Some 440 troops from Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania are based in the Iraqi city of Hilla, south of Baghdad. The soldiers are relaxed and friendly, and on many days the mission feels more like a holiday in a hot climate than deployment in a war zone. There is no anti-coalition resistance in the town, where little love is lost for deposed President Saddam Hussein. The soldiers say their biggest challenges are coping with the heat and trying to understand local culture and traditions.
Hilla, Iraq; 24 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A military convoy of Lithuanian and Polish soldiers returns to their base in Hilla, some 80 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where they are serving in the Polish-led international contingent.
There are 45 Lithuanian soldiers based in Hilla; another 40 patrol the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Some 150 Latvian troops are also based in Iraq -- 45 in Hilla, the rest in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Despite the daily attacks against U.S. troops in Baghdad, the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Polish troops in Hilla look relaxed. There are practically no attacks on coalition troops in Hilla, whose predominantly Shi'a population suffered during the rule of deposed President Saddam Hussein.
Polish Lieutenant Colonel Zenon Szczybylo is a commander of the 1st Battle Group, the unit of 440 Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian soldiers. He praises the performance of the Baltic troops.
"I am very happy to have Lithuanian soldiers in my battalion. They are good soldiers. They are [well-]trained. They have some experience, and there is no problem with them if they go on duty on the patrols. Everything is OK now," Szczybylo said.
The soldiers' duties include night patrols of the city, guarding military sites, escorting convoys, and helping the Iraqi police.
The Latvian and Lithuanian soldiers arrived in Iraq in August. Rasa Butkiene is a captain and doctor in the Lithuanian Army. She says that when the soldiers stepped off the plane in Kuwait before heading to Iraq, they were struck by the intense heat. While temperatures have moderated somewhat, she says, "Without air conditioning, it is hard, and those who do not have the equipment are really in trouble."
The troops speak three different languages and communicate in English as a rule, although Latvians and Lithuanians often speak in Russian.
The soldiers all live in one huge room in a former handgun factory. Machines stand at the heads of their makeshift beds. The Lithuanian soldiers say the factory is in good shape and joke that they are able to produce pistols any time they want.
Lieutenant Rimas Ciupanonis is in charge of the Lithuanian troops based in Hilla. He says he is proud of the job his troops are doing but is upset because Iraqis do not have a clear understanding of where the troops come from. He says it is difficult for locals to tell Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish and U.S. soldiers apart.
"On the whole, it is hard for [Iraqis] to differentiate between the Lithuanians [and other soldiers], and only more educated people know about Lithuania and where it is located. They think we're Poles. Whatever you say, they accept. We show them our badges, our state flag, the name of the country [written on the badge]. But in these places where we have been patrolling, most often they accept us [in a friendly manner]," Ciupanonis said.
The soldiers say they miss their families but would like to stay in Iraq longer. The troops are due to rotate every six months.
Lithuanian Deputy Defense Minister Povilas Malakauskas tells RFE/RL that all the soldiers volunteered to go to Iraq. They are paid $1,000 per month -- three times more than the average salary in Lithuania.
Troops from Estonia are also based in Baghdad. Three of them were injured during an attack last week. But officials at the Estonian Defense Ministry denied RFE/RL access to the troops, citing "security concerns."
Latvian soldiers also were attacked several weeks ago. The commander of the Latvian troops, Martjans Gaigals, says his troops were shot at near a checkpoint they were manning.
"The locals started to fire against our platoon and hit two vehicles. No persons were injured," Gaigals said.
He says he has no idea why the shooting started. But Latvian Sergeant Marek Antonivic notes that many locals own guns and that once it gets dark, shooting into the air for fun is a regular pastime.
"Usually they are shooting into the air. When they have some festivals or wedding parties, they always shoot into the air," Antonivic said.
Many Iraqis in Hilla say the soldiers understand little about local customs and traditions. The soldiers admit their failings, and say they are often frustrated by the behavior of locals.
Lithuanian and Latvian soldiers say it is difficult to deal with Iraqis in simple everyday situations and hard to accept some of their habits. For example, Lithuanian Captain Rimas Steponavicius says the perception of time is different in Iraq.
"It is usual in our culture that if you ask somebody to do something [in 10 minutes], he will do it in time. [Iraqis] say it will take 10 minutes, but it takes two or three hours. Maybe that's the main difference, which you will never forget," Steponavicius said.
When asked to name the toughest part of their jobs in Iraq, many Lithuanian and Latvian soldiers say that it is trying to get Iraqis to stand in line, calling it a "mission impossible." Lithuanian Private Darius Augustinas says patience is needed.
"This crowd is impossible to manage. They do not understand what a queue is. They come in in a crowd and are running from this crowd [to take home their salaries]. We try to do something, to explain something. You find an English-speaking person. He explains to them [what to do] and some order starts to appear," Augustinas said.
Muhammad is a former soldier in the Iraqi Army who arrives to collect his salary from the "Poles." He says the soldiers are too jumpy and make a mess of simple things.
"On the contrary, concerning Hilla, people know how to queue, but the 'Poles' are making traffic jams and chaos. I have my own taxi. A few days earlier, the 'Poles' hit the car and just left me alone. The Americans would have stopped," Muhammad said.
Muhammad alleges that soldiers recently beat several people in a fruit market without reason. He says U.S. troops are "much, much better and know how to communicate with people."
Fifteen-year-old Safaah agrees. He says the "Poles" are "not merciful with local people" and have no respect.
"They come and beat us, and it is not important for them. The Americans respect us. They even respect kids. [The 'Poles'] do not respect even old people," Safaah said.
Ali, another former Iraqi soldier from Hilla, doesn't agree. He believes the Baltic and Polish troops are more well-behaved than the U.S. soldiers and are much better than the majority of Iraqis themselves.
"Yes, they respect local traditions. For me, the 'Poles' are better than the Iraqis. If you go to [a 'Pole'] and ask for something, he will try to do it. If you go to an Iraqi and [ask for a favor], he wouldn't do it," Ali said.
Ali says people in Hilla have nothing to do and the only pleasure they have is gossip.
"They gossip all the time," Ali says. "And the more incredible the rumor is, the more likely they are to believe it."