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Published: Friday, 5/2/2003

Iraqi civilians welcome peace, show gratitude


WEST OF AR RAMADI, Iraq - The first full day of operations for the civil affairs team attached to the 1st Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was a day at the beach.

Every day in the desert seems a day at the beach, of course, but the reservists from Texas also found they didn't have much to do when they surveyed the needs of Iraqi civilians in the immediate area.

The six soldiers came armed with checklists prepared by the U.S. Agency for International Development to determine civilian needs for water, food, electric power, or medical care.

“Civil affairs are the scouts for the Red Cross, the NGOs (non-government relief organizations), the U.N.,” said Maj. Paul Gass, a Pittsburgh-area native who commands this team from the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Abilene, Texas.

The team checked out a bus stop-restaurant, a railroad station, and two villages.

The reception in all four places was friendly. In the villages (for reasons of operational security, they cannot be named), Major Gass and his interpreter, Sgt. Brian Myhre of the 66th Military Intelligence Company, were invited for tea and a meal. They politely declined.

There'd been no fighting in the area, townspeople said. They had plenty of potable water, and those relatively few people who had electricity before the war had electric power now.

At the train station, the station manager had a different story. There had been no electricity since the war began, and he and his staff hadn't been paid for two months. But there was plenty of water and food in the small village adjacent to the station, he reported.

A sergeant found an expended AK-47 cartridge near the tracks. The station manager said he had shot at thieves a few nights before.

The manager at the gas station-bus stop had the same complaint. Local people were peaceful, he said. The outlaws were “Baghdadis,” outsiders. What were the Ameriki going to do about them, he asked.

“The people seem to be welcoming peace, and there seems to be a sense of gratitude for our presence,” Major Gass said.

The major, 37, lives in Houston, where he teaches Army ROTC at the University of Houston, but he's a graduate of Clarion University and grew up in Irwin, Pa., where his twin brother, Eric, also an Army reservist, still lives. Paul Gass hasn't seen Eric for a year, but he learned that his twin had also been mobilized to the Gulf.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration. He is traveling with 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in western Iraq.

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