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Tank crew inspires trust in Iraq
Baghdad: U.S. soldiers win the hearts and minds of Iraqis queued up at a fueling station.
By Douglas Birch
Sun Foreign Staff
Originally published June 22, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - At the Liberation Gasoline Station in the southern part of the city, people were arguing in the shimmering heat.

Police and Ministry of Oil officials were jumping to the front of the long, slow-moving lines, or demanding extra rations of gasoline or propane, enraging drivers who had waited impatiently for hours.

There was shouting, pushing, shoving and slapping.

Then an Abrams tank from the 1st Armored Division's 135th Battalion rolled in, trailing clouds of brown dust and coughing diesel exhaust.

Not a shot was fired. The Americans took no one prisoner. No one was hurt. But the lines became shorter and moved faster.

Even more important, the scarce fuel was more fairly distributed, and a couple of weeks after the 1st Armored Division left, the station remains a more or less orderly place, customers and workers say, despite continuing shortages.

Several workers said the Americans made the difference. "We are thankful that they came," said Abbas Fallah, a 27-year-old worker at the station's propane distribution center. "They gave us a little freedom, and hope for the future.

"They gave equality for each citizen."

They managed to accomplish on one Baghdad street corner what the Americans hope - and need - to achieve throughout the country. Without violence, a platoon of the 135th Battalion restored security, prompted fair play and won the trust and gratitude of Iraqi civilians.

One of the great unknowns is whether the experience at the Liberation Gas Station can be repeated. It's far from clear whether American authorities have the means, the will or the time to re-create Iraq in America's image one gas station, hospital, school and city hall at a time.

Many Iraqis are demanding a quick withdrawal of American forces, fearing that the United States will otherwise remain here permanently and will regard this oil-rich country as little more than a gigantic discount pumping station.

But workers at the Liberation Station aren't eager to see the Americans leave. "We didn't see any harm from them," Majid Shaku, one of the propane yard workers, said as some of his colleagues nodded. "They were very kind, and they treated us good. They didn't even know us. Under the circumstances, it's better for them to stay."

The 1st Armored Division, based in Germany, arrived in Baghdad on May 25, weeks after full-scale fighting ended. Second Lt. Nick Franklin and his platoon were dispatched to guard the gas station.

It's a throwback to American service stations of the 1950s. There are four islands with nine pumps sheltered by a metal awning, and the pumps don't have slots for credit cards or any need for computer chips. In the rear are the storage tanks, their caps generally left off, the gas fumes thick in the air.

When Franklin's platoon arrived, drivers were typically waiting three hours to fill up to the allowed limit of about 11 gallons of gas. Women began lining up at 4 a.m., standing for six hours until the propane yard opened at 10 a.m., to be sure of getting a refilled bottle. Many still walked home empty-handed. There were frequent arguments, scuffles and fights.

Instead of just guarding the station, the soldiers decided to make it run more fairly and efficiently. "We were trying to guide them in the direction of the light," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Revette, 32.

Early on, they confronted Iraqi officials who tried to pull rank and take more than their ration of fuel. "It's tough to explain to a 70-year-old woman who has been standing in line all day that the Ministry of Oil guy who just drove to the front of the line is entitled to 10 propane cylinders, and everyone else got only one," Franklin said.

Outraged, the officials would stand nose to nose with the soldiers and scream at them. The soldiers stood their ground. "We never did slug a guy from the Ministry of Oil, as much as I would have liked to," Franklin said.

The soldiers also noticed the same faces were showing up every day to buy propane, even though the limit was one propane cylinder per family, and each cylinder lasted the typical family about a week. The extras, it turned out, were being taken around the corner and sold for seven times the government's price of 500 dinars, or 33 cents.

The Angry Man

One of the Americans' staunchest allies in the push for reform was an employee the soldiers nicknamed the Angry Man, who was outraged by the chaos.

"If he wasn't angry at someone, he would throw the propane tank at their feet," Franklin said. "If it was someone he was angry at, he would throw it at them."

The Angry Man - Majid Fadel, a 34-year-old Ministry of Oil employee - talked of his dedication to his job. "Thank God, I like my work," he said.

Customers, too, were pleased by the reforms. "[The Americans] made us line up, and they only let 10 people through the gate at a time," preventing free-for-all scrambles for propane, said Ali Hussein Jawad, a 25-year-old former Iraqi army soldier, who stood in line Friday. "They brought order here."

But the Americans couldn't eliminate some ingrained habits, products of Iraq's centrally planned economy.

By law, gas at state-owned stations costs 13 cents a gallon. Gas station attendants earn $10 a month, and depend on "tips" - small bribes - that motorists pay for the privilege of buying gasoline for next to nothing. The attendants, in turn, kick back part of their "tips" to station management, supposedly for maintenance of the station.

Gas station workers assumed the Americans would want a share of the money, or free gas. They were impressed when no such demands were made.

The Americans tried but failed to reform safety practices. The air at the station is filled with the acrid smell of propane and gasoline leaking from ancient, battered tanks. Often, pump attendants would let overflowing gasoline form puddles on the ground while they topped off tanks with a few extra ounces.

Many station workers puffed on cigarettes as they worked. The soldiers begged them not to. But no one listened.

'Out of our element'

Revette, the staff sergeant from Rome, N.Y., is a veteran of the 1991 gulf war. He didn't get to meet many Iraqis during that conflict. "We're tankers; we're out of our element," he said. "We don't usually patrol streets. We shoot people from a distance."

After guarding the gas station, he found he liked the people - but he cautioned that they have to learn not to challenge the soldiers: "We're American soldiers, we're not animals. But if they don't want to listen to reason, it can escalate."

Franklin's platoon spent about 10 days at the gas station, then was reassigned to a checkpoint near the zoo to protect part of the government complex in central Baghdad. There is almost no traffic on the dead-end road, and little to do.

He said he missed the gas station with its lines and squabbling customers and small-time black marketeers. The platoon got a kick out of improving one tiny corner of Iraqi society, if only for a while.

Other American military units have been there on and off, station workers say. Still, there are problems. Armed robbers stole 20 cylinders of propane a few days ago, said the manager, who calls himself Yassin Johnny.

On Friday, American troops from a different unit were back to keep an eye on things. But the new soldiers paid no attention when one man butted to the front of the line.

"His brother was a truck driver at our station, and he died in an accident the other day," Johnny explained. "We have sympathy for him. This is the Arabic tradition. So we help him, giving him gas without standing in the line.

"Now we are under control," he said. "Don't worry.

"Everything will be fine."

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun | Get home delivery

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