Unit likely bound for Kirkuk
DONA ANA, N.M. – When Idaho’s National Guard soldiers fly around the globe for a year’s stay in Iraq, they will most likely be in the northern city of Kirkuk.
“I was just in Iraq and I’ve actually seen the place where we will be living and I came back with a more positive attitude than I had before,” Col. Steve Knutzen said Tuesday at the mess hall here in this remote high-desert corner of the sprawling Fort Bliss, where the Idaho National Guard 116th Brigade Combat Team has been training for potential combat patrols and convoy duties since July.
Knutzen commands the 116th’s Combat Engineer Battalion – soldiers drawn primarily from armories in North Idaho – from Lewiston to Bonners Ferry.
He said his impressions of Kirkuk, a Kurdish-dominated city of nearly 1 million in Iraq’s northern oil fields, were of striking poverty, an eroded badlands topography and a populace largely happy to have an American-led military presence.
“That area has been oppressed for a long time,” Knutzen said. “The Kurds have their own army, the Peshmerga, and we work with them and have a good rapport with them as well as with the Iraqi National Guard that we trained.”
The 116th will replace the 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii, Knutzen said.
A private security company hired by Iraq’s Northern Oil Company takes care of patrolling the oil and natural gas pipelines that have been the targets of nearly 100 attacks between June 13, 2003, and Aug. 20, 2004, according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security Web site.
A bigger issue in Kirkuk, according to Human Rights Watch, is tension between Kurds and Turkmen forcibly displaced in favor of Arabs by Saddam Hussein. Kurds and other northern minorities have returned to Kirkuk since the fall of Saddam’s regime and have been fighting with relocated Arabs to regain their homes.
Knutzen said the four main issues in Kirkuk are “power, sewage, water and schools.”
His battalion will likely work with local civil authorities to address those issues, he said, adding that some senior staffers are already creating an assessment of village needs.
“This is not like Fallujah or Najaf,” he said. “One program that I saw that works very well and that I would like to keep going is schools in Hawaii adopted schools in Kirkuk and sent school supplies.”
Noting the care packages sent to Idaho soldiers, Knutzen said “Everybody wants to send stuff to us, but we are pretty well taken care of. I hope we can push to help the Iraqis.”