In Baqouba, help amid the chaos

An old woman waits to be searched Sunday before receiving food and water from U.S. and Iraqi troops during a humanitarian aid mission in Baqouba.


Soldiers keep watch as Iraqis give food to families

By DREW BROWN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 26, 2007

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Bombs were going off on one side of the street, while U.S. and Iraqi troops were distributing emergency supplies of food and water on the other.

It was the sixth day of a massive U.S. and Iraqi offensive to clear Baqouba of al-Qaida fighters and other insurgents.

As troops with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team continued to press the fight in the section of town known as New Baqouba, other soldiers with the 296th Brigade Support Battalion and Iraqi troops handed out bags of rice, flour and crates of water to residents of Old Baqouba who had been caught up in the fighting.

It was the fourth day that troops had distributed the emergency supplies. At first, only a few residents trickled in. But as word spread, that trickle became a torrent, with hundreds of people waiting in line under the scorching afternoon sun.

As the people waited, Iraqi troops unloaded 50-pound bags of rice and flour, plus countless crates of bottled water.

“What we’re doing is a humanitarian aid function,” said Maj. Scot Pears, of the 296th Brigade Support Battalion. “It’s about a three-week supply for each family.”

The supply drop was one of several throughout the city, Pears said. The day before, troops gave supplies to about 220 families; about 30 families were turned away after supplies ran out.

Pears said U.S. troops were keen to let Iraqis take the lead on the distribution effort.

“The idea is that within a week, the IA (Iraqi army) will be doing this on their own,” Pears said.

Men were made to stand in one line, while women and children stood in the other. Each person was patted down quickly for weapons before being allowed to proceed to pick up their allotment: one bag of rice, one bag of flour and a crate of water.

But as orderly as the troops tried to keep the effort, it soon devolved into something just short of chaos. As soon as the handouts began, three old women who received their supplies first started clamoring for more, claiming that they had more than one family to care for.

A couple of Iraqi soldiers, apparently sympathetic to their plight, began to load the women up with extras.

“Hey, only one bag!” shouted Pears. “Look at all these people here. If they get more than one, then a lot of these people are going to get nothing.”

Only a few dozen people stood in line when the distribution started. Within an hour, there were hundreds, including a large crowd that had gathered across the two-lane boulevard separating the old section of the city from New Baqouba, where random explosions continued to rock the afternoon.

A group of Iraqi army troops trying to control the crowd allowed groups of about 20 to cross the wide street at a time, much to the consternation of a trio of U.S. troops there to help provide security.

The rules were that no men of military age, roughly 15 to 45, were to be allowed to cross the street, only older men, plus women and children.

As one group of men tried to cross, Pfc. Jeremy Lavender, 21, of Sturgis, S.D., waved them back across the street.

“Hey, hey!” he shouted. “No military age males!”

“IA doesn’t listen,” he said, to no one in particular. “I don’t know how many times we have to tell them.”

Lavender called over to Pfc. Sam Zimmer, 21, of Palmer, Alaska, and told him to fire warning shots well away from the crowd, if another group of men tried to cross.

Fortunately, no warning shots were necessary. Most of the women on the New Baqouba side had already made it across the street anyway, and the men who remained appeared content to stand their ground.

A group of women passed, carrying bags of rice and flour on top of their heads.

“Amriki, Amriki,” they said, smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign.

Residents of Baqouba wait Sunday for Iraqi troops to hand out supplies of emergency food and water. Hundreds showed up for supplies.

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