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At Pentagon, Iraq a round-the-clock effort

Crisis Action Team monitors every detail

By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff, 3/20/2006

WASHINGTON -- ''We're at War,'' says Uncle Sam. ''Are YOU doing all you can?''

The variation of the World War I-era recruiting poster, hanging in offices and lining corridors of the Pentagon, is just one reminder of how the workday has been transformed for thousands of military personnel and civilians who work in the US military headquarters.

Three years after the United States invaded Iraq, the rhythm of daily life at the Pentagon has evolved into an unending, round-the-clock mission: to keep hundreds of thousands of troops cared for and equipped to confront an insurgency eight time zones away and train Iraqis to one day stabilize their own country.

Signs of how the largest bureaucracy in the world has dug in for the long haul are in plain sight.

In the hum of the Pentagon's main concourse, amid fast-food joints, banks, and other conveniences for the 22,000 employees, a clock on the wall is set to Baghdad time.

The daily grind is perhaps best reflected by the Army's Crisis Action Team, generals and dozens of senior staff officers who meet each morning at 7:30 and again at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the latest developments in Iraq and beyond. (A Globe reporter was permitted to attend a meeting last Friday under the condition that no classified material be disclosed.)

Their daily mission is to record the drumbeat of the war so the Department of the Army can cut through the red tape and fill equipment shortages, dispatch fresh troops, and otherwise be the backstop for the massive effort.

In 13-hour shifts, the Crisis Action Team -- made up mostly of reservists called to active duty and some veterans of Iraq -- compile and relay details of the fighting, civil reconstruction efforts, and the Iraqi training program. They know minute details about the war efforts, from every newly armored Humvee shipped to the front to the funeral services planned around the country for fallen comrades.

''This did not exist before,'' said Brigadier General Jim Nuttall of the Rhode Island National Guard, now serving on active duty as the Army's deputy director of operations, readiness, and mobilization. ''I have been doing it for 16 months, but it seems longer when you work 18-hour days.''

Details, details
While much of Washington slumbers, several dozen Army majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels -- specialists in intelligence, logistics, law enforcement, or other military functions -- cram into the brightly lit operations center in the bowels of the Pentagon. It is time to relieve the night shift.

Amid sips of coffee, they pound away at their keyboards, sending and receiving e-mails and closely guarded documents. ''Who needs to know?'' the posted signs ask, constant reminders that the information discussed here is highly sensitive.

They stand at attention when Nuttall, a native of Smithfield, R.I., strides in at 7:30 sharp. All eyes focus on the three wide screens on the front wall, where an audiovisual presentation broadcasts the latest development from Iraq and beyond.

First off is the day's weather report in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bird flu has been detected in Afghanistan, they are informed. The Iraqi parliament has been seated for the first time, if only for 40 minutes. A few tidbits are included to lighten the atmosphere: The United States was eliminated by Mexico, 2-1, in the World Baseball Classic.

Their job is to stay on top of US Army operations across the globe, including troops deployed in Colombia, in Africa as part of UN missions, and in the Philippines. But the Iraq war overshadows all else.

The Crisis Action Team learns how many US troops have been killed and wounded across the country in the past 48 hours. There is an update on Operation Swarmer, a major assault launched last week by US and coalition troops against suspected insurgents north of Baghdad.

Sector by sector, maps that pop up on the screens show where US and Iraqi troops have been in action over the past day or so. The team is briefed in detail on how many attacks have been launched by insurgents -- down to how many rocket-propelled grenades were reported fired at US, British, and other coalition troops.

Another visual lists the numbers of detainees captured and released. Officers hear what weapons and other materials were seized from insurgent safe houses.

Then they return to nuts and bolts: How many newly armored Humvees are in Iraq, how many are on their way, and how many have been lost to insurgent attacks or to road accidents.

Team members keep track of fast-changing troop movements, including areas where commanders have beefed up US forces overnight and where they have handed over additional territory to Iraqi security forces.

''We provide feedback from all this data for the leadership,'' said Colonel Marshall Eward, a Vietnam veteran from the Pennsylvania National Guard. Eward, 58, who came out of retirement to reenlist, at this hour is relieving the overnight operations chief, Colonel James Messer, a veteran of US Central Command in the Middle East.

The objective is to ''find out what happened,'' Nuttall said. ''What is important? We have to make sure everyone knows what is going on and what we need to take care of right away.''

Dividing resources
The military bureaucracy, however, can sometimes be a stubborn foe.

At 1:30 p.m. in Washington -- 9:30 p.m. in Baghdad -- a group of Army officers gathers around a mahogany table in another conference room for the ''Friday Fights.''

The session is designed to hash out the needs of commanders in the field before their bosses meet in a higher-level meeting scheduled for Saturday that will include generals and admirals from across the world. The Army officers are joined by representatives from other military branches.

The informal title of the secret gathering of a dozen or so colonels is telling: It is literally a tug of war.

The meeting begins with a brief update of the events of the day, but through the fusillade of acronyms and military-ese it is quickly clear that commanders in Iraq are frustrated with the progress of several RFFs, or ''requests for forces.''

An officer in Iraq wants to know when one particular request will be resolved. ''This is a problem here in theater that we need forces for,'' he responds after a Pentagon participant tells him that a final decision has not yet been made. ''It's 50 percent filled.''

Referring to yet another equipment shortfall, an officer is brusque: ''We need to get beyond the short term and figure out what the enduring solution is going to be.''

As for a request that a certain weapon system in high demand be purloined from other units around the world, an officer in the Pentagon seeks to reassure commanders in Iraq. ''No one wants to let this fester,'' he says. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to approve the request this week, he adds.

Pentagon leaders have begun to refer to the Iraq war and the worldwide struggle against Islamic extremists as ''the long war.''

Asked how long the Iraq mission could last, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week: ''We need as a nation to understand that it takes decades for terrorist organizations to either be defeated or to lose their ideology.

''Although certainly not at the numbers we have deployed now,'' Pace added, ''we are going to need to have forces forward deployed around the world to be able to respond to terrorist threats to our country. And that will take a long time.''

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/20/2006.
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