Giving Thanks In Iraq

On a dangerous mission far from their families, American soldiers marked Thanksgiving in Iraq with races and a rock concert, games of volleyball and basketball, feasts of roast turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce, and somber thoughts for comrades slain by Iraqi insurgents.

On the political front, U.S.-led efforts to transfer power to a transitional Iraqi government ran up against a major obstacle after key figures in the powerful Shiite Muslim leadership criticized the handover blueprint, and the Kurdish president of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council said he agreed with the criticism.

A U.S. military convoy came under attack Thursday on the main highway west of Baghdad near the town of Abu Ghraib, witnesses said. An Associated Press Television News cameraman filmed two flatbed military trucks that were abandoned and left with their cabs blazing, as dozens of townspeople converged to loot tires and other vehicle parts. The military had no information.

In the northern city of Mosul, unidentified gunmen on Thursday shot dead an Iraqi police sergeant, Brig. Gen. Muwaffaq Mohammed said.

Underscoring the tough environment in Iraq, one U.S. military commander warned his troops that suicides were on the rise among GIs. "Check on your buddy," Lt. Col. Harry Nantz told soldiers whose tents and dormitories in a military compound, next to Baghdad's Mother of All Battles Mosque, were decorated with papier-mache turkeys and orange streamers. Nantz appealed to soldiers to be vigilant for any signs of depression among their friends.

Since April, the military has said, at least 17 Americans — 15 Army soldiers and two Marines — have taken their own lives in Iraq. At least two dozen non-combat deaths, some of them possible suicides, are under investigation, according to an AP review of Army casualty reports.

The military recently dispatched a 12-person mental health assessment team to Iraq to see what more can be done to prevent suicides and to help troops better cope with anxiety and depression. The team completed its mission and is expected to come up with recommendations within weeks.

In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, thousands of American soldiers celebrated Thanksgiving, a major U.S. holiday when families traditionally gather at home to feast, by consuming imported turkey and cranberry sauce, listening to live rock music and jogging across a sandbagged camp dotted with bomb-shattered palaces.

Sgt. 1st Class Gary Brimmer of Hart, Michigan, said he misses his wife and three children but considers himself lucky. A distant cousin, Sgt. Todd Robbins, was killed in Iraq earlier this year by what he said was "friendly fire."

"I think of him a lot, a fine man. He paid the ultimate price. The price I have to pay for not being with my family is small in comparison," said Brimmer, panting after bagging the gold medal for finishing ahead of 449 other soldiers in a "turkey trot" foot race.

Addressing troops in the northern city of Mosul, Maj. Gen. David Petreaus, commanding general of the 101 Airborne Division, said: "I am happy to see the end of November. We've taken some real blows during this time. We've had some terrible losses."

"The fact is that we have taken some hard shots, but winners and champions do get knocked down every now and then and the test of a champion is whether you get back on your feet and start swinging again and that's exactly what we've done," the commander said.

Iraq's most influential Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, threw plans for Iraqi sovereignty into disarray with objections to the U.S.-backed plan of electing a transitional legislature from regional caucuses. Instead, he demanded a transitional legislature that would be elected directly.

Jalal Talabani, who signed the plan as head of the Iraqi Governing Council on Nov. 15, traveled to the holy city of Najaf to meet al-Sistani, and emerged saying he thought the cleric's views were "logical and reasonable."

He planned to discuss them with his colleagues on the council and the U.S.-led coalition, he said.

"The agreement remains, but we may add an attachment that has additional clauses," said Talabani, a Sunni Muslim. "The agreement can evolve ... I will take his views to the council and we, God willing, hope to ratify them."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad declined comment on al-Sistani's views and said the head of the administration, L. Paul Bremer, had no wish "to negotiate in public."

In Baghdad, Thanksgiving runners - mostly military personnel or members of the U.S.-led coalition running Iraq - jogged through Saddam's palace complex in downtown Baghdad, past bombed-out mansions and concrete blast walls topped with razor wire.

The rain-swept course wound through the avenues and alleyways of the former Republican Palace complex, which now houses the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It is heavily fortified with earth-filled barriers, 5-yard walls and sandbagged guardhouses.

"Last year, I spent Thanksgiving and did the turkey trot in Austin, Texas. I never thought that one year from then I would be doing the camel trot in Baghdad, so who knows where I'll be next year," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led civilian administration in Iraq. He wore a white sweat shirt with the logo Bush-Cheney '04 on the chest.