U.S. humanitarian aid came to Iraq today at 3:43 p.m. when a Marine lieutenant colonel named Dave Long handed some food to a small, shy, not thirsty, not starving child by the side of a road, who tore open the bag with his teeth.
If it wasn't the massive aid that President Bush had promised over the weekend would begin flowing in 36 hours, or even an official shipment at all, it was at least a bag of Skittles.
Like everything here today, the child was a bit dusty. Five days of fighting to bring order to this port town had given way to an overnight sandstorm and, since sunrise, a nagging, dusty haze.
Out of the afternoon haze emerged a convoy of six cars that drew to a sudden stop next to several children and adults.
Out of the convoy came Long. Out came the candy and a few other things that were handed out to the adults -- all except for a man who was standing next to an old, rusting Datsun. The man didn't move. So Long went to him. He walked to the man and offered some food, which the man, after a moment, took.
"Goodbye," Long said to him.
The man answered in English.
"Hello," he said.
Six hours earlier, the convoy had left Camp Commando, just outside of Kuwait City, on a mission that wasn't supposed to involve talking to any Iraqis. Rather, it was intended to determine if things were safe enough, and secure enough, to bring in a larger convoy, which in turn would begin the methodical process of bringing the "massive flow" of aid Bush promised.
"It's a security mission to determine what conditions are at the border," said Stephen Catlin, a member of the U.S. Agency for International Development's rapid response team, called DART, which will clear the way into Iraq for U.S. aid.
About the same time in Kuwait City, another convoy was preparing to leave for the southern Iraqi town of Safwan. This convoy, of three trucks stuffed with aid from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society and three busloads of journalists, caused pandemonium when it reached Iraq in the late afternoon. Hundreds of people pressed toward the trucks. Hands stretched into the air like swan necks, voices rose, and then boxes of water, bread, milk and fruit juice flew into the air. With shoving, with fighting, it was aid at its most desperate.
The Americans, conversely, were the quiet convoy. Humvees carrying armed soldiers led the way and guarded the rear, flanking a black Suburban with tinted windows and armor on its side and bottom and passengers strapped into bulletproof vests. This was the DART car. It was a gas-guzzler, but a fast one. With windows up, it flew through the lonesomeness of the northern Kuwaiti desert and soon was in Iraq, passing the first portrait of Saddam Hussein, in uniform.
Beyond, on empty streets, was a man walking and cradling a bent-up antenna, and then a boy trying to lift some kind of cabinet into a dirty wheelbarrow, and then another Hussein portrait, the one in which he is firing a rifle into the air. Then the convoy arrived at the port, which is why Umm Qasr had been the scene of continuous fighting since the war's onset. The military may have blown by other towns of 4,000 people on its way to Baghdad, but the port, as soon as it can be reopened, will be one of the main routes for aid.
At the moment, though, the port was empty. The power was out and so was the water -- both are fed from Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, which was also without electricity and water and is said to be on the verge of a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The convoy drove past British military checkpoints and abandoned-looking warehouses until it came to a building with trashed offices, hallways carpeted in broken glass and, at the far end, a cluster of British and U.S. military officers studying a satellite photo of the port.
Catlin and the other DART members joined them and, very quickly, it became apparent that while one approach to aid involves a convoy of three trucks, another involves satellite photos and men standing around it with pointers, drawing up plans.
"If we can get more tankers here," said one of the men with a pointer.
"What about environmental hazards?" asked another.
"We have to get a system back in place because we're talking about an enormous amount of food -- 500,000 metric tons, and 50,000 tons of it will be here in the next 30 days," Catlin explained, back outside. "You need to put a distribution mechanism in place to do it efficiently."
It isn't just electricity, he said. It's longshoremen. It's forklift drivers. It's persuading the people of Umm Qasr to come back to work at the port, that the Americans are not the enemy. It's storage facilities and conveyers and railroad cars that can run clear track all the way to Baghdad because Baghdad is where all the mills are. Unless, of course, the mills are bombed, and the rail lines are ruined, and the storage facilities are booby-trapped, and the ships can't get in because of mines.
"So, right now we're just doing a security survey," Catlin said, "and in the coming days, we'll have our teams in to look at certain facilities."
Another map beckoned. Catlin and the others went to study it just before two young men rode up on bicycles.
"Salam Alekum," said one. Peace be with you.
"America good," said another.
Now a third boy approached, this one wearing dirty maroon pants and missing a front tooth.
"Money?" he said.
No response. He moved on. So did the convoy.
They drove to one of the warehouses, where Catlin got on a mobile phone and called Michael Marx, the head of the DART team, in Kuwait, who was about to call Washington for the daily conference call with various offices in the State Department about how the aid preparations were progressing.
"It looks clean," Catlin said as, above him, birds flew around the warehouse. "I think we can start doing a security assessment right now."
Next he went to the dock where a British naval ship, the Sir Galahad, was due to dock with more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid, but not until a sweep was completed of the waterway, which had already turned up two sunken mine-laying vessels, both with live mines.
[On Thursday, the Reuters news agency, citing a British military spokesman in Qatar, reported that the expected arrival of the Sir Galahad in Umm Qasr had been delayed until Friday.]
Next he went into another office, also trashed, while outside Lynn Thomas, DART's security director, said of the port: "The bad elements are still out there. That's almost a given," but, "so far, so good."
And with that, just after 3:30 p.m., the DART team was ready to head back to Kuwait City. The day's work was done. They had to be back at their hotel by dark. Those were the rules, the same rules that demanded that before the DART team could come here today, the military's Civil Affairs unit had to check out the port first, and before Civil Affairs could come, the Navy's Explosives Ordnance Detachment had to go through the port building by building and room by room.
Soon, perhaps the next day, the full DART team would visit, then the humanitarian organizations under contract with USAID and then, at some point, "as soon as possible," said Catlin, aid. "It's in better shape than it could have been," Catlin said, looking around at the port one more time -- and that would have been it except that on the way out of Umm Qasr, the Marines flanking the DART car decided to stop.
They wanted a picture.
So the Marine photographer got out of one of the Humvees, and when some of the people standing in the haze approached them, rather than run off, some of the Marines began slicing open the packages of ready-to-eat meals they had carried north from Kuwait City and handing them out.
"There you go," Dave Long said.
"Thank you," said a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the proud owner of a package of ready-to-eat chicken and noodles.
"You're welcome," Long said.