly