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Djibouti Greets US Troops with Skepticism - 2002-11-22

For the past several months, the United States has been sending troops to different parts of the world as part of the fight against terrorism. More than 2,000 of them are in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, where they are conducting military exercises, and building a new military headquarters. The people of Djibouti are greeting the increased U.S. military presence with caution and skepticism.

Sweat pours down the faces of five U.S. Marines, as they work under a blazing desert sun. Their mission today is to work as carpenters at a local secondary school in the small, dusty town of Obock, across the Gulf of Tadjoura from Djibouti's capital, Djibouti City.

After years of neglect, the school for 300 children is in desperate need of repair. Only patches of paint remain on the ceilings and walls of most classrooms. Many rooms have no furniture at all. The marines say, when they saw the condition of the school, they decided to help.

"We came down, and did a site survey to find out what materials we needed," said Captain Erik Post, manager of the project. "And decided to put it all together, tables, chairs, desks, picnic tables, and bookcases."

But for the marines, the school project is more than a humanitarian gesture. They are hoping their assistance will help to win over the town's several thousand residents, who were less than pleased when the troops arrived in Obock, earlier this month.

The members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit came to Obock to conduct an amphibious exercise. As part of that exercise, the Marines stormed the beaches and secured the town's pier. The locals began a noisy demonstration, after they became alarmed that the soldiers might occupy the pier and prevent deliveries of khat, a plant whose leaves are chewed for their mood-altering effect.

Captain Post says the problem was resolved only after the Marines moved out of the area.

"The first day wasn't so good. I think they were unsure about what we were doing," he said. "We meant no harm. We just wanted to use their pier."

Western diplomats in Djibouti say misunderstandings like this are bound to happen as the United States increases its military presence around the world.

In recent months, the United States has been stepping up troop deployments to Djibouti and other areas of the Horn of Africa because of concerns the region has become a haven for terrorists who have fled Afghanistan. Yemen and Somalia, two of Djibouti's neighbors, are believed to have attracted hundreds of al-Qaida operatives.

Djibouti, which is predominantly Muslim, is a former French colony that gained its independence in 1977. But it still has close ties with France. More than 2,500 French troops remain here to help defend the country.

But until recently, Djiboutians have had little or no contact with the U.S. military. Many of them say that, from what they have seen so far, the difference between the Americans and the French is striking. Djibouti's director for tourism, Mohamed Abdillahi Wais, says French soldiers, for example, never walk around the city armed, while the American are always seen with their weapons. He says the guns make it difficult for Djiboutians to accept the U.S. military as a friendly force.

"When people come to our country, he is a friend. But when we see this person with a gun, we say, 'why?'"

A U.S. Marine officer, Karl Nordeen, says, given the constant threat of attacks against Americans throughout the world, members of the American armed forces have no choice, but to protect themselves at all times.

"Whenever we go into a country, a lot of times, there are going to be elements in that population, no matter what we're doing, who don't want us there," Nordeen said.

It is not clear if U.S. troops could become a target for terrorist attacks in Djibouti. Djiboutian officials insist their country of 600,000 people is peaceful and safe. They say there are two good reasons Djibouti is cooperating with the United States in the war against terrorism: to help eliminate terrorism, and to secure more economic assistance to lift the country out of decades of poverty.

But taxi driver Mohamed Said Ali says it is true that there are many Muslims in Djibouti who do not want Americans on their soil, no matter what the benefits are.

"Nobody likes them, because they are trying to destroy the Islam religion. Americans say, in every Arabian, Islamic country, there is terrorism."

Back in Obock, the Marines are putting the finishing touches on a table for the school. Outside its gates, heavily armed U.S. Marines keep watch from several machine gun-mounted military vehicles. Pointing to the machine guns, a teacher says, while he appreciates the school-building efforts of the marines, their gesture will probably not do much to convince residents that Americans want a lasting friendship with the people of Djibouti.