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Goodbye, Iraq; hello, South Pacific

With a song, 55 Tongan troops end their tour after living up to their 'friendly islands' reputation.

December 05, 2008|Tina Susman | Susman is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — A South Pacific war cry thundered through the palace of a dead dictator in a desert land.

"Aye, aye! Aye, aye!"

Three rows of men, broad-shouldered and thick-thighed, clench-jawed and bronze-faced, stomped their feet and punched their fists, their guttural chants bouncing off the marble floors and the high-domed ceiling.

In the annals of farewell ceremonies, the one for Tonga's troops no doubt ranked as the most stirring. The 55-man contingent Thursday became the latest member of the "coalition of the willing" to end its mission in Iraq.

Of all the coalition members, the South Pacific islanders may have seemed the least likely to embrace Iraq, where the climate, the geography and the food were all alien. Instead of the balmy temperatures of home, Iraq had biting cold and suffocating heat. Instead of coral reefs and tropical beaches, Iraq offered bone-dry desolation. Instead of fish baked in leaves, roasted pig, yams and tapioca, Iraq meant American-style cafeteria fare.

"But us, we adopt to any food," joked Capt. Carl Tu'iavi, alluding to Tonga's dubious distinction of being one of the world's most overweight nations. "We go to China; we adopt rice. We go to Bangladesh; we eat chili food."

As he spoke, fellow Tongan troops were getting ready to carve into a huge rectangular cake frosted to replicate the Tongan flag: a sheet of red save for one white corner with a red cross in its center.

Few of the troops expected to find themselves in Iraq when they signed up for the Defense Services, Tonga's military. The country, whose entire military numbers a few hundred, is rarely in the cross hairs of conflict. It saw a spurt of rioting in the capital, Nuku'alofa, in 2006, and has participated in United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Solomon Islands. In 1972, it drove off a Nevada businessman and his followers after they raised their flag on a Tongan atoll and tried to establish a libertarian utopia.

Asked what is Tonga's biggest problem now, Pvt. Mavae Taufa paused.

"Hmm. Nothing much," he said.

Tongans saw some of the most disparate duty in Iraq. In June 2004, 45 of their marines joined U.S. forces in Anbar province, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad that was the most dangerous of Iraq's regions at the time.

Starting last year, their duty shifted to more comfortable environs: guarding the looming Al Faw Palace, once the haunt of Saddam Hussein, in the Baghdad complex that serves as the headquarters for U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Tongans established themselves as impressive gatekeepers, belting out "Hmphs!" and other indistinguishable cries as visitors entered the strictly controlled grounds.

"When you pass by their guard, you feel a sense they're with you. They're not strangers," said Warrant Officer Avo Zaytounian, a U.S. Navy reservist based in Port Hueneme. "It's like seeing a cop in your hometown. You see the car drive by, and you feel safe."

At Thursday's ceremony, the anthems of Iraq, Tonga and the United States were played, prayers were said, and a bugler sounded taps.

The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, offered a touching tribute to the troops from the "friendly islands," as Capt. James Cook dubbed Tonga when he landed there in 1773.

"We will miss your high morale, which is indeed infectious," Austin said as the Tongans stood at attention, their black berets tilted just so on their heads.

It's all part of the Tongan way, Pvt. Taufa said.

"The culture of the people is really friendly," he said. "It's like, any time someone asks you for a favor, you want to do it."

Then the berets and guns were cast aside. It was time for the sipi tau, or war chant, with its hoots, hollers, grunts and thumps.

Afterward, the men's voices joined in perfect harmony, like a church choir, as they sang a farewell song composed by one of their own. With the hymn-like piece drawing to a close, the small contingent of big men waved bye-bye in unison and swayed back and forth, like palm trees in the Polynesian breeze.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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