| A boy offers cigarettes to US troops in southern Iraq. (Reuters)
Outside Basra, March 24 (Reuters): The US Marine stared at the Iraqi goat herder before him, searching for the right words to say to a man whose country he had just invaded.
“How are you doing'” asked Private First Class Angel Betances, as the man grinned back, unable to understand a word of what he was saying.
“You want cigarettes'” asked Betances, 23, rummaging in the pockets of his camouflage chemical warfare trousers. “I think I got one,” he muttered, handing him a Newport menthol.
The man smiled and took it, but it was not what he was looking for.
US forces see themselves as liberators of a people oppressed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but they are unlikely to have much face-to-face contact with the families watching their armoured columns rumble past.
Apart from the language barrier between English-speaking troops and Arabic-speaking Iraqis, US soldiers view civilians with some suspicion, fearful of “terrorist” attack.
“I don’t trust anyone,” said one US Marine, cradling an M-16 rifle as he guarded an ammunition truck pulled up on waste ground outside the southern city of Basra. “As long as they keep their distance away, we’ll be fine,” he said, peering suspiciously at a civilian lorry parked near the goat herder’s stone-walled home.
Outside the house, some 20 other huge US transporters formed a wide defensive circle known as a “wagon wheel”.
Belt-fed machine-guns mounted on their cabs pointed across the plain surrounding Basra and over the corrugated iron roof of their new neighbour.
The man appeared unfazed, shepherding a flock of goats and sheep between monster-sized trucks laden with artillery charges and guided missiles as if they had always been there.
So far, the supply convoy — known as Second Platoon — has encountered only a handful of civilians on its drive past Basra, an area dotted with scattered homes and the occasional line of trees that break the desert monotony.
The handful of Iraqi civilians that have approached the convoy following US Marines spearheading the invasion have mostly offered smiles and handshakes.
The US troops, who have a few Arabic translators in mobile intelligence units, have been briefed to expect a warm reception from the majority Shias living in southern Iraq, where opposition to Saddam has traditionally been strong.
But the Americans know they cannot expect smiles from all those they meet.
Hundreds of militia men loyal to the Iraqi President are roaming the area around Basra with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, ready to ambush invading forces, Marine sources say.
So far, the young American troops on the convoy have not fired a shot — preferring simply to stop and stare at the people in the first foreign country some have ever visited.
“Those little kids are cool,” said Lance-Corporal Donnie Graap, 18, staring down from the roof of his truck cab as the goat herder’s wild-haired children scampered through the dust. “I figured they’d walk by and they’d be scared by this thing,” he said, tapping his machine-gun. “But they walk by and they’re friendly.”
Near the Iraqi town of Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad, the mood was similarly amicable. “If I see any Iraqis on the side of the road I’m more than happy to give them one of my MREs (meal ready to eat) and other soldiers have been doing the same thing,” said Col Mark Hildenbrand, commander of the 937th Engineer Group.
“I wish these people no ill will, really. I just wish they would surrender and we could get this all over with”.