There was little more than roast pig and a “Happy July 4th” poster at this desert airfield’s post exchange to mark American Independence Day.
About 150 miles to the east in Baghdad, a big barbecue bash at Camp Slayer took hold with troops cooling off in a pool overlooking a lake, letting loose with karaoke renditions of songs like Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and playing volleyball.
One U.S. soldier at Al Asad Air Base in western Anbar province suggested America’s lead role in military operations has made Iraq’s fledgling security forces complacent.
“When you come over here, you’ve got a new respect for the holiday,” said Army Spc. Carla McQueen of Tomball, Texas. “We Americans fought for our freedom. It takes the Iraqis’ power away from them that we are here. They are not standing up and fighting.”
The base showed few signs of a holiday in a region stretching from Baghdad to the Syrian border where insurgents hold clout and U.S. troops face mortar attacks and searing heat that can reach 122 degrees.
Smoothies, horseshoes and Mel Gibson
A special “pig pickin”’ dinner was served, but the full pig was cooked in a kitchen instead of being roasted on a spit. A band was scheduled to play and troops looked forward to an auditorium showing of “The Patriot,” a Mel Gibson film that chronicles the life of a man and his family during the American Revolutionary War.
A female soldier manned a station at Camp Slayer in Baghdad with two blenders, churning out smoothies and frappes for troops. Some lounged around the pool deck working on their tans or showing off their tattoos.
Others played horseshoes in a grassy area dotted by palm trees and surrounded by Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, some still damaged from U.S. bombing at the start of the war in March 2003.
A few events required bravery — several troops wearing protective mitts played with a trained German shepherd, enticing the dog to come after them. The dog laid on top of one trooper and wagged its tail after bringing him down.
Wartime doesn’t permit days off, but the events at Camp Slayer were the closest thing to it for troops who have endured a steady stream of violence over the past two-and-a-half years.
At least 1,743 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,343 died as a result of hostile action. The figures include five military civilians.
More than 1,400 people — mostly Iraqis — have been killed in violence since the April 28 installation of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
“The Iraqi people have suffered and are suffering greatly from savage violence, but we know that they will emerge victorious,” U.S. Charge d’Affaires Ambassador David Satterfield said Monday.
He also thanked Americans serving in Iraq for their service.
There have been positive moments like the historic Jan. 30 election, though most Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote leaving them with 17 legislators in the 275-member parliament.
“The election was enjoying the freedom America made for them,” said Army Spc. Vashon Scott, of Chesapeake, Va.