- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces celebrated Christmas yesterday by feasting on turkey, hugging Santa and singing carols, their enthusiasm tempered by the announcement of three more American deaths.

At a dining room deep inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, a world apart from the sectarian warfare that thrives beyond the barricades, the mood was festive and cheery.

Separated from loved ones back home, troops on active duty were treated to lots of lobster, turkey, smoked ham, pumpkin pie, cake and candy, a live jazz band and a room festooned with decorations.

“It’s awesome. It makes you feel like you’re at home,” said 1st Lt. Gary Marquis, whose wife and three children live in Rhode Island, while on a break from patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

Paper chains, an inflatable snowman and a life-size scene in glazed dough of a family sitting around a Christmas tree provided a centerpiece that caterers had been planning since Thanksgiving.

“I’m absolutely amazed. I’m awestruck. I’ve never seen anything like this in the States except in shopping centers. I forgot I wasn’t back in Tennessee,” said Sgt. Steve Undercoffer, snapping souvenir pictures on his cell phone.

Nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion, violence has soared to an all-time high in Iraq, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis and claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 U.S. service personnel.

Authorities announced that an American soldier and a Marine had died Sunday from combat wounds suffered in Anbar province. Another soldier died and two were wounded yesterday when a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. military vehicle in southern Baghdad.

Sgt. Undercoffer said six of his friends have been killed in Iraq and four more in Afghanistan, but that he could not be prouder of the U.S. mission.

“Baghdad has its messy little spots — a combination of old American Dodge City and fantasy Wild West — but Baghdad will come together. The Iraqi people are not going to allow it to capitulate,” he said.

The decorations and menu for 2,500 hungry mouths was crafted as a Christmas present from the dining-facility manager, an employee of private contractor KBR, whose three years in Iraq have put his son through college.

“We have a responsibility for providing high morale. We’re capturing a little bit of home,” said Lloyd Michael Lee, 54, showing off the family scene complete with Santa Claus, presents, reindeer and a sleigh full of presents.

Beaming holiday cheer, decked out in a red tie festooned with little Santas carrying the U.S. flag, Mr. Lee acknowledged that in all the time he has spent in Iraq, the only Iraqis he has met were guests in his serving line.

“I think it’s a joy and a blessing to be here,” said Lt. Col. Cheryl Brady, an ordained minister, who was invited to bless the feast.

Tables were laid with candles and bottles of sparkling grape juice, so troops could toast each other regardless of the blanket ban on alcohol.

“I’m really happy I’m here with you guys. Whatever. Merry Christmas,” said 22-year-old Spc. Gerson Hart Andrade, from Massachusetts, saluting the other men in his field-artillery unit after insulting most of them jokingly.

Mr. Lee’s team of Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese and Philippine waiters ran around in Santa hats and burgundy waistcoats, many of them Muslim and amused by the American-style Christmas festivities.

Imran Nazeer, a Christian from Pakistan, was so eager to join the festive cheer that he dressed up as Santa Claus, trying to cover his black moustache with white cotton wool as he was hugged by a female soldier.

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