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Indians cook for US troops in Saddam kitchen

Tikrit, Aug. 24 (Reuters): While the US geared up to attack Iraq, Joseph Thomas watched from Kuwait with other Indian workers and wondered what war would bring.

In the end, it landed him in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit and a new job making fast food for the US troops who have set up shop in a base inside the deposed Iraqi strongman’s sprawling palace on the banks of the Tigris

“Before the war, I thought if America and Iraq go to war, Iraq may win,” said Thomas, a 24-year-old from Kerala. “And now I am working for the Americans and staying in Saddam’s house.”

Thomas is one of dozens of Indians trucked in from Kuwait to staff a mess hall that serves US troops the homely comfort of their national cuisine — hamburgers and roast beef on white bread, with iced tea and chocolate or strawberry milk.

And like the rest of his colleagues on contract with the US military to keep some 3,000 troops in pork sausage and onion rings, he is too busy cooking and clearing tables to draw any conclusions about the Americans and their project in Iraq.

“Well, no,” he replied when asked whether he had met any Iraqis during his three weeks in the dining hall of the 4th Infantry Division, a football-field sized expanse of blue-topped picnic tables where powerful air-conditioners buffet a nylon roof stretched over walls of corrugated steel.

“So I cannot say anything about Iraqis. I have been dealing with the Americans for five months, and they are always on good behaviour,” he said.

Three times a day, Thomas and his colleagues — most of them from south India — open the mess to soldiers queuing outside in blistering heat that leaves a shimmer above the river winding around and through the palace complex.

Clad in blue golf shirts and white paper hats, they fill pans of waffles and grilled cheese sandwiches wolfed down by hungry soldiers, making sure each table has bottles of mustard and ketchup intended to let troops — many of whom have learned they will be in Iraq for a year — satisfy their home cravings.

Later, when the last teeming plastic bag of smeared napkins and partially gnawed wieners has been loaded on the garbage truck, the employees of what must surely be among Iraq’s largest restaurants let their thoughts turn to their homes.

“It’s not nice,” said a worker, who asked not to be named. “We don’t have any telephone facilities, and I’ve had no communication with my family since I came at the end of July. I have lost touch with them completely.”

While grateful for the pay — most workers say they are getting about $500 a month, to be paid into accounts in India — the mess staff say the isolation has begun to wear on them, and some have begun to chafe under the conditions of life with their American employers.

“We must eat what they eat, it’s the same food,” said the worker who wished to remain anonymous.

After finishing his own plate of Sloppy Joe — a mixture of ground beef in tomato sauce served on hamburger buns that is a fixture on the dining hall menu — he says his tenure in Iraq is becoming an exercise in learning what he can put up with.

“I can stomach it, but of course I could do much better cooking for myself,” he said. His employers, he said, struck him much as his diet does: unremarkable, and for the most part inoffensive and bearable.

“They are almost all friendly, and mostly everyone is polite, although there are a few who are really not. I am surprised by some of them though, who don’t look so healthy, like they are not getting enough exercise.”

One worker, rattled by the thump of the mortars fired by US troops beyond the walls of their base most evenings, said he would feel more at ease if he was less ignorant of his surroundings.

“No, what are they like'” said Wilson, who is 23 days into what he expects to be a stay of at least five months at the base, when asked if he knew any Iraqis.

“I have never been outside, I’m curious to know what is happening out there, obviously it is very difficult. Is it safe'”

Others say their time in Iraq so far has been onerous but tolerable, and that the key to getting by is getting along with the people around them.

“For the money, it is okay and as far as the food goes, I have no choice except to eat it, you cannot order out,” said Francisco Dias of Goa, who has been in Tikrit for two months.

“I am happy, basically. I wish I could hear from my family more, but I talk with my colleagues and they are a good group of people.”

Also encouraging, he said, is the glimmer of opportunity that being cheek-by-jowl with the Americans represents.

“I am thinking about going to America, maybe asking one of the soldiers to marry me, for instance. What do you think' Do I need to join the US Army to do this'”

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