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Friday, March 28

Crucial U.S. air base opens in southern Iraq

By Gordon Trowbridge, C. Mark Brinkley | Army Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Iraq - The opening of the first American air base inside southern Iraq on Friday will help shorten dangerously stretched supply lines to soldiers and Marines advancing on Baghdad.

The first C-130 cargo plane landed Friday at the base, whose exact location is being kept secret. By Saturday, the Air Force expects to be able to refuel and rearm the A-10 Warthog attack planes that will provide crucial air support missions.

At the newly opened air base, the buildings are dusty and full of holes, and the fueling and communications facilities nonexistent. The runways until just days ago were a maze of earthen mounds and burned-out vehicle hulks.

But this will soon be the Air Force's hub of operations in southern Iraq, crucial to the ground push into Baghdad and the postwar rebuilding effort to come.

"This is a beautiful piece of real estate,'' said Col. A. Ray Meyers, who heads the Air Force team working to transform the captured Iraqi base ``It's in Iraq, and it's open for business.''

Meanwhile, U.S. military officials said that soldiers and Marines on the front near Baghdad spent Friday ``setting the conditions for future operations.''

What that meant for some of the hardest pressed troops was a break. About 80 miles south of Baghdad, soldiers in the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, the unit of the 3rd Infantry Division that had seen the hardest fighting, took a break. Some soldiers even managed a shower, the first in eight days of ground combat.

The members of 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment used Friday for spring cleaning - after several days of shooting and moving as they cleared enemy positions in central Iraqi, more than 60 miles north of An Nasiriyah.

Machine guns and howitzers got a thorough scrub; night-vision devices received much-needed maintenance. There's been little personal time for the Marines since the war began, so troops have taken care of hygiene on the fly. On Friday, Marines had time to change socks, give each other haircuts and air out sleeping bags.

It was also a day for resupplying, loading up on the big four: ammunition, fuel, water and food. The combat train following the Marines as they march north toward Baghdad has had its own problems in keeping up the troops' rapid pace, but that's not evident where the Marines from Battery M of the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment are positioned.

``The supply chain is working the way it was supposed to work,'' said 1st Lt. Ty Yount, 26, a Marine from Morganton, N.C. ``Bullets, gas, water and food - that's our priority. They are supplying us. They are taking and filling rapid requests for maintenance. They are keeping us rolling.''

The just-opened air base will help ease the supply lines as the logisticians help push much needed supplies north. Already, Marine units at various locations are receiving supplies by airdrop, pushed from the back of transport helicopters onto positions in the field.

Earlier Friday, officials concerned about supplies had sent word to Yount's battery that field rations would be cut to two meals a day. Later in the day, the plan was reversed as supply trucks with food ambled closer, and the Marines were told they could have the standard three meals.

Most Marines are sick of the selection of food already, so two meals is plenty.

Mail is what they miss most - news from the rear, home-baked treats, and store-bought items unavailable in the desert. No one is certain when the letters and packages will finally catch up.

``I'm doing all right. We need an airdrop of Copenhagen,'' said Lance Cpl. Jason Samuels, referring to a brand of chewing tobacco.

``But everything's been going good,'' said the 20-year-old artillery mechanic from La Grange, Ky. ``We've been sending rounds downrange, and that's all that matters.''

(Contributing: Sean Naylor, Army Times)