- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

BAGHDAD — Though he is commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and faces violent anti-American fighters, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez still found time for his family this Christmas, making a call home to his four children, ages 14 to 25.

“I read them ”Twas the Night Before Christmas,’” Gen. Sanchez said in an interview after attending Christmas-morning Mass in the Iraqi capital. “It’s a family tradition.”

The more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq as well as Iraqi Christians tried to uphold their Christmas traditions despite a surge of violence that left at least four American soldiers and six Iraqis dead over the holiday.

The four American soldiers were killed by explosive devices in separate incidents Christmas Eve in Samarra and Baghdad, U.S. military officials said.

Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, a Kurdish official increased the number injured in a Wednesday car bombing to at least 100. At least four persons were killed.

Gen. Sanchez said he expected the violence to continue. Indeed, explosions erupted across Baghdad last night. “There’s still some fighting ahead, unfortunately,” said the general, a native of Rio Grande City, Texas.

He said the loud, nightly U.S. military raids in and around Baghdad would continue in coming days.

“It’s part of our operation to attack the enemy with precision,” he said. “The only way you can win is to be on the offensive.”

The violence and instability led Iraq’s Christian minority — numbering up to 1 million — to celebrate the traditional midnight Mass later on Christmas morning.

“We’ve heard that there are plans to attack us,” said Makan Mikaela, an Iraqi Christian and retired brigadier general. “So this year, we’re going to celebrate Christmas differently from anytime ever in our history.”

Nonetheless, his wife, Sina, prepared the traditional Christmas “kuba” — spiced ground beef, grilled and served with a white sauce — for the family.

On military bases and inside coalition offices, jittery soldiers on high alert thought of their loved ones back home.

U.S. Army Warrant Officers Tracy and Michael Brooks were relatively lucky: The married military couple were posted at the same checkpoint for the holidays.

“The kids are with their godparents,” said Mrs. Brooks, donning Christmas-red reindeer antlers. “At least we’re together.”

Other soldiers looked forward to a rare few hours off, stuffing themselves with junk food sent from the United States.

“We’ve gotten a lot of care packages from strangers that write to us,” said Spc. Giovanni Lorente, a native of the Dominican Republic and member of the South Carolina National Guard. “We’ve gotten boxes and stockings full of snacks. It’s very touching.”

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, the Army’s top Roman Catholic cleric, celebrated a Christmas-morning Mass in one of Saddam Hussein’s opulent palaces near Baghdad International Airport.

He praised coalition forces as soldiers “willing to sacrifice life itself so that people who have been demoralized and dehumanized can have a better life.”

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Greefkens of Durango, Colo., said he tries to soothe his 13-year-old daughter Sarah’s worries about his safety by urging her to pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones in Iraq.

At least 318 U.S. soldiers and 86 soldiers from other coalition countries have been killed in combat in Iraq.

“They won’t be here this Christmas,” said Sgt. Greefkens. “They’re very close in our hearts, those that we’ve lost.”

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