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For troops, Christmas in Tikrit

U.S. troops stationed in Saddam Hussein’s hometown marked their first Christmas in Iraq with holiday meals and carols, wishing they were home.
U.S. soldiers at the Task Force Ironhorse military base in Tikrit phone home to their families on Christmas Day.Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. troops stationed in Saddam Hussein’s hometown marked their first Christmas in Iraq with holiday meals and carols, wishing they were home but delighted with their early holiday present — the Dec. 13 capture of the ousted Iraqi leader.

“His capture has been like a light at the end of the tunnel. We got the main guy,” said Sgt. Jerry Price II of Fort Hood, Texas.

Given the day off, hundreds 4th Infantry Division soldiers spent hours waiting in long lines at a base mess hall for sliced turkey, shrimp cocktails, cranberry sauce, apple pie and non-alcoholic sparkling drinks.

Several officers dressed as Santa Claus delivered candy.

In the base’s rest-and-recreation facility, about 50 to 60 troops attended a Mass, laying their rifles on the floor and singing Christmas carols.

But fighting persisted nearby. Iraqi guerrillas fired several mortar rounds at an armored patrol in Khadasiya, just outside Tikrit, and U.S. armored vehicles returned fire, the military said. There were no U.S. casualties. Heavy mortars from the division’s base fired a dozen illuminating rounds to help search for the insurgents. No arrests were made.

In Baghdad, insurgents fired a barrage of mortars, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades before dawn at a number of targets — a hotel housing Westerners, banks, embassies and a U.S. base — causing little damage but showing they can still strike in the capital.

A center of resistance
Tikrit is one of the main centers of continued resistance to the U.S.-led coalition that occupies Iraq, lying in the so-called “Sunni Triangle” north and east of Baghdad where Saddam drew much of his support. The 4th Infantry — whose troops captured Saddam in a hideout just outside the city — has been in the forefront of the fight against guerrillas.

For some of the soldiers, being away from home during the holidays was a first.

Spc. Matthew Summers, a 20-year-old sniper from San Antonio, Texas, played hockey with a group of soldiers in one of Saddam’s ransacked palaces that now houses U.S. troops.

“I miss my family back in Texas,” he said. “But firefights me and my comrades have gone through brought us together, we are now like a family.”

The former Iraqi dictator’s capture is “something to be happy about,” Summers said. “We did so many raids, and he was so close.”

Army Specialists Brandon Neely and Justin Mulhollen, also from Fort Hood, said they spent most of Christmas morning in an overcrowded tent converted into a huge telephone booth, calling parents and friends back home.

“Of course, we miss them a lot,” Neely said. Mulhollen agreed, and added: “It’s not easy being away.”

Making do
Earlier in Baghdad, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the U.S. Armed Forces Diocese delivered a sermon to soldiers:

“Just look around and see what has happened to this noble land over the past 50 years and the past 30 years and see the homelessness, see the nakedness, see the imprisoned, see the gas chambers, see the mass graves,” he said.

“The first reading says we must break the yolk of the tyrant, we must empty ourselves if we are to spread the grace and the good that God has given us. Would you be here for any other reason?”

Troops also celebrated at the military base at Basra Airport in southern Iraq, which is relatively peaceful. Soldiers — mainly from Britain, but also some from other European countries and the United States — celebrated with a feast of roast turkey, vegetables and some fruit cake.

“We’re trying to celebrate Christmas in every way we can,” Flight Lt. Katherine McIntosh of the British Royal Air Force said. “We had a midnight Mass ... we sang carols ... and today we’re having Christmas lunch.”