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Thank you for coming, Iraqis tell Marines

Aziziyah (Iraq), April 5 (Reuters): Cheering Iraqis handed out soft drinks and offered cigarettes to US Marines today, warmly welcoming the troops and making throat-slitting gestures at pictures of President Saddam Hussein.

The Marines rolled into this town, 80 km southeast of Baghdad, to tackle any pockets of resistance from Saddam loyalists bypassed as the US vanguard swept towards the capital in the last two days.

Instead they saw hundreds of young men heading away from the capital, apparently deserting the Iraqi army. Senior officials of Saddam’s Baath Party had fled the town, residents said.

Happy crowds milled around the Marines’ armoured vehicles, asking in faltering English if they had come to free Iraq or take their oil, as the Iraqi leadership has repeatedly claimed.

A loud hurrah went up as a Marine told the crowd that the US-led forces had come to liberate them.

“Thank you for coming, now I don’t have to serve in the army,” said Taha Ahmed, 35. “All of us have run away from the Iraqi army, we don’t want to fight, we are tired of war.”

US troops expressed disappointment in the early days of the invasion when instead of an expected welcome from Iraqis they met stiff resistance.

The Marines were slightly bemused by the warmth with which they were greeted in this medium-sized town but accepted the bottles of soft drinks they were offered and politely declined the cigarettes. A girl in a blue vest held out a pink flower to a passing US vehicle.

“It sure beats having to shoot them,” said one Marine, sweating heavily in his protective anti-chemical weapon suit under the blazing sun.

The reception in Aziziyah mirrored the friendly atmosphere in many Iraqi towns passed through in recent days.

All Iraqi forces and senior officials of Saddam’s Baath Party had fled the town two days previously, leaving the locals to loot and burn their offices and tear down posters of Saddam, said Sirown, 21, who was too afraid to give his family name. Sirown said he had come to Aziziyah from Baghdad to escape the bombing of the Iraqi capital.

His friend, Ali, 27, pulled out a large bankroll, pointed at the picture of Saddam that graces each Iraqi banknote and drew his finger across his throat with a smile. “People are very happy now. We couldn’t speak before because the Baath Party would kill them. Now everything is OK,” Ali said. He said the first thing he wanted any new government to change was the banknotes.

“Will we have new money or will we have dollars'” he asked.

The crowd were curious, querying how long the US forces would stay, what would happen to oil revenues, when UN food distribution would restart and when the power and water supply would come back on.

Some asked why US forces would have to stay up to two years in Iraq and when they would have their own army again. “Will we have democracy and clean water soon'” asked Malek Farhan, who said he was a town councillor.

“Thank you for coming. For 17 years I’ve been running away from the army,” said Hassan Zebun, who said he was unable to marry or buy a house since he could not get a job with his deserter status.

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