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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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Saturday, April 12

Soldiers set up headquarters at abandoned amusement park

By Matthew Cox | Military Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A week ago, foot soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were enduring bloody street fighting in Karbala. On Saturday, they were setting up temporary headquarters near the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel of an abandoned amusement park here.

But members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment quickly learned that this park isn't like the ones back home. Almost as soon as they got here, the manager took them to hidden caches of AK47 rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Iraqi military has frequently used sites such as schools and hospitals to house troops and store weapons.

"These sites are protected by international law,'' said Chief Warrant Officer 1 Steve Coppedge, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas. "They (Iraqi troops) show up at the schools and kick the teachers out. They kick the students out and use it as a military headquarters.

"And look where we are now. We are at a kid's amusement park, and they were using it as a military headquarters.''

Baghdad, a city of about 6 million, is nothing like the soldiers thought it would be. It is strewn with garbage and fouled with the putrid odor of a festering dump. Children play in filth-covered streets.

"I expected big palaces and hotels. For as much wealth as this place reportedly has, I really haven't seen it,'' said Staff Sgt. Dave Betts, 33, of Cleveland. "It doesn't look any different than any other towns we have been in, just bigger.''

About 1,200 soldiers from the 502nd entered the southern section of Baghdad on Friday. They swooped in by helicopter air assault to help the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force clear the city of remnants of Iraqi fighters and to bring civic order to the looting and lawlessness that have gripped parts of Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed.

They came in expecting a fierce fight, filled with intense, house-to-house combat. But instead, they received a hero's welcome.

"I thought we would be going up against tanks and (fighting vehicles) and urban fighting,'' said Lt. Col. Chris Holden, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd, also known as the Widowmakers.

"I didn't think the Iraqis would capitulate to the 3rd I.D., the 101st and the 1st MEF. I thought we would have a lot more Karbalas,'' said Holden, 41, of Buffalo, N.Y.

On April 5, Holden's troops ran into fierce resistance from radical militants almost as soon as they entered Karbala. From noon until nightfall, the soldiers fought street by street, taking heavy fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. One soldier died after being shot in the hip.

But here, they moved easily and swiftly through the streets. By late afternoon Saturday, the 502nd had cleared nearly to the city's center, unopposed.

Still, most soldiers aren't expecting a quick end to their mission. Once the enemies and criminals are cleared out and the city is restored to general safety, the humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping missions will begin.

For now, however, they take heart in the welcome they have received in Baghdad, especially from small children. "The kids are the ones that give you that good feeling,'' Betts said.