Monday, August 2, 2004

BUFERDOS, Iraq — With lightning speed, the convoy of armored Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles descends on this tiny hamlet in the volatile Sunni Triangle. The guns are pointed and the soldiers are primed for the mission.

But instead of taking prisoners and weapons in a surprise raid, the soldiers take temperatures and pulses in an impromptu medical clinic.

“We work in hostile environments doing humanitarian work,” says U.S. Army Col. Nicholas Zoeller of the 13th Corps Support Command. “If the bad guys know we’re coming, they can set up for us. We usually come in unannounced. We do what we can and leave.”

U.S. forces, trying to win hearts and minds amid an insurgency that has shown no signs of abating, have come up with ways to get help to Iraqi people without risking soldiers’ lives. But often the humanitarian work done under such circumstances winds up being incomplete, hasty and superficial, officials said.

“We can’t help these people much,” said one military doctor at Buferdos, where soldiers recently spent two hours quickly trying to treat villagers chronically sick from drinking polluted canal water. “These people need real medical attention and a real clinic. This is a Band-Aid.”

Despite the official transfer of political power from the United States to Iraqis last month and the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, insurgents attack the American-led multinational forces in Iraq 40 to 50 times a day, according to U.S. military officials.

Force protection — the military term for measures meant to prevent troops from coming to harm — overrides many other of the soldiers’ objectives.

As the soldiers arrived in a 12-vehicle convoy, they posted a Bradley Fighting Vehicle at the end of the road. They secured a school building in the center of the village to serve as the clinic. Sharpshooters guarded the area from the roof and soldiers stood guard outside.

Buferdos, a leafy, swampy area along the Tigris River about 40 miles north of Baghdad, is a mostly Shi’ite town long friendly to the U.S. presence here.

It’s also in dire need of medical care. Without access to fresh water, the townspeople for years have been forced to drink dirty water from the local canal. Without ready access to fuel, they were forced to drink it without boiling it first.

As a result, most of the village’s 800 or so inhabitants suffer from a long list of maladies, including stomach aches, fevers and diarrhea. Children’s growth has been severely stunted. Teenagers look like children, and children afflicted with inexplicable gastronomical pains and infection cry for hours.

Charmed by the townspeople’s colorful dress and friendliness toward American troops, U.S. soldiers have made a pet project out of the town. Three weeks earlier, there was a toy giveaway. Soldiers rebuilt the local elementary school, to the plaudits of many villagers.

They tried to make it a model village, a contrast to nearby villages such as Shahab, where radar regularly detects mortars and rockets fired at nearby Logistical Support Area Anaconda, the sprawling U.S. base where Col. Zoeller’s men and 21,000 other soldiers and personnel live.

“It’s a reward for keeping the peace,” he said. “We reward those who are friendly, and we don’t reward those who are not friendly.”

But even in the eyes of some Buferdos residents, the U.S. forces have made promises that have been broken, said Yussef Ibrahim, a tribal leader.

“The coalition forces told us that we would get a water-treatment plant, a clinic and paved roads,” he said, through a U.S. Army interpreter. “We haven’t gotten anything.”

Col. Zoeller, who has overseen humanitarian projects in the Balkans as well as during the 1991 refugee crisis in northern Iraq, said the Americans had never promised Buferdos anything. “Water projects take a long time,” he said, adding that his unit had just put in a request to fund the building of a small water-treatment plant.

Mortal threats to American soldiers also prevent Americans from applying little more than Band-Aids to the problems of villages like Buferdos. Just a few minutes after the clinic closed up at noon, a U.S. soldier in another convoy nearby was killed by a roadside bomb.

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