ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
More than 150,000 American soldiers are spending Christmas in Iraq. Many bases are draped in holiday decorations and they're serving up ham and candied yams and other holiday treats. Some service members, of course, are too busy to celebrate. North of Baghdad, there were to suicide bombings today, at least 30 people were killed and more than 80 other were wounded. At a patrol base near the city of Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, soldiers got a short break for a holiday meal inside a former hideout of al-Qaida in Iraq.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent the day with those troops and she joins me now. Hello, Soraya. What are the troops at Kelsey patrol base doing this Christmas Day?
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: They were very busy building this base. They only opened about a few days ago and it's very important that they get themselves established there. And now that the weather is cold, they're sort of on double time here to try and create structures in which they can live. So at the moment, most of them are living inside their vehicles or their - inside this crumbled - basically this former al-Qaida hideout that's been bombed. And they still have the al-Qaida script on the wall, that particular structure only has three rooms in it so they can't sit everybody in there. So they're very busy trying to establish their presence in what was a very strong al-Qaida area just even a few weeks ago.
SIEGEL: Any sign of Christmas cheer today among this group?
NELSON: Yes, it was amazing what they were able to do. I mean, they were - I think pretty happy because of the fact they were able to drive al-Qaida out a few weeks ago. And so what they were doing was standing around makeshift fire pits, they were singing or making up Christmas carols. And then when the colonels were flying around to greet the troops for the holidays and lift their spirits, they brought some MP3 players, and so they actually played real Christmas carols. And some hot meals were trucked in for them so they were able to sit down around the fire and have some food. But most of the day, they spent working and they were actually telling me they pretty glad for that because it made them miss their families less since they were busy.
SIEGEL: Now, you say that they're in - this base is actually a former - a hideout for al-Qaida in Iraq and there are signs of that there. Is al-Qaida in Iraq still a problem in this part of the country just south of Baghdad?
NELSON: Yes. Even though they are sort of in hiding at the moment, there were certainly signs that there's a lot of concern that these - that they're reemerge any moment. There was a threat of a vehicle-born IED, or basically a car bomb, and so they were looking for them and we're on the look out for that. They were on patrol, basically going from house to house because some of the residents have started coming back to this area and they were asking residents questions to try and find out whether these were friends or foe. So it's still - there's still a big threat here and they're working on trying to eliminate that so that people can start moving back into their home.
SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. This is, I gather, a largely Sunni Muslim Arab area. Are American commanders having any success there in getting the local Sunnis to join in the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq?
NELSON: Yes, definitely. This Kelsey patrol base is one of four that is attached to the main base here outside of Iskandariyah. And so I went to another one of those bases today that was established a few months back. And where the Sunni sheikhs and also Shia sheikhs in the area - because there are some Shias here - they have been coming and meeting with the colonels and the captains to talk about what can be done to help them and they've set up these concern citizen patrols, these civilian patrols.
And in fact, today, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Newsome went and met with some of the sheikhs, here, on Christmas day. They wish them a merry Christmas. And he ate lamb with them, broke bread with them, and then they discussed the names of militants that they were concerned about in the area. And another 100 to 200 new volunteers want to sign up for these concerned citizen patrol.
SIEGEL: Well, the big question for all Americans when they think about the war in Iraq is, is it possible for U.S. troops to leave anytime soon? What would happen there if the U.S. forces left?
NELSON: Well, I think the way they're building these bases right now, the intention is that they're certainly going to be here for years. And then the colonel was telling me the plan is eventually to turn this over the Iraqi army and Iraqi police so that people see that it's their government taking care of them and not the Americans.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson at a patrol base near the city of Iskandariyah in Iraq. Soraya, thank you very much. Merry Christmas.
NELSON: Merry Christmas. You're welcome.
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