Christmas in Iraq

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talks with Steve Inskeep about how the U.S. troops in Iraq are spending Christmas week. Nelson is traveling with a U.S. Army battalion which is patrolling south of Baghdad.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is a working Christmas for American troops in Iraq. And that's where we're going next. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is spending Christmas with the Army's 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment. They've been working south of Baghdad.

And, Soraya, what have they been doing there?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, I'm in a place that's northwest of the city of Iskandariyah. And they're building this patrol base to basically make sure al-Qaida doesn't come back to this area. This is a province - Babil province where they've driven them out. And they're building this patrol base as one of the ways to prevent them from coming back into this area.

INSKEEP: Now, when you say patrol base, how permanent is this setup to the Americans?

NELSON: Well, they're certainly looking to stay for a while. They're creating a base that's going to actually have trailers where the soldiers will live. I don't think they'll go as far as to build maybe a recreation hall or something out here. But this will be a permanent fixture in a place that there has not been a permanent fixture before.

INSKEEP: And tell me, during this Christmas week, when American troops described to you this effort to drive al-Qaida out of that area south of Baghdad, do they feel they have killed al-Qaida members? Driven them underground? Pushed them to another part of the country where they might fight again? What's happening?

NELSON: Well, it's unclear where they've gone. There was not a whole lot of resistance. They did have a lot of air support during the battle. So they've gone. But people here are very much on alert. You don't have a lot of festivities going on - although people seem to be in a really good mood here.

INSKEEP: So what's Christmas like there?

NELSON: Well, it's certainly cold enough to feel like Christmas. I'm sitting in a place where you have a lot of palm trees and a lot of dates on the ground that have fallen off, I guess, because of the cold weather. And it's not a very Christmassy-looking place, if you will. But as one of the captains back at the forward operating base told me - Captain Steve Capeheart - being here is not much different than any other day.

Captain STEVE CAPEHEART (Commander, 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army): As a commander, I mean, you have so much going on. To be honest with you, my wife always ask me, you know, what day are you - you know, what day is it? I don't know what day is. My day, I look 24 hours out, based off the changing environment of the dark field.

NELSON: He is certainly no Scrooge, though, when it comes to his soldiers. He said that he took a group photo of his men and e-mailed it to their families. He's making sure that all the soldiers are sending e-mails to their loved ones. And he's even organized a basketball game between the Iraqi police and the soldier for later Christmas day. But one of the Bravo Company privates - and again, this place where I'm at now was where Bravo Company is located. The private's name is Derik Betchy(ph) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he says this is his favorite part of Christmas.

(Soundbite of crowd talking)

NELSON: That's a ton of mail and packages that have been delivered here all week for the soldiers attached to this regiment. And here, I was watching them throw - the arriving truck - the people who came with the truck were throwing these huge packages off the truck into the waiting arms of the soldiers. This is what private Betchy has to say.

This is what Private Betchy had to say.

Private DERIK BETCHY (Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army): Honestly, I think mail is the most important. And you have a lot of guys that are either out or doing their own thing, and they're out just trying to do their fight(ph). And at least when they come home after being out there for so long and, you know, seeing mails, seeing that their loved ones care about them. I mean, it honestly means a lot.

NELSON: So this private and several other members of Bravo Company ended up taking all of that mail to the patrol base where I'm at now.

INSKEEP: Soraya, I have to ask because you're at this patrol base, we've got American troops that have all year been making a greater effort to be out among the population and spend time with them. And, of course, this is an overwhelmingly Muslim population observing an entirely different set of holidays. Has that changed the basic rhythms of life for some Americans?

NELSON: I think it has in many ways. I mean, even yesterday, which was Christmas eve, the patrol went out and was among Iraqis here in this area called Pider(ph). And I mean, everyone I've met is very happy to be actually doing this. Some of these guys are on their second and third and even fourth tours. And they say that's what's different about this year - that they're actually out there much more engaging with the population than in the past.

INSKEEP: Do Iraqis know or care that it's Christmas?

NELSON: Well, certainly, they do. They had - there are Christians here - Iraqi Christians. Not in this particular area that we're in at the moment. But in Baghdad, for example, even the Muslims are sort of in a festive mood. And not just because of their aid. I mean, they certainly appreciate Christmas trees and that sort of things as well.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's traveling with a U.S. Army battalion which is patrolling south of Baghdad.

Thanks very much.

NELSON: Welcome, Steve.

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