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Tuesday, April 8

Chaos reigns as Marines continue into Baghdad

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - In one lane of a bridge across the Diyala River, Marine trucks lined up to get into Baghdad.

In the other lane Iraqis scurried - some to get out of the city, others to reach family trapped by the fighting.

In the middle of the midday traffic jam Tuesday were Marine bridge engineers, who have received their first mail call in two weeks.

"It's a fun day all around," said 22-year-old Pfc. Matthew Mileto of Southgate, Mich. He munched on fresh cashews and read a letter from his grandparents while several dozen Iraqis sat on the curb behind him.

The night before, mortar fire fell too close for comfort as Mileto worked a security detail for the bridge builders. "Tonight, we don't know what will happen," he said.

Marine commanders contend the fight for Baghdad is going almost exactly according to plan. But there is an acknowledgment that civil rule around the Iraqi capital is pretty much nonexistent.

"You're in that never-never land right now" between Saddam Hussein's regime and whatever society the international community and the Iraqi people eventually create, said Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division troops storming through eastern Baghdad.

A small man with decayed teeth and a bright green shirt walked out of Baghdad on the bridge over the Diyala River. He spat on the face of Saddam covering a 100-dinar bill and handed the currency to Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ed Maxian, 40, from the Philippines.

"I think they are accepting us and are beginning to state their opinions," Maxian said, tucking the souvenir bill in a pocket of his camouflage jacket.

Across the street, though, a bold Iraqi crowd rushed to voice displeasure to anyone who would listen. Some had heard of the possible demise of Saddam, but they had more immediate concerns.

"We haven't seen much to be comfortable," one shouted in Arabic to a translator. "Our families are starving. We can't get to them."

Baghdad's economy is devastated. Miles of empty stores remained closed or burned out. Those who could find valuables continued to loot, carrying everything from air conditioners to fresh chickens down the roads, while others begged for food and cigarettes.

"I see the looting mainly as resentment directed at government offices," Mattis said. "I didn't see anybody beating anybody up to get to stuff. They are mainly a peaceful people."

The exception, Mattis said in his first field press conference of the war, are the "few crazies" from other nations. It could take months to purge Baghdad of them.

"They are armed and dangerous, but they are about as worthless a fighting force as Marines have ever encountered," Mattis said. "They have no courage. We have been in houses today where the enemy surrendered, and women and children were cowering in the corners. They hide behind women and children. They really lack manhood."

In a colorful 20-minute question-and-answer session, Mattis bristled at the suggestion that the war hasn't moved fast enough, lobbed verbal bombs at Saddam and said the remaining Iraqi forces had no chance of long-term success.

Reporters asked why the Marines couldn't reach Baghdad in a week, as ground troops and Pentagon gossip suggested before the war.

"My chain of command never gave me (an order of) Baghdad in seven days," Mattis said. "It would have been pretty amateurish if they had."

Yes, American troops could have rolled to Baghdad faster, but the cost would have been too high in both U.S. and Iraqi civilian casualties, he said.

Mattis said the fight before and during Baghdad has been easier than expected. But the commander would not lay out a time line for the conclusion of the campaign, nor would he describe Tuesday's battle movements in any detail.

"There are some areas (that Iraqi and Fedayeen fighters) are not aware we are in," Mattis said. "They're going to have some surprises in their own areas."

Mattis agreed that the most passionate jihad fighters "will continue to be a police problem for some months to come." But he said they will ultimately be rooted out by both force and public will on the streets.

"How are they going to hide amongst a people here who don't like them?" he asked.