Winding down an almost forgotten war

Casualties are much rarer now, but the risks remain real for the US forces charged with preparing Iraq to stand on its own

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By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 29, 2011

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KIRKUK, Iraq — Gun Truck 1, rocking from side to side like a 14-ton mechanized elephant, lumbers over a metal grate set in the rutted exit to a US base here and turns onto a battered road. It slows to a crawl as 18 other vehicles — gun trucks, a wrecker, and flatbeds loaded with food, fuel, and ammunition — rumble out of the base and catch up for a dead-of-night journey to resupply two remote outposts.

The gun truck’s driver and the truck commander — the TC — scan the road ahead. A third soldier maneuvers a 7.62mm machine gun in a steel-protected turret.

Combat has been officially over here for nine months, but the soldiers in Gun Truck 1, the convoy’s “point man,’’ are prepared for war. Ahead lie 20 miles of dense farmland, empty sands, and ragged villages where sectarian violence is a constant threat. As the convoy creeps forward, the radio crackles with the TC’s warnings.

“We’ve got one guy, TC side, fixing a tire, or at least that’s what it looked like,’’ the commander, Sergeant Corey Eggers, says.

“Be advised,’’ he says a few minutes later. “Gunner flashed a light on a guy on the TC side, and he ducked out.’’

Each gun truck that passes throws a harsh, high-intensity light on the place where the man had been. In the distance, flames from oil and gas wells glow like towering candles, and the man’s disappearance seems to heighten a sense of high alert.

For Americans at home, focused now on Afghanistan and the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the dangers of Iraq have all but faded from view. But for the 46,000 troops who remain in this country, the battle of nerves — the residue of war goes on.

The mission now has transformed into one of keeping peace long enough to orchestrate the massive drawdown of troops and machines accumulated over eight years of fighting, and to prepare an Iraqi security force capable of curbing the sectarian fighting that some fear could plunge the country into civil war. It is a mission that does not result in many casualties — 36 Americans have died since Sept. 1 — but the threat is continuous and real.

Top US military officials say the troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, leaving behind a country able to take care of itself. But among some of the troops, there is less certainty. The fledgling Iraqi Air Force contains cadets who have never driven a car much less a fighter plane, and insurgents continue to launch attacks against the bureaucrats and security forces who form the wobbly legs of Iraqi government.

“Al Qaeda is still out there and still dangerous and still determined to murder as many people as they can,’’ said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the top US military spokesman in Iraq.

For the troops leading the resupply convoy on this night, the main worry is getting to Gaines Mills, a flyspeck of a base about 20 miles to the southwest, in one piece.

As the caravan moves ahead, the soldiers regard every Iraqi with suspicion. Searchlights are trained on poker-faced drivers who stop their cars while the convoy passes, and on bystanders who stand glumly by crumbling cinderblock buildings.

“We’ve got about four dismounts,’’ Eggers says, using a military term for people on foot, as the truck’s floodlight finds them and they freeze, staring sullenly into the glare. The men are deemed harmless, and the procession slogs slowly on, passing shredded tires, shuttered food stands, skittish dogs, abandoned homes, and piles of freshly dug dirt.

As the trucks drive under bridges, the soldiers crane their necks to look for signs of explosives. Passing over bridges, they disengage the “combat lock’’ on the gun truck’s door for easier escape if a bomb goes off.

‘Only so much you can do’

After two hours of tense travel, of pitching and stopping and starting again, the convoy pulls into a cratered drive to enter Gaines Mills, a former country villa set among stands of trees and rolling farmland. A few soldiers emerge from a compound of spartan, bare-bones buildings and unload supplies in silence before sending the convoy on its way.

Inside, Lieutenant Taylor McKay, a wiry platoon leader from Utah, leans against a wall and sums up one reason the base is there: “This lies on an ethnic seam that could go up at any time.’’

It is a place that encapsulates the remaining US mission. Here, American troops live side by side with Iraqi soldiers, advising and assisting them in weapons training, tactics, and the basics of army operations. Once the Americans leave here, the Iraqi Army will be left to maintain order in a province where ethnic tensions among Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen are as volatile as anywhere in the country.

Although the Americans work and sleep only yards from their Iraqi counterparts and cooperation is an official watchword, the outpost observes stark boundaries. A tall, heavy, metal gate separates their quarters, as do concrete blast walls and tangled concertina wire. When the troops work together or venture to the other’s side of the base, these former enemies seem wary and on guard.

The Iraqis, members of the 47th Brigade of the 12th Iraqi Army, clearly have the better digs at the villa, once a retreat for Ali Hassan al-Majid, the notorious cousin of Saddam Hussein who used poison gas against the Kurds in 1988. The compound serves as brigade headquarters, complete with a polished conference room, comfortable chairs, and a television tuned to a soccer match.

The Americans — a company of the First Battalion, 14th Regiment, First Infantry Division — make do in a rambling complex of small, dusty rooms with thin, wooden walls. One room serves as the command post, another for a place to watch DVDs, and another for a double row of computers that connect the soldiers to the Internet, e-mail, and news from home. The feel is of a functional, backwoods, frat-house fortress.

At Gaines Mills, named for a Confederate victory in Virginia in 1862, soldiers are more vulnerable to hostile fire than they are on the big Iraq bases. Outside its walls, in a place where fractious cultures live above a sea of oil, the road to ethnic peace — and the creation of a homegrown military to enforce it — has been as bumpy as the roads to get here.

Lieutenant Colonel Dana Van Ness, the American in charge, is a Special Forces veteran on his fourth tour in Iraq. In his view, the Iraqi learning curve will accelerate quickly once the US soldiers leave. “They’re pretty strong tactically,’’ Van Ness says. “We’re focused on giving them the last, few tools.’’

The Iraqi soldiers at Gaines Mills say all the things the United States wants to hear. The training has been valuable, says Major Thakir Muner Hassan, and their US-supplied weapons are a huge improvement over Hussein-era stock.

“The Iraqi Army is very tough and a very strong army, but unfortunately the old regime got the Iraqi Army tired,’’ Hassan says. “I would like to keep training with the US Army, because they’re the most strong army in the world.’’ As he speaks, relaxed and breezy on the Iraqi side of the villa, two American soldiers sit ramrod-straight beside him.

McKay, the platoon leader, says Iraqi soldiers are improving and becoming more independent. He cites a recent search for four bomb makers. While the Iraqis surrounded and raided a town, the Americans remained on the periphery.

“We’re not knocking down doors, not arresting anybody. It’s the Iraqi Army,’’ McKay says. “We don’t have any control over what they do.’’

McKay speaks with a slightly world-weary air. The baton has been passed, even in restive Kirkuk Province, and McKay now is less of a charge-ahead warrior than an observant backup.

“Most of the senior officers are from the old Iraqi Army, and it’s pretty clear they can take care of what’s going on around here,’’ the lieutenant says. When asked if the time has come to leave, McKay pauses for several seconds, his hand on his rifle, his eyes narrowing, and his mind in motion.

“That’s a hard one to answer,’’ McKay says. “We’re all ready to get back to our families. I think if it’s not time to go, it’s getting really close. There’s only so much you can do.’’

Iraq’s security forces are considered much better than they were a few years ago. “Are we making gains every day? Yes, we are,’’ said Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter, who oversees the training effort in Iraq. However, the threat from meddling neighbor countries is considered real, dangerous, and possibly overwhelming. Going forward, that means an uncertain role for the United States after the last troops depart.

“I suspect that America will remain involved in this theater,’’ says Air Force Brigadier General Kurt Neubauer, who commands the 332d Air Expeditionary Wing, which protects American ground forces and assets throughout Iraq. “The question is, in what regard will we remain engaged.’’

That question has yet to be answered, although the State Department is preparing to expand an embassy that already is the largest in the world.

“Right now, the Iraqis don’t have the ability to defend themselves,’’ says Christopher Sullivan, a Carlisle, Mass., civilian who worked as chief planner for Joint Base Balad, the aviation and logistics hub for US forces in Iraq. “When we pull out after having a superpower keeping peace for all these years, there could well be a civil war between the north and the south and an invasion from neighboring countries.’’

If Iraqi leaders believe their security is inadequate, none has yet called for US troops to stay past Dec. 31.

To do so, at great personal risk, would be hugely unpopular — and possibly a death sentence — in a country where the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who helped broker the current coalition government, is adamant that the Americans depart on schedule.

Still, unofficial talks to extend the deadline and continue an American presence are under way between Iraqis and the Americans, says a US Army officer with direct knowledge of the discussions. In the interim, the Iraqi armed forces and their US advisers work against the clock. The challenges are immense.

Humble and eager to learn At Kirkuk Airbase, where pilots are being molded for the Iraqi Air Force, a single-engine Cessna 172 drops toward the runway with the unsteady conviction of a baby bird. The wings teeter like a seesaw before the plane brushes the runway and takes off again in a rudimentary touch-and-go drill.

Adrian Schuettke, a US Air Force lieutenant colonel, watches the exercise on a sparkling morning with the sunny satisfaction of a proud parent. “Some of these guys have never driven a car before, but now they’re flying solo,’’ Schuettke says.

Such is the infancy of the new Iraqi Air Force that even a touch-and-go is cause for applause.

Beginning with two airplanes and a handful of pilots four years ago, US trainers at Kirkuk have shepherded more than 150 fixed-wing and helicopter pilots through the program, Schuettke says. On this day, 32 would-be pilots are being taught, and 50 more are in the queue for training.

Although those numbers keep growing, Iraqi Air Force Major Ahmed Asker, a fighter pilot under Saddam Hussein, concedes that his country is several years from mounting even a rudimentary air defense. “We don’t have fast airplanes,’’ Asker says.

In addition to their glaring need for flight time and mechanical training, the cadets face a daunting language barrier. Sometimes, Schuettke says, teachers are forced to resort to body and sign language, even during flight, to communicate with their students. But in the end, he says, “they basically come out on par with our students’’ in the United States. “This is the same airplane I trained in 20 years ago.’’

Other similarities, however, seem hard to find. This is no suburban flight school in the United States, but a place where cadets without even a driver’s license aspire to fly fighter jets. They train over a tense, crowded city where the threat of violence is a part of daily life. Their airport, located within a US military base, is ringed by a dense cluster of wire, fences, berms, sensors, towers, and checkpoints. Mortar rounds and rockets still find their way inside the perimeter.

The Iraqis who walk about the flight line seem humble, attentive, and eager to learn. “Swanny’’ Swanberg, a US adviser who runs the maintenance program, says that none of the students had worked on an American-built plane before, although a few had maintained Russian-made MiG fighters. Now, Swanberg adds, “they’re doing most of the inspections on the aircraft we have here.’’

Those aircraft, as unimposing as they are, nevertheless bear a conspicuous point of pride. The nation’s flag — three broad horizontal stripes of red, white, and black — is emblazoned on the tails of the tiny Cessnas. And just forward on the fuselage, the words “Iraqi Air Force’’ are painted in large block letters.

Asker, the former Iraqi fighter pilot, foresees brighter days. “We are becoming more advanced,’’ he says, using limited English as he stands near the runway. “We are making good pilots. I think things will be better.’’

Schuettke, who has served six combat deployments in a 17-year career, is similarly upbeat. “It’s pretty exciting,’’ he says. “They’re flying planes in their own country.’’

Hope, worry over future If things truly become better for Iraq, the future of disputed, oil-rich Kirkuk will be critical. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen are wrangling for power in this northern province, whose future energy revenues are potentially vast. Although US officials constantly encourage Iraqis to embrace political and bureaucratic diversity, allegiances to tribe, religion, and ethnicity remain stubborn and fierce.

One man charged with keeping peace in the region is Colonel Baystun Muhammad Qadir, a Kirkuk police chief who maintains an intense loyalty to his fellow Kurds. One day this spring, when a delegation of American soldiers arrived from the nearby base for a good-will visit, Qadir welcomed them into his ornate office. Elbows propped on a polished desk, eyes on the television, Qadir scoffs at news of a street rally, scheduled for the next day, to protest government inefficiency.

“You tell me, what are they going to do?’’ Qadir asks with a grand, contemptuous wave of a smoldering cigarette. Nodding toward the television, where an Arab cleric rails in full and angry voice, Qadir smiles, leans forward, and mutters: “I’m sure his wife doesn’t listen to him. He looks like a monkey.’’

The American soldiers chuckle, somewhat nervously, and one asks Qadir if his district has been peaceful. It has, Qadir replies, adding that he has not received an ethnic-related complaint in seven years. In this volatile city, that claim strains belief, although the unflinching soldiers betray no clue of their doubts.

During the meeting, Sergeant First Class Calvin Newman flatters Qadir incessantly. “You’re a celebrity. Everyone wants to see you,’’ says Newman, whose fawning deference is a diplomatic gambit to gain trust, cooperation, and intelligence.

Qadir insists that national harmony is possible, but even he does not seem vested in the goal. He makes no secret of his deep, personal desire for an independent Kurdish state, including large swaths carved from northern Iraq. “I hope I can see it one day,’’ Qadir says to a visitor. “But even if it happens after I die, that is OK, too.’’

Qadir’s nationalism has been reinforced by tragedy. He says he lost 22 family members to Hussein’s killers and watched dogs pick at his children’s bodies. Staring at a wall, eyes narrowing, cigarette held motionless in front of him, Qadir recounts a long litany of atrocities committed against the Kurdish people.

A few minutes later, the chief sits with the soldiers at a long table set with a banquet of traditional Kurdish food. Outfitted in fatigues and body armor, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, the soldiers pick cautiously at their plates.

“Bon appetit,’’ Qadir says, beaming.

The soldiers dig in. These are not Meals Ready to Eat. When they’ve finished, the soldiers glance toward Qadir, smile and nod, and head quickly for an outdoor courtyard.

The luncheon has been a success. Qadir, leaning back and savoring a long drag from his cigarette, says he is grateful for American military training, its role in keeping the peace, and the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.

“They should build a statue of George W. Bush,’’ he says, stabbing the air with his finger. “A great American,’’ Newman adds.

If US troops leave as scheduled, Qadir predicts, extremists “will try to take advantage of the situation.’’

Newman, a rifle cradled in his arms, tells the chief: “You know we wish we could do more.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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