- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

BAGHDAD — Sgt. Jerry Sanchez longed for Christmas with his wife, Andrea, and their two children back home in sunny Bartow, Fla. But duty called the National Guardsman to this jittery, war-scarred city, which shook with explosions all throughout Christmas Eve.

“This is the first Christmas away from my wife and kids, so it’s very hard for me,” Sgt. Sanchez said.

Iraqi Christian Shamil Aziz longed for Christmases of yore, when he and his family would go to midnight Mass and visit friends and relatives into the early hours. But he said Baghdad’s rampant crime and instability would keep him and his family locked up at home watching satellite television.

“We fear sabotage, terrorist attacks or getting robbed going home; or the chance the American soldiers will suspect us of doing something wrong and shoot us,” Mr. Aziz said. “So I’m staying home. I’m not risking anything.”

U.S. soldiers and Iraqis marked a somber, blood-stained Christmas Eve that was nonetheless infused with the spirit of the season.

Acting U.S. Army Secretary Les Brownlee, visiting troops in the pro-Saddam stronghold of Tikrit, praised the U.S. engagement in Iraq as paving the way for “peace and freedom here in this country for millions who have never known it,” according to Reuters news agency.

“At the same time,” he said, “they are protecting the American people back home by engaging these terrorists here, rather than on the streets of America.”

On the streets of Baghdad, Christmas Eve began with a massive early-morning U.S. military attack on suspected rebel positions and ended with a rocket attack on the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel.

Just north of Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb exploded.

Also yesterday, four persons were killed in a suicide car bombing in the northern Iraq city of Irbil. The explosion, which occurred outside the Ministry of Interior office in the Kurdish autonomous area, also injured more than 100.

Amid continuing chaos throughout Baghdad, Iraqis and U.S. soldiers tried to make the best of a holiday recognized by Muslims, as well as well as Iraq’s small Christian minority. Muslims and Christians gathered in the courtyard of the Church of the Rosary to light candles and honor the Virgin Mary.

Inside the church, Father Botros Hadadi said he and other priests urged their parishioners to stay home and quiet this year, avoiding any ostentatious celebratory displays that might ignite the anger of those who identify Christianity with the occupying force.

Father Hadadi said Christmas was much better under Saddam Hussein, who maintained cordial ties with Iraqi Christians. “Saddam used to send a letter for the Christians on this occasion,” he said. “Very nice letters.”

On military bases and inside coalition offices, soldiers talked of gift packages they’d received from friends or perfect strangers. They decorated plastic Christmas trees, ate catered holiday food and made calls or sent e-mails to their families back home.

The troops also received a surprise visit from television talk-show host David Letterman, who joked with wounded soldiers and rattled off a “Top 10” list for the desert-weary, the Associated Press reported.

Last Christmas, Mr. Letterman visited troops in Afghanistan.

At Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport, soldiers from many of the coalition armies were to hold a midnight Mass, singing renditions of “Silent Night” in English, Spanish, Polish, Tagalog, Portuguese, German, Italian, Korean and Arabic.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Al Berlo, a reservist out of Martinsburg, W.Va., dispatched an Iraqi staffer to find him a Santa outfit. He donned it and went about spreading Christmas cheer. He went out to a checkpoint, dressed as Santa with a flak jacket and helmet, at one point dancing for his fellow soldiers and Iraqi colleagues as someone played the kazoo.

“I went to the hospital yesterday,” he said. “The kids were sitting there with broken arms and other injuries. They see Santa walk in, shake their hand, give them a piece of candy. It put a smile on everyone’s face.”

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