- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 17 (UPI) — I awoke this morning at 5 a.m., as usual, cold. Another day in Iraq was dawning and soon it would be warm, so I strolled around the new home, the Tactical Operations Center for 2nd Brigades, 3rd battalion, or "Rakasans" for short, posted to secure Baghdad's International Airport.

Things were already starting to stir. There was hot coffee in the TOC and I grabbed a cup before setting off to have a look at what turned out to be Saddam's VIP terminal. How interesting to see the humvees parked under the veranda and soldiers sleeping on the marbled walkways surrounded by the lush landscaping of palm trees and rose gardens.

As I walked I ran into a young specialist on his way to dump the trash. In no time, we were discussing the finer points of mishandled prior marriages as we walked to the burning pit. We had a bit in common in that regard and laughed about the "Girls we left behind us" and the better ones we had since found. The fire was a welcome addition to the morning coffee.

While standing there, Sgt. Dwayne McSweeney walked up. He was with the 3/7th medics who were parked nearby and had some interesting stories about some of their recent patients — lots of Iraqi enemy prisoners of war, or EPW.

"At first, we were overwhelmed by them in some places, and we didn't have the facilities to deal with them all. The ones who needed treatment, no problem. But the ones who were just giving up, well, there were just too many and we were moving too fast so we would just disarm them and turn them loose," he said.

"But then we started picking up ones we recognized just a few clicks up the road and here they were shooting again. We picked up more than a few who had bits and pieces of MREs (meals ready to eat) on them and here they were with RPGs (rocket-powered grenades) again. After that we hung on to everybody."

It was an interesting new light on the EPW problem and even better, he set me up with a wool medical corps blanket. I'll not be cold again.

Walking back to the TOC, I policed up my gear and made ready to move out. We were being taken over to C Company which was on perimeter duty and was keeping an eye on the situation next door at one of Saddam's lakeside palaces. No sooner had the regime bitten the dust than the looting began and the Rakasans were monitoring it as best they could while securing the airfield. That's when Capt. Christian Teutsch of Richmond, Mass., arrived, our escort to the fiesta going on over there.

"It's been going on for a couple of days now," he said, describing the looting that was going on. "We're pretty sure that the big house on the lake was Saddam's. It was the only one that didn't have his picture in it. The locals are pretty much tearing out everything that's not nailed down and pretty much everything that is."

As we cleared the last Rakasan position at the airport perimeter, you could see the foot traffic beginning. Like fans headed to a rock concert, droves of Iraqis of every age were converging on the place. "Hello mister, hello," they yelled as we passed in our Hummer, waving, smiling. As we turned into the palace grounds it was a scene of pandemonium.

Everywhere there were Iraqis tearing out every manner of opulent equipage from the numerous guesthouses that made up the complex. Chaise lounges, wall mirrors, bidets, light fixtures, chairs, wall sockets, chandeliers, tea sets, air conditioners, everything.

All present were in a festive mood. As I walked among them they kept flashing the thumbs up and saying, "Hello mista" as they piled goods on any manner of transportation that could roll, from dump trucks to horse wagons. Some even pushed serving carts piled high with Saddam's bric-a-brac.

While the crowd was jovial, it was nonetheless dangerous for some. Almost immediately after arriving, I came upon a young boy of perhaps 15 who had an ugly gash across the top of his right foot, the result of trying to kick in one of the heavy, tinted glass windows of a guest house. Teutsch came over and let out a heavy sigh. "This is the kind of thing we're afraid of," he said, reaching for a field dressing on his battle gear.

"I'm not supposed to use this on anyone but me or my guys, but I'm not going to let him lay here and bleed." Together we peeled off the dirty rag they had tied on it, revealing a 5-inch, horizontal slash that opened it down to the bone. "Son, this is going to hurt," I said as I poured a bottle of saline over the wound. It did. Teutsch made a nice field wrap and the boy's uncle carried him away. "Right now we're tied up with perimeter duty until the 3rd gets settled in. When that's done, we'll be putting a stop to this," he said, washing his hands of the boy's blood.

What was even more amazing was the sheer scale of the place. Easily covering 2 square kilometers (.77 square miles) and consisting of at least a dozen buildings, this place was testament to gross abuse of office and horrible taste in home furnishings. While the woodwork was first class, the furniture and fixtures were, well, kitsch. It was as if Saddam had hired John Gotti to be his interior decorator. No taste, truly the barbarian chieftain, but lacking the glory or wisdom of people like Olaf the Red. A brutish clown, nothing more than a common hood.

What really turns your stomach, however, is that just over the 20-foot foot high walls, people live in almost medieval squalor. A person cannot drive 10 minutes down the road here and not see entire families pulling brackish water from stagnant canals, carrying it by hand to mud brick homes with dirt floors and little else. Livestock roam freely around the front yards and children play barefoot. While the landscape is stunningly beautiful, with green fields of grain and majestic stands of palms, I'm glad I wasn't born here.

I don't think that the sanctions had much to do with this either. There was plenty of money flowing through this place. One fellow we met spoke English and was eager to speak with us. At 41, Abas Ali looked tired.

"Because Saddam was a bad man, many people in Iraq are poor," he said, moving aside to let two young men carrying a heavy oak panel door pass. "We need something. Not money, but freedom and good government. We need a government not at war with everyone, but a peace government with good relations."

As he finished, we stood, watching in silence as the tangle of tractors, cars and minivans vied for space on the narrow lanes, bursting with the bounty of a failed bid for Babylon.

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