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War Stories: 'All we can do is try to stay alive'

Iraqi Shiite family lives with constant threat all around

Marines and sailors from the 4th Civil Affairs Group hand out food and medical aid to Iraqi civilians in Nasiriyah.
Marines and sailors from the 4th Civil Affairs Group hand out food and medical aid to Iraqi civilians in Nasiriyah.

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In our 'War Stories' series, CNN correspondents tell the story of war from the perspective of one person living through, recovering from or fighting the war in Iraq.

Art Harris, a CNN correspondent, is traveling with Task Force Tarawa, a reconnaissance unit with the 2nd Marine Division. Here he tells the story of Hydar, an Iraqi Shiite, who recalls the last time U.S. troops came to Iraq in 1991.

NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- At first they were a novelty of war -- a local family adopted by U.S. Marines who had stormed the Iraqi military compound on the Euphrates River. When the smoke cleared, one Iraqi soldier was dead, another wounded and taken for treatment, and a third taken prisoner.

Suddenly, Hydar emerged, an Iraqi Shiite living in a wing of the compound -- a former school where his wife, Radja, once taught, and he worked as guard and groundskeeper.

Now, he is ever present, smiling, saying "Hello" and "Thank you" as the Marines shower the family with military rations -- called MREs or "meals ready to eat" -- and their children with Tootsie Rolls and chewing gum. Son Mahmoud, 5, dances about the troops, laughing aloud as he looks at digital photos of him, and sister, Anya, 4, holding baby sister, Kolut.

No clean water

Before the Marines arrived, the family had little food and no clean water, drawing what they could from a makeshift well that doubled as a bomb shelter. Hydar says U.S. bombs and artillery knocked down a telephone pole and cut his power, but he said the munitions did not scare him nearly as much as Saddam Hussein's local Baath Party members.

"They shot me and left me for dead," Hydar said, through a translator, when he refused to fight in the first Persian Gulf War. "Luckily, my family found me and got me to a hospital."

Surgeons dug the bullets out and stitched him up, he said. They gave him antibiotics, but none of the very scarce pain medication. Such luxuries are reserved for those loyal to Saddam, he said, along with jobs, adequate food, water and electricity.

If you can't pay up, you're shot

To hear Hydar tell it, for those without Baath Party ties, life is a nightmare under Saddam's ruling henchmen in southern Iraq.

"Every month, they come around and make us pay and if you can't, they will shoot you," he said.

The area was governed by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, the infamous so-called "Chemical Ali," who is believed to have orchestrated the gassing of the Kurds in Halbaja in 1988.

Al-Majid is on the coalition's Most Wanted Iraqis list. An attack just days ago on a Baath Party headquarters building in nearby Shatra, 20 miles north of here, just missed him. "He was spotted, but not caught," said one Marine familiar with the operation.

As the Baath Party's grip on this region weakens, fear of Saddam is beginning to dissipate among locals like Hydar and his family.

He's not sure he knows what freedom feels like, but likes the idea -- even if his three-room green stucco and brick home shakes every night from the pounding that Hellfire missiles fired by Marine Cobra helicopters, cannon fire from gunships and light armor deliver on Iraqi positions on the other side of the Euphrates.

The other day, Hydar asked for someone who spoke "Araby." A translator arrived, and he told the story of how after he recovered from his gunshot wounds over a decade ago, he went back to driving a taxi.

One day, a pretty woman climbed in. Radja was 26. But that's not what drew him to her, he said, smiling. "She was very quick-witted and smart.

"I liked her mind. She is good to talk to." They courted; their parents talked. A marriage was arranged. Seven years later, bonded by love, respect and hardship, they take delight in each other and dote on their three children.

"It is all we can do to protect them," Hydar said of his kids. He has survived and kept his family intact by growing crops and doing odd jobs, earning perhaps $40 a year.

Modest dreams

At 36, he has modest dreams, maybe operating a fishing boat, maybe a bus one day. "All we can do is try to stay alive," he said. "There is no way to resist. There are so many groups against the regular people -- Saddam's Fedayeen, paramilitary, police, Baath Party officials, the army, informants in the midst of them all. You can't pick one to fight because they are all intertwined."

So he pays when what he must, when he can, and pretends to be loyal. "You just do what you have to do to survive, even if it goes against your morals," he said, reaching up to rip down a picture of Saddam that hangs on a wall.

"That took a lot of courage," said Capt. Harold Wayne Qualkinbush, 33, a forward air controller who took Hydar's family under the wing of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

"We're trying show these people those days are over," said the unit's commander, Lt. Col. Brent Dunahoe of Tyler, Texas. Hydar has volunteered to help the U.S. troops identify Baath Party members in the area.

He said party members wear black robes; white robes are favored by those in suicide squads, who also live nearby.

Marines worry about Hydar's safety, but he said he is no longer afraid. "Only the little people will be left," he said. "They [members of Saddam's regime] are nothing."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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