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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- About 100 runners kicked off Thanksgiving celebrations in Iraq with an early morning "camel trot" through Saddam Hussein's palace complex in downtown Baghdad, past bombed-out mansions and concrete blast walls topped with razor wire.
In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, thousands of American soldiers celebrated Thanksgiving with imported turkey, cranberry sauce, a rock concert and a jog across a sandbagged camp dotted with bombed-out palaces.
Sgt. 1st Class Gary Brimmer of Hart, Mich., said he misses his wife and three children but considers himself lucky. A distant cousin, Sgt. Todd Robbins, was killed in Iraq earlier this year by what he said was "friendly fire."
"I think of him a lot, a fine man. He paid the ultimate price. The price I have to pay for not being with my family is small in comparison," said Brimmer, panting after bagging the gold medal for finishing ahead of 449 other soldiers in a 3-mile "turkey trot" foot race.
In Baghdad, the runners in the 6-mile and 3-mile races, were mostly military personnel or members of the U.S.-led coalition running Iraq. They were split into a half dozen groups based on age and gender.
The rain-swept course wound through the avenues and alleyways of the former Republican Palace complex, which now houses the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It is heavily fortified with earth-filled barriers, 5-yard walls and sandbagged guardhouses.
The finish line was located at a victory arch next to a wrecked building that once housed Saddam's Special Republican Guard and close to the main palace from whose roof four massive busts of Saddam glowered at the runners.
"Last year I spent Thanksgiving and did the turkey trot in Austin Texas. I never thought that one year from then I would be doing the camel trot in Baghdad, so who knows where I'll be next year," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led civilian administration in Iraq. He wore a white sweat shirt with the logo Bush-Cheney '04 on the chest.
Other runners said they were preparing for Thanksgiving dinner which will be served in all U.S. military units stationed in Iraq.
"I miss my family and friends, but I look forward to spending Thanksgiving with my colleagues," said Beverly Corbett, a nurse from Idaho.
At the start of the race in Tikrit, participants in shorts and T-shirts shivered in the chilly morning breeze at the headquarters of the 4th Infantry Division here. A U.S. flag fluttered on stage and a brass band played the theme song from the movie "Rocky."
"I'm not complaining," said Lt. Katie Noll of Cincinnati, Ohio, explaining she'll leave next week on a furlough home for Christmas. But she said she was worried about her boyfriend, 2nd Lt. Jeff Brewster, who is deployed near the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
The gargantuan task of feeding an occupying army took weeks of preparation, with whole turkeys, cranberry sauce and spices imported from the United States then flown into Kuwait. From there, it was loaded into seven trucks and brought into Iraq under heavy military escort.
In the kitchen, Pfc. Tracei Och of Pensacola, Fla., ould hardly stay awake after slicing roast turkey all night. Och, in a white chef hat, was one of 18 Army soldiers preparing turkey with help from a few dozen Indian cooks.
Och says she'd rather be cooking back home for a smaller crowd. About 5,000 soldiers were expected for lunch and a similar number for dinner.
In the military compound next to Baghdad's Mother of All Battles Mosque, tents and dormitories were decorated with papier-mÆachÄe turkeys and orange streamers. Most of the 1,500 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division on base got a day off, taking part in volleyball, basketball and football matches.
"Being here is not as good as it would be being back in the States with my family and my wife, but I'm thankful today that all my boys are OK," said Lt. Stewart Lindsey, 24, of Freeport Pa.
"As long as I can bring all my boys home then it's all OK."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)