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Scenes From the Next Evolution

The 64th Armored Regiment stops fighting and starts trying to befriend Iraqis and rebuild Iraq.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2003 • By JONATHAN FOREMAN
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THE ONLY LIGHT in the hospital-green back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle on the move and battened down against the threat of attack is refracted through the dust on the five 6-inch-wide, 2-inch-high periscope windows. But in the gloom you can make out the junk accumulated during five months training in Kuwait and a month of fighting in Iraq: A box of instant grits, spare goggles, a cooler, an Iraqi bayonet, an officer's laptop, and three precious cans of soda--to be drunk only when the crew are finally on their way home--rearrange themselves as the vehicle stops, starts, and twists with rollercoaster force. And through the periscope ports you can just make out groups of staring pedestrians. The noise of the engines drowns out any conversation not on the intercom.

This armored personnel carrier with its deadly 25 mm cannon is part of a task force--a company of armored infantry and a tank company that this morning roared into a Northern Baghdad neighborhood.

Its mission: to bring U.S. armed might to an area that, like many here in the city, has not yet been visited by American forces, and to reopen a neighborhood grain facility and water pumping station. (The 3rd Infantry Division as a whole has finally moved from a fighting stance to what are called SASO or Stability and Security operations, the precursor to peacekeeping.)

The task force commander, Lt. Col. Philip de Camp, whose battalion of the 64th Armored Regiment led the first "thunder run" into Baghdad, also hopes to investigate reports that Iraqi soldiers had been guarding a large factory and warning locals that its contents were dangerous.

Along the way the convoy passes some Iraqi anti-aircraft guns replete with ammunition--and calls for engineers to destroy them with thermite grenades.

Along most of the route, even through the more ragged neighborhoods, you can see waving civilians through the portholes. The track commander and the gunner standing up in the hatches wave back.

These GIs took part in some of the toughest street battles of the war (including the capture of Baghdad)--at times using pistols and grenades to repel close quarters attacks--but they are determined not to make the mistakes of other liberating victors.

They know it just takes a smile or the removal of a pair of sunglasses to dissolve a sense that here is an inhuman occupying army, especially to a people whose experience of their own army has been one of brutality and extortion.

"It's a good lesson we learned in Bosnia, says Captain Shannon Hume, 28, from Virginia. "We have to work on friendships."

"Why should anyone live this way when they have all this oil?," another track commander's voice asks over the net, as the heavily armed convoy passes through a run-down quarter.

The helmet headphones pick up conversations not just from inside the vehicle, but over the whole battalion net. The headset crackles and a voice announces that "the lions are starving in the national zoo. . . . We don't want to shoot them, but one of them just ate a horse. What should I do? The zookeeper came in and was appalled when he saw Iraqis killing the eagles and swans, but he won't come back while the lions are loose."

NOTING THE SMILES and thumbs up along the way and the friendly crowd that gathers when the vehicles stop next to a trash-strewn soccer field, Captain Hume marvels that "for the first time in their lives these people are not afraid [of soldiers]. It's because they associate the United States with freedom. It would be different for Russians, Chinese, or Germans."

"And you know," he says, "I'm happy to be waving and not shooting."

He isn't the only one. One Bradley gunner didn't come on this mission, because, according to a fellow crewmember: "He didn't want to have to kill anyone; it's really tearing him up to have killed so many people on the way up here."

But as it turns out, there are no attacks by snipers or suicide bombers or the pro-Saddam Arab mercenaries known to be active in the area. With the vehicles stopped, parents bring their children out to see the Americans. A gaggle of grammar school kids rushes out to practice English on bemused soldiers. Three shy little girls in western clothes wave and giggle, hide behind a pillar, and then peek out to wave and giggle again. A man puts his squirming infant son up on the side of our Bradley. "It makes me homesick to see these little kids," says the driver, Sergeant Matthew Deckard, 27, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, who has three children at home including an eight-month-old son he hasn't seen for half a year.

A smiling but toothless old woman offers vegetables from her cart. The soldiers aren't yet authorized to buy from the locals, and few of them are carrying any cash after so long in the field.