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US Troops Conduct Large Humanitarian Mission in Horn of Africa - 2003-06-19

U.S. troops, hunting for terrorists in the Horn of Africa, are also conducting large-scale humanitarian missions in the region to gain support from the local people. The growing U.S. military presence in the Horn of Africa country is, for now, being widely accepted.

A few kilometers away from the capital, Djibouti City, Achai Omar sits anxiously behind a curtained-off cubicle at a local clinic. The young mother is desperate to find out if there is anything that can be done to help her badly infected eye.

She says she came to the clinic today because she heard that several American doctors have come with medicine and were helping treat patients. She has great hope that they can do more for her than the little care she has received so far from local doctors.

The clinic, the only one in the small town of Hayableh, normally has one doctor who treats up to 100 patients a day. But for one day this month, he is being backed up by five medics and several nurses from the U.S. Army and Navy. The goal for the medical team today is to see as many as 300 patients.

U.S. Army Major Mike Poehlitz explains that, even though the medics and nurses are able to do community work like this only once a month, he believes the Americans are making a difference in efforts to improve local healthcare.

"We pick a region of the city we want to target, based upon the medical need, based upon the facility (clinic) that will support it, places we can get to in a short period of time to bring everybody together," he said.

The work at the Hayableh clinic is just one of several community improvement projects the U.S. military has launched since its arrival in Djibouti late last year.

Nearly 2,000 U.S. troops are now deployed in this tiny, poor, mostly Muslim country of 500,000 people. The troops are part of a U.S.-led military task force, called the Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, created to conduct operations aimed at tracking down al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations in the region.

The U.S. military placed the task force headquarters in Djibouti, primarily because the country lies just across the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait from Yemen, a suspected breeding ground for al-Qaida.

But Marine Brigadier General Mastin Robeson, who heads the task force, says the Americans quickly saw a need to do more than flex military muscle in the region.

"It has got to be more than just coming here and saying, Okay, how do we find bad guys, and either capture them or kill them," he said.

In addition to providing medical assistance, U.S. troops and military engineers are busy building roads, repairing schools, and digging wells in parts of Djibouti.

Americans have also hired nearly a thousand local people to work at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti City, the military installation where the U.S. troops are based. The hires have made the U.S. military the third largest employer in the country, just behind the Djiboutian government and the French, who ruled Djibouti until 1977.

Interviews with several dozen Djiboutians selected at random in the capital shows that most people here appear willing to tolerate, if not welcome, the U.S. military, as long as the people see continued American assistance and more job creation.

One Djiboutian, named Said Ali, adds that Djiboutian Muslims must also be assured that the Americans will never interfere in their religion.

Said Ali says, "the day the U.S. forces will no longer be welcome here is the day they try to discourage people from practicing Islam and start meddling with our religious rights. As long as they don't do that, why should we ask them to leave," he asks.

Back at the Hayableh clinic, U.S. troops are having difficulty holding back all of the people who want to get inside the compound. More than 200 men, women and children jostle for space, begging for a chance to see a doctor.

Achai Omar was lucky. After being examined by the American medic, she received antibiotic eye drops to treat her eye infection.

Clutching the eye drop bottle, she asks if anyone knows, which clinic the Americans are going to visit next month.