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Kirkuk base a slice of Americana

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

Just four days after the front lines reached the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in April 2003, Lt. Col. Tracey Walker led a wave of military engineers attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade into the mix. The last thing she expected to see were roses in bloom.

The northern divisions of the Iraqi army, backpedaling toward Kirkuk for weeks, had vanished abruptly rather than dig in for a fight with Kurdish peshmerga fighters – 30,000 strong with their own tanks and heavy weapons – and U.S. Special Forces and paratroopers.

The Iraqis fled so abruptly, Walker said, “the dough was still rising” in the bakery on the air base.

So, in the sunny confusion of early April, paratroopers guarded oil fields and Special Forces covertly did what they covertly do, and jubilant armed Kurds in pickup trucks raced around a city they consider to be an ancient capital – either trying to stop looters, or sometimes jumping in and joining looters, media accounts have said.

Walker, once stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, said in a recent e-mail she found a landscape that reminded her of Eastern Washington – green valley floors and mountains in the distance. And then there were roses, hybrid teas, possibly of the Peace variety, blooming around Kirkuk.

Walker, who served as deputy base commander, and her group of engineers dived into the task of transforming the city’s Iraqi air base into a functioning airfield and a secure home for coalition forces. It’s known as the KRAB, Kirkuk Regional Air Base, and it’s a place citizen soldiers from North Idaho will be calling home for the next year when they relieve the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry (Light).

The Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team – 4,300 strong, with about 1,600 Idahoans among soldiers from Montana and Oregon, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – have been training intensively since July 2 to become combat infantry, versed in foot patrols, urban warfare and convoy escort. They are expected to replace the 25th Infantry by January.

In spring of 2003, the Turkish border was still closed, and combat in the rest of Iraq stalled supply convoys. Walker and her engineers, however, became a decorated unit for her “dynamic leadership” and “out of the box” thinking.

Between April and July of 2003, Walker and her engineers worked furiously to transform the chaos of the stripped and trashed Iraqi base into a place that had secured perimeters, functioning air traffic control, telephones and Internet, along with housing, drinkable water and a waste treatment system – the latter purchased using the Internet to find a supplier in Turkey.

Walker also found a ‘fixer’ who drove to the border – “at a time when they were killing people on the roads and trucks were backed up 10 miles because the border was closed,” Walker said. Somehow, the seven semitrucks with the waste-water treatment plant “got to the head of the line, and sure enough here the trucks show up out of nowhere,” Walker said. “It was so cool.”

Explosives specialists from the U.S. and Latvia blew up tons of missiles and bombs, though unexploded ordnance, called UXO, is still commonly found in the countryside, people who have been to Kirkuk this year have said.

Visiting dignitaries in those early days remarked that soldier morale at Kirkuk was the highest in Iraq, and one blunt airman told a VIP, “We have nothing, so there is nothing to complain about.”

That was then.

The Idaho Guard soldiers will find a base Walker might not recognize. The last of the tents was gone this summer, replaced by CONEX housing, essentially shipping containers transformed into barracks. The KRAB features a fancy dining hall run by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, the KRAB-busters video store, a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, and what is said to be the only water slide in Iraq.

Gunners from Battery D, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, built the water slide from tarps and hoses, kiddie pools purchased in Kirkuk and the roof of an old barracks and other detritus they found around the sprawling base, Stars and Stripes wrote in an October 2003 article.

The base has become a sort of mini-strip mall America, with fast food and video rentals and Internet cafes, plopped into the Cradle of Civilization.

Kirkuk is believed to be the most ancient continuously occupied city on the planet, going back almost 7,000 years. History is literally underfoot.

Soldiers recently digging in a hillside to fill sandbags at the Kirkuk air base crunched into layers of ancient pottery. This created an uproar in archaeology circles.

A discussion thread on the Internet grew with postings from the United States and Europe. Many carried the aggrieved tone that Neanderthals with buzz cuts and shovels were mucking up ancient treasures in violation of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict.

Replacing the 25th Infantry means patrolling a vast area ranging from the Arab-dominated village of al-Hawija in the tip of the Sunni Triangle, to Kirkuk, to As Sulaymaniyah, a remote – and beautiful – mountain outpost on the Iranian border.

In an e-mail exchange last week, Maj. Thomas Williams, a public affairs officer with the 25th Infantry, had this to say about Kirkuk:

“Kirkuk is a much cleaner, safer and functional city than when we arrived. Kirkuk reminds me of portions of West Texas, same terrain, same oil refinery smells and oil burn-off flames,” Williams wrote. “Same heat in the summer and cold in the winter. Traffic gets worse every day. Sovereignty equates to more cars.”

Williams said, “Our mission, especially since the transfer of sovereignty on June 28, has focused on assisting in the development of the Iraqi institutions to include the Iraqi security forces and the local governments.”

While there is daily interaction with civilian leaders, a 25th Infantry task force showed there is still something of a war on.

The base newspaper, KRAB Kronicle, highlighted an Oct. 5 mission in which 500 soldiers in 11 helicopters and a ground convoy conducted lightning raids on the farming towns of Hegneh and Zab, which were said to be safe havens for insurgents.

The mission was an apparent success, the Kronicle story said, with troops arriving by surprise – insurgents have previously been able to predict U.S. troop movements. A number of suspected insurgents were detained, and a “significant amount of weapons and ammunition” was recovered.

The risks are ever-present. Journalist William Cole and photographer Richard Ambo of the Honolulu Advertiser accompanied the 25th Infantry to Kirkuk early this year.

“All things considered, Kirkuk is not a bad place to be,” Cole said in a recent telephone conversation. But as of last week, his continuing stories note “23 soldiers with Hawaii ties have been killed in the Middle East since the March 2003 start of the war in Iraq. Sixteen soldiers died in Iraq, six in Afghanistan and one in Kuwait.”

There are haphazard rocket and mortar attacks on the air base, firefights around al-Hawija, still ambushes in Kirkuk, Cole said, and all the unexploded artillery shells provide raw material for IEDs – improvised explosive devices – that are the scourge of convoy operations. The news agency Reuters reported last week that scores of oil workers are still being killed and maimed in attacks on the pipelines.

The KRAB is known as FOB Warrior (FOB for forward operations base) and soldiers stationed there rarely leave it to kick around the city. The Idaho soldiers will rotate through six other FOBs, Williams said.

Soldiers in the 116th Combat Engineers Battalion, which includes nearly 400 locals from Lewiston to Bonners Ferry, have expressed interest in using their engineering training to help in the rebuilding. Part of the training scenarios these past months have had soldiers dealing with villagers and village mayors.

Col. Steve Knutzen, commander of the engineers, visited Kirkuk in August and said the priorities identified by locals included a need for water and sewage systems, electricity and schools.

Soldiers in the 25th Infantry have been collecting and delivering school supplies in what is known as Operation Crayon, an effort Knutzen has said he would like to continue.

As in much of Iraq, attacks by insurgents have hampered reconstruction. Williams wrote that only one project – construction of a base for the Iraqi Armed Forces – has so far been funded through the Provisional Coalition Office.

But Knutzen, reached at Fort Polk, La., last week, said, “There are a lot of money sources. There are a lot of things going on.”

In addition to the PCO, the Iraqi government is funding projects, as are international NGOs, non-governmental organizations, Knutzen said.

The Idaho troops will be deployed just as elections are scheduled in Iraq. These elections loom especially large in Kirkuk, which is seen as a potential capital for an autonomous Kurdistan.

Given its history as an ancient place of many civilizations, Kirkuk is a diverse city – filled with Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Arabs – that seems to be function better than many in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, however, had tried to “Arab-ize” Kirkuk with a program that kicked out Kurds and replaced them with Arabs from the south. A recent New Yorker magazine article by writer George Packer illustrates the tensions in Kirkuk now that Kurds have taken to reversing the process.

Packer asked Hasib Rozbayani, deputy governor for resettlement and compensation, about the emerging policy of reverse ethnic cleansing. Why should the children of Arab families – some in Kirkuk since the 1960s – be forced to leave, he asked.

“Of course, I accept the idea of brothership and friendship,” Rozbayani replied. “But we know openly the Arabs have taken lands, occupied lands, they have gone to every house to investigate people, execute people, take their sons, their girls – and you would say ‘Welcome, Iraq is for all people?’ It is funny, I say.”

The political and social underpinnings of the city can be discovered online at Kurdistan Observer, a Web site filled with stories written by and about Kurds and what is important to them.

Kurds have been accused of trying to hijack the upcoming census in order to secure Kirkuk for themselves in the January elections. Some Kurdish political leaders have been blunt about talk of an independent Kurdistan, a sentiment that threatens not only civil war in Iraq but also opposition from Turkey.

But in the meantime, this incongruous place of palm trees and rose bushes, desert heat and snow-capped mountains, traffic jams and ancient souks, awaits citizen-soldiers from Idaho.

And they will be berthed at a place a former Spokane-area military engineer has transformed into a cradle of infantry civilization.

“I thought I’d be able to tell some war stories, but what stories can I tell? We’re getting a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. How bad can it be here?” Airman 1st Class Felix Funis of the 506th Air Expeditionary Group, told Stars and Stripes recently about living at Kirkuk.


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