Friday, September 05, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - As soon as the first Humvee bristling with weapons rolled up, the black-market operation was over.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descended on the Dora propane station in southern Baghdad like a police SWAT team on Tuesday. Three air defense Avengers - Humvees armed with a .50-caliber machine gun and Stinger missiles - blocked traffic while the paratroopers fanned out across the market, grabbing propane canisters left behind.

In nine minutes, the paratroopers had seized 65 propane canisters. Staff Sgt. Jose Gonzalez commandeered a small tractor loaded with them. The owner ran off and left it running when the paratroopers showed up.

While 1st Lt. Peter Thayer loaded the propane on a trailer, Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Meija and the other paratroopers kept a watch on the crowd. Most of the Iraqis who stuck around after the paratroopers showed up seemed pleased. Meija said one of the Iraqis said to the unit's interpreter, "God bless you for doing this."...

But paratroopers said that a lot of propane is not getting to the people who need it because black market operators are buying up much of the supply and reselling it illegally at inflated prices.

"They are keeping poor Iraqi citizens from getting the propane they need to survive," said 1st Lt. Karlton Dempsey, the executive officer of Bravo Battery.

Iraqis have to stand in line at propane stations. The black market operators stack the lines with women and children working for them, getting much or all of the supply.

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