|Tank crew inspires trust in
Baghdad: U.S. soldiers win the hearts and minds of
Iraqis queued up at a fueling station.
By Douglas Birch
Originally published June 22,
BAGHDAD, Iraq - At the Liberation Gasoline Station in
the southern part of the city, people were arguing in the shimmering
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
There was shouting, pushing, shoving and
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
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
"They gave equality for each citizen."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But the Americans couldn't eliminate some ingrained
habits, products of Iraq's centrally planned economy.
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
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
Many station workers puffed on cigarettes as they
worked. The soldiers begged them not to. But no one
'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
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.
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
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.
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 Related
looting delay Iraq oil flow
gear, papers seized