BAGHDADSitting in a schoolyard as the sun began to set in southern Baghdad, Cpl. Mike Lilli mixed together cocoa powder and peanut butter from his Army-issue meal ready to eat to make Ranger pudding and sighed. After three weeks of MREs, even Ranger pudding was getting dull. But now, at least to Lilli, the end of MREs was in sight. "I say the war is over," he said. "We're in Baghdad and we are not getting shot at."
Soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division marched into southern Baghdad Friday, checking out suspicious buildings and making a show of force. Members of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Battalion encountered no resistance, although bombs and artillery attacks were heard throughout the day and into the twilight as the Marines and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division pressed their fight in other quarters of the city. "This is crazy, not a bit of fight in the nation's capital," said Spc. Matthew Hoffmaster. His boss, Lt. Col. Chris Holden, seemed equally surprised. "This seems to be a vanquished foe," he said. "But we aren't letting our guard down and we are going to continue to push north."
Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade were flown in Black Hawk helicopters to the edge of the city during the midmorning Friday. Then, they began the long trek into the city. The men mostly walked, occasionally stopping to check out a building or investigate a car. One late model Chevrolet Suburban had two turrets built into the roof, for use as some sort of attack vehicle. The men ripped out the cables and disabled the car.
In the early afternoon, the men sat by the side of the road and began to talk about the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime and about life after the war. "What I wouldn't give for real food, a real shower, and a real bed," said Staff Sgt. Luke Carr. "But I won't even be able to sleep in a bed. I will have to get out and sleep on the floor."
American soldiers have taken to calling Iraqisparticularly members of the paramilitaryHajji. But the demonization of Iraqis seems halfhearted. The soldiers of Bravo Company faced a vicious fight in Karbala and came under heavy firea story they are still rehashing a week later. But despite the hostility the soldiers feel toward the Iraqi Fedayeen fighters, for the most part they keep their eyes on what they are doing. When one solider joked he was going to shoot an Iraqi, Sgt. Jason Sypherd set him straight. "If you can't positively identify, don't shoot. If the [expletive] has his hands up don't shoot," he said. "We are trying to keep people on our side."
Reaction to the soldiers of the 101st today was mixed. Outside the city, the people mostly stared silently, though they would return the waves of the soldiers. Most of the soldiers kept their distance, but Spc. Anthony Cabrera was using his Iraqi phrase book to ask residents about militants and weapons caches. By the side of the road, he struck up a conversation with a man named Mustafa. "The Iraqi people want us here," Cabrera said. "They want to be liberated."
The most enthusiastic liberated Iraqis on Friday were the ones who had filled the back of pickup trucks with looted office equipment, furniture, or bedding. But as the 101st advanced into the slums of southern Baghdad, crowds began to gather, most of them cheering the advancing Army. Few spoke English, but one man stretched out his arms and said, "Thank you, thank you from the people of Iraq."
Spc. Brandon Holzer glanced briefly at the man and remarked: "At least someone is grateful."