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KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Army civil affairs troops, working side by side with Iraqi exiles, are coordinating the delivery of water and other forms of aid to thousands of people in southern Iraq.

“We’re getting a good reception,” said Army Col. David Blackledge, commander of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade. “We’re working every day to bring the people the help they need. We are working every day to impress upon the people that we are here to help.”

Blackledge and his unit, a group of reservists based in Maryland, are working from the port city of Umm Qasr, which opens into the Persian Gulf.

Coalition forces have had control of the port for more than a week.

An integral part of their operation relies upon Free Iraqi Forces, Iraqi exiles who came from a recently completed training program in Taszar, Hungary.

“They have been outstanding,” Blackledge said Friday during a live satellite feed interview from Umm Qasr to reporters in Kuwait City and the Pentagon.

Three of the Iraqis appeared with Blackledge, and their enthusiasm was obvious.

One man said he was excited to see friends he hadn’t seen since he fled Iraq nearly a decade ago. He last worked as a cab driver in the United States.

“It’s good to be helping our country be free and our people,” said the man, who identified himself as Ali. “But the most important part is, it will bring peace to the Middle East.”

U.S. military officials said the Free Iraqi Forces will only use their given names because their family members still in Iraq could face retaliation.

The role of the Free Iraqi Forces is very important in cultivating regional trust, both Blackledge and the Iraqi dissidents said.

“We give them hope,” Ali said, “that there is no more Saddam Hussein in power because they saw what happened in 1991.”

Ali was referring to the uprising of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq against Hussein after the Persian Gulf War. Military support from coalition forces, which had been expected, never materialized, and thousands of people were killed when Hussein’s followers quashed the uprising.

Coincidentally, the training of the Free Iraqi Forces, a U.S. European Command program in Hungary, was halted last month after the second group of trainees completed the program. Less than 100 Iraqis were trained. Military officials said they were ready to train 2,500 Iraqi dissidents.

Trainees like Ali earn about $1,500 a month. They were taught, among other things, military command structure, first aid and basic marksmanship. They were issued uniforms and 9 mm sidearms.

Other U.S Army civil affairs units currently operating in southern Iraq have been pleased with the contributions made by the Iraqi volunteers and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next group, said Army Maj. Gen. David Barno, who headed the training in Hungary.

“Their knowledge of local areas inside Iraq, language skills and the training they received in Taszar in supporting humanitarian operations make them invaluable contributors to coalition efforts,” he said.

The 354th Civil Affairs Brigade specializes in the Middle East, Blackledge said, and its members are knowledgeable in regional customs, and several members speak Arabic.

Civil affairs units network with local residents to learn what help they need, and then try to facilitate that help. Civil affairs personnel can also broadcast local radio shows and work with those stations to form closer ties between the military and community.

For now, the 354th is coordinating humanitarian aid, Blackledge said, and this week met with representatives of the World Food Program.

“Food is not a problem. They have enough for six to eight weeks,” he said. “Water distribution is the biggest problem.”

Umm Qasr is where 60 percent of the food from the curtailed United Nations food-for-oil originated, he said.

“It’s going to take time,” Blackledge said, “but we’re here to stay.”


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