Published December 31, 2003
MOSUL, Iraq – American troops in northern Iraq fired mortars and missiles late Wednesday to welcome the New Year, while celebrating Iraqis in Baghdad (search) sent tracer bullets flashing across Baghdad's sky.
But even as 2004 was met by a festive mood at U.S. bases, many American soldiers patrolled cities on high alert amid fears that insurgents were planning attacks similar to those staged Christmas Day in Baghdad.
Those fears were realized when a car bomb ripped through a central Baghdad restaurant, killing five Iraqis and wounding 35 other people. The injured included seven Los Angeles Times staff members, four local residents, two Americans and one Briton.
It was a champagne-free holiday for the 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq, with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in the northern city of Mosul (search) breaking out sparkling grape juice and alcohol-free beer for the few soldiers in the partying mood.
New Year's was a bittersweet milestone for the division, based in a former Saddam Hussein (search) palace. The 101st Airborne is expected to depart northern Iraq by the end of February for its base at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
"I just had a newborn and I've only seen two months of her life," said Sgt. Torri Griffith, 24, of New Orleans. "I'm anxious to get back."
A few soldiers planned to ring in 2004 at a dance, while others planned to play cards or video games, or go to bed early before Thursday morning duty.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the drug czar under President Clinton, was staying on the base, meeting with the 101st Airborne's commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, and local tribal leaders.
Earlier Wednesday, a roadside bomb apparently aimed at a U.S. military convoy exploded in Baghdad, killing an 8-year-old Iraqi boy. Three American soldiers suffered minor injuries.
"It's for the New Year. It's a small gift for the U.S.," said Omar Saad, who works in a shop near the blast site.
The New Year's Eve attacks prompted fears of a repeat of Christmas Day, when rebels unleashed a string of grenade, rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad, hitting a hotel housing foreigners and targeting banks, embassies and a U.S. Army base. Two American soldiers were killed.
The 101st Airborne has been in the Persian Gulf region since February and joined the invasion of Iraq on March 22. The division took the central Iraq cities of Najaf, Hillah and Karbala before occupying southern Baghdad.
The division has controlled northern Iraq since April, facing guerrilla attacks and other strife in Mosul. On Nov. 17, two helicopters that may have been maneuvering to avoid a rocket-propelled grenade collided, killing 17 soldiers.
Soldiers dining on lasagna and lemon-baked fish at the base's cafeteria said they could not think of a better way to start 2004 than with fresh orders to return to the United States.
"I'm definitely looking forward to going home and some of the small things -- like real toilets and sleeping in a real bed," said Capt. Carrie Ogden, 26, of Chesterland, Ohio.
Ogden said she might watch television coverage of the ball dropping in Times Square -- which happens at 8 a.m. local time -- and then run a 10-kilometer race.
Sgt. Thomas Richardson, 24, of Newport News, Va., was hoping for something a little livelier.
"Imagine a young bachelor used to always drinking, used to the party life and then you come out here," he yelled, banging his fist on the cafeteria table. "I just want a beer! And I want a woman!"
At the Army's 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, a salsa band called Fierro Caliente, or Hot Iron, and some rock groups planned to perform at the base in another of Saddam's sprawling palace complexes. Soldiers will toast the new year with nonalcoholic beer.
A soldier from a mortar crew set up near the bank of the muddy Tigris River said he and his comrades planned at midnight to launch thunderous illuminating rounds that leave glowing red trails in the night sky.
Other soldiers, like Sgt. Joseph Dalessio, 22, of Baltimore, will be out on missions. Dalessio, a sniper, said the mood on base around the holiday is good because "everyone is starting to realize that they'll be heading home soon."
Replacement troops are scheduled to arrive in spring.
"Where would I rather be on New Year's Eve? With my wife and daughter," Dalessio said.
He still has not seen his little girl, Arianna, who was born in October.
"I want to get back, draw up some blueprints to build a house, move on."