- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

BALAD, Iraq Early 1980s Chevrolet station wagons and pickup trucks driven by Iraqis weave swiftly in and out of a convoy of U.S. Army vehicles heading north from Baghdad along Highway 1.
The snake of machine-gun-topped Humvees and trucks is driving into the heart of Iraq's Sunni Arab country, home to Saddam Hussein's ancestral clan, and a pocket of the toppled Iraqi dictator's most avid supporters.
There is at least one large sign beside the road reading "USA No" and several lots filled with men who, contrary to the men in southern Iraq, do not wave ecstatically as the Americans pass.
Nevertheless, the scene on Highway 1 is considerably less threatening than soldiers imagined.
Hours earlier, when the land element of the 4th Infantry Division's Aviation Brigade was loading up in the predawn darkness at Baghdad International Airport, soldiers expressed uneasiness.
"I definitely don't have the warm and fuzzies this morning," Sgt. Jason P. Choate, had said as he slowly smoked a cigarette in the light of the rising sun. "I'm kind of nervous."
Spc. Kane R. Carsten of Oxon Hill, Md., remarked simply that he hadn't had a chance to tell his wife he was moving north of Baghdad.
Rachel Carsten and the couple's 2-year-old son, Aiden, live in Oxon Hill. "I miss them a lot," Spc. Carsten said.
At one point, word spread through the ranks that an Apache attack helicopter flying over the convoy route had been shot at and missed by an Iraqi with a rocket-propelled grenade.
A commander reminded soldiers: "Stay ruthless. Stay alert. But at the same time … don't go out there and mow down a 10-year-old … unless they've got a bomb on them."
Once the convoy gets rolling, however, things brighten up a bit. Iraqi children line Highway 1 a few miles north of the city, and several children and some teenagers wave white flags at the Americans in sturdy Army trucks.
Still, it isn't easy for soldiers to escape the reality that they are riding into an area dominated by Sunni Muslims, an area very different from southern Iraq, where Shi'ite Muslims are the majority.
"There were a lot more people waving at us when we came through the south," Capt. Joseph W. Vongs says.
North of Baghdad, a path of destruction left by U.S. forces heading north last week is clearly marked along the highway. The convoy passes dozens of demolished Republican Guard tanks and trucks.
As it approaches an air strip outside Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, there are some Iraqi vehicles that haven't been destroyed. At least four badly rusted MiG fighter jets are parked along the road and draped discretely with camouflage netting.
On Easter Sunday, after sleeping on the tarmac in Balad, the convoy rolls again and reaches another air strip on the outskirts of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace.
Some soldiers say they wish they were home with their families. For one, Capt. Jeffrey M. Papaleo, missing Easter is especially tough.
The day has doubly important meaning in his life. "Today's my first anniversary, too," he says, adding that he wishes he could spend the day with his wife, Melissa, who lives in Copperas Cove, Texas.
Capt. Papaleo reflects that being away for the anniversary "just really makes you appreciate what you have when you have it."


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