AL RIFA, Iraq -- Marines of Echo Co. Battalion Landing Team 2nd Bn., 2nd Marines, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), got the job of keeping the peace in the small town of Al Rifa, Iraq. Among them were Lance Cpl. Gregg A. Thompson from Lexington, KY., gunner, Squad Automatic Weapon, 3rd Plt. and Cpl. Baholo Maphiri from Brooklyn, N.Y., machine gunner/team leader, Weapons Plt. They took a moment to share their personal observations on what it's like to be peacekeepers in postwar Iraq.
"The kids love us," said Maphiri. "The kids call us by American actor's names. ...Jean Claude VanDamme, Arnold, Sylvester Stallone," said Thompson."Somehow I got to be Michael Jackson," Maphiri added.
"Some of the older people, when they know we are patrolling through the towns, they disperse the area (quickly). They keep their distance," said Thompson. "When we walk down the street on patrol it's like walking down the street in any American city. You get out of their way and they'll get out of your way." Thompson added.
Thompson and Maphiri commented on their early observations of the town. "My first impression of the town was that it was really poor and that it kind of has its own space in time. It has the second largest oil reserve in the world, but it sure doesn't show it. Saddam Hussein has robbed these people blind and I think they know it too," said Thompson. "I mean, Bahrain is tenth on the (oil reserve) list and they live a hell of a lot better than these people," he added.
"When we first arrived in the town it was more like a parade. ...People circling around the vehicles," said Thompson. "Marines were coming back from patrols with roses," added Maphiri. "The people were literally throwing wads of money at us," said Thompson.
While the people of Al Rifa might be happy with the Marines, there is one man they are definitely not happy with. "They chant 'down down Saddam'," said Thompson. Their money has a picture of Saddam's face on it and they spit on it and rip the face up. Thompson added.
"When we arrived here there was a picture with Saddam's face on it and the locals were smashing it up. The kids were taking rocks to it," Said Thompson.
"The attitude of the people has pretty much stayed the same. The kids love us. The adults are curious. Everybody is always yelling, 'George Bush... George Bush'," Thompson added.
Whenever the Marines go out the kids surround them holding wads of cash, eager to exchange their Iraqi dollars for American money. "They want basically what we want. If we see one of their coins on the ground, we might think it was a cool souvenir. That's what they want. They want souvenirs from us," said Thompson.
The U.S. military's popularity in Southern Iraq is evident and it is not a phenomenon that is limited solely to Al Rifa. In the town of Qalat Sukar children and grown ups smile and wave, chanting "Stay U.S.A."
The people of Iraq are being freed from the oppression of Saddam and his regime. The children seem to be the most openly enthused. They are getting a chance at a future the likes of which would never have been possible under the oppressive regime and some, if not many, seem to know what needs to be done next. One little boy in Qalat Sukar was asking the Marines for a pencil.
These are the baseline perspectives of Marines on the ground in Central Iraq. There are other issues at play at higher levels, of course, but these perspectives illustrate what Marines on patrol have observed.