U.S. Medical Mission Treats Moroccans

ZAOUIA AOUFOUS, Morocco (AP) - Hundreds of rural Moroccans lined up under a searing sun for U.S. medical treatment for toothaches, cataracts, broken bones and other ailments.

While stretched thin in hostile zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. military is conducting a two-week humanitarian mission in an effort to drum up goodwill and polish its image in an allied Muslim country recently hit by terrorism.

Nearly 100 U.S. medical staffers landed in the North African kingdom 10 days ago for operation Medflag, an annual effort to deliver temporary medical care to Africa.

American military leaders say the operation helps bolster the image of U.S. forces in Morocco, where polls show people overwhelmingly opposed military action in Iraq.

``When they see the activities that we're engaged in, they realize the (negative) stereotypes they may have heard are not accurate,'' Rear Adm. Lewis Crenshaw, deputy commander for U.S. Naval Forces Europe, said on Tuesday.

Morocco, a longtime U.S. ally, suffered its deadliest terror attack ever in May when five near-simultaneous bomb blasts hit the coastal city of Casablanca, killing 33 bystanders and 12 of the attackers.

``This kind of exercise helps prevent the seeds of terrorism from sprouting,'' Crenshaw said after a brief meeting with regional leaders.

On Tuesday - the first day that journalists were allowed to visit a treatment site - more than 1,000 people received medical care. The teams trekked to Zaouia Aoufous, a verdant valley town of about 30,000 known for succulent dates and picturesque red canyons some 96 miles west of the Algerian border.

Moroccan soldiers controlled access to the site - a local elementary school converted for the day into a medical clinic offering care in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics, ophthalmology and internal medicine.

Boys with bloodied gauze in their mouths exited a makeshift dental office, as teams of Moroccan paramedics hauled away elderly women on stretchers.

In one classroom, covered with students' drawings of Pikachu or sword-wielding Arab fighters, 7-year-old Rqia Hadou cried to her mother as Lieut. Cmdr. Matthew Southwick examined her with help from a translator.

``Mommy, don't let him hurt me,'' the child said in the local Berber language, as tears welled in her eyes. Her mother, Soumia Ben Iku, said the girl has sporadically fainted since she was four.

The operation has focused on seven towns around the eastern city of Er Rachidia.

Maj. Peter Legrand, a medical logistics officer from Belgium acting as an observer on the mission, said the exercise gives American troops the chance to showcase their humanitarian efforts - and earn a ``public relations'' boost.

``There's always a television aspect'' to such operations, he said. ``But whatever the case, it's still positive. Sometimes, it's as simple and important as teaching children to brush their teeth.''

Medflag has brought medical care, humanitarian aid and doctor training to African countries since 1998. Next year's operation is to take place in South Africa.

Some local leaders praised the aid program, which will inject about $2.5 million in medical supplies into Morocco, but said it's only a temporary solution.

``We're really hoping that this will become a periodic visit from the Americans,'' said Amar Aoujil, the head of the town council in Zaouia Aoufous.

A U.S. Navy team based in Rota, Spain, is leading the multi-service operation uniting about 90 doctors, dentists, nurses and support staff.

The mission culminates Thursday with a mock ``mass casualty'' exercise that will challenge Moroccan medical squads to treat 100 people acting as flood victims.

Military officials say this year's edition has been especially productive, with more than 5,100 people treated since the operation began on Sept. 6.

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