Thursday, May 10, 2007

Baghdad Pt II (pics)

9 May 07
I just got back from another interesting trip to Baghdad. I went up Sunday to take another test and got back Tuesday evening. I know it isn’t like this for all our forces in Baghdad but visiting the US bases at Baghdad is a nice break from the day to day happenings at Basrah. It’s just nice to move around without your body armor.

I flew up to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) Sunday evening via an RAF C-130. Coincidentally Ali and Saad, another pilot from the squadron, were going home on vacation so I escorted them on the flight (all Iraqis require an escort to fly on RAF aircraft). It worked out nicely that I needed to go up when I did so I could get them on the flight. I was glad to do it and it saved them a 12 hour taxi ride to Baghdad during which they would have to navigate some 40+ checkpoints.

Ali wasn’t his typical self and I found out later that salaries had arrived in the squadron that day and he had not received a pay check again for the third straight month. Ali has five kids and has been living on his savings for almost a year. He didn’t know how he would explain to his wife that he hadn’t been paid again.

We landed around 1600 and Chet met us at the aircraft. We dropped Ali and Saad off at the Iraqi camp. Dhiaa was also up there flying missions with Chet so I saw him and shot the bull with him for a bit before heading off to Sather AB.

Monday I spent the day studying for my test then took the test in the late afternoon. That night I was pretty pumped from putting another test behind me. Because I’d been studying all day and hadn’t been used up much energy I had a hard time getting to sleep. Additionally, I had to get up at 0500 to catch an early morning flight back to Basrah so I slept very poorly when I finally did get to sleep.

As I mentioned after my last trip, they can move up there without body armor because 1) the BIAP complex with all its bases is massive and 2) they have the Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (CIWS). The Phalanx system is the radar controlled minigun that fires some 4,000 rounds per minute at inbound rockets or mortars to destroy them. The rounds are barometrically and time fused so they explode at a certain altitude or at a certain distance to ensure they don’t fall on the civilian population.

The helicopters and fixed wing aircraft were as busy as ever at BIAP. While I was more prepared for the sounds around the base I was still caught off guard my last night there when at 0300 they test fired the Phalanx system. There was a long, loud “brrrrrrrrrrpppp!” followed a few seconds later by a crackling noise as the rounds exploded. They fired the gun three times after which I had a heck of a time getting back to sleep.

To get back to Basrah I was offered a ride by our IqAF sister squadron at BIAP who was flying down to Basrah in one of their C-130s. The U.S. advisors assigned to their squadron were flying with them and the crew was certified by the USAF C-130 School at Little Rock AFB, AR, so I was confident it was a safe ride.

When we showed up in the morning I asked the USAF colonel flying with them if I could sit on the flight deck for the flight out of BIAP and he agreed…I just wanted to see more of the country. It was too cool and the country looked completely different from the air.

Flying over BIAP you could see all of the bunkers and hardened aircraft shelters with large holes blown in their roofs from Coalition aircraft during the two wars. I was surprised by all of the date palm forests and farms on the edge of Baghdad.

Out of BIAP we headed north and followed the Dijila/Tigris River for much of the flight. The first stop on the flight was to be Erbil ("Ur-beel"), Kurdistan in northern Iraq where we were delivering two wounded Iraqi soldiers to be cared for by their families in Kurdistan. Both were recovering from gun shot wounds. During the flight they were being cared for by a medical team of U.S. and Iraqi officers.

In addition to the wounded passengers, we had some 30 passengers from the Iraqi Air Force soccer team. Given the long hair we knew immediately the guys weren’t military. I asked one of crew who explained the Iraqi Air Force sponsors a professional soccer team. I equated it to our U.S. Air Force which sponsors a NASCAR team for recruiting purposes.

I suspect most of the players had never flown before and the guys sitting in the cargo compartment with them said most of them looked sick and several of them threw up repeatedly.

In Erbil we unloaded the patients then walked around the flightline to stretch our legs. It was the first time I’d been off of a military base in my time in Iraq and it wasn’t at all unsettling like I’m sure our troops experience in the southern half of the country.

Nearly all of the soccer team walked by and thanked us in English for the ride followed by the thumbs up. One of the older guys traveling with the team walked over to talk. He explained he was one of the coaches on the team. He wanted to thank me for the ride (like I had something to do with the it?). We talked for a few minutes during which he explained they were headed to a training camp at Erbil to get ready for an upcoming tournament. I asked him if they could train in Baghdad...not so much.

The countryside around Erbil is beautiful with fields of tall green/brown grass and yellow flowers. The mountains stood out in the distance. It reminded me of the plains in Colorado just on the edge of the Rocky Mountains or the Sacramento Valley in northern California. I told the coach they had come to a beautiful place to train. He thanked me and said he was from Mosul in Kurdistan but lives in Baghdad now. He quickly added that he was a Christian. I was surprised 1) that he was compelled to add that he was a Christian and 2) that he was a Christian. He’s the first Christian I’ve met in an Arab country. He said there were many Shiias, Sunnis and Christians on the team and religion didn’t matter amongst them as peaceful Iraqis.

The head of Al Qaeda in Iraq was recently killed. After his death we got a brief regarding possible successors. The briefer said each leader of Al Qaeda/Iraq brought their own signature form of violence to the country. Al-Zarqawi introduced sectarian violence where Sunnis from outside Iraq baited and attacked Shiias. His successor introduced chlorine bombs. Al Qaeda/Iraq’s new leader will no doubt bring his own signature death card. The coach’s comment that religion didn’t matter to peaceful Iraqis echoed repeated discussions I’ve already recounted and reinforced my belief that Iraqis could easily find peace with one another if not for all the outside influences of insurgents and state actors on militia.

We walked the ramp at Erbil International Airport for some 45 minutes just enjoying the scenery and talking with whoever came by to greet us. The U.S. colonel with us pointed out all the flags flying around the airport and the fact that all were the flag of Kurdistan and that there were no Iraqi national flags. He also pointed out the amount of development and growth going on in Erbil which again reminded me of Colorado. Moreover, the Kurds are a mountain people with a fierce spirit of independence.

At the end of GW1, Kurdistan rose up against Saddam and was put down much as Basrah was put down. There was bitter fighting and in the years following the war the U.S. and U.K. provided considerable assistance to the Kurds even helping them to develop their own police force and army, the Pesh Merga. By the second Gulf War, the Kurds enjoyed a high degree of autonomy so much so that Saddam was unwilling to commit the large number of troops required to beat them back into complete submission. The result for Kurdistan as I see it is that they had a 12 year head start on the rest of Iraq to rebuild and remake themselves. Their makeover efforts were evident from the air and ground.

Taking off out of Erbil I sat in the cargo compartment. Shortly after take off the aircraft jerked left then right followed by several loud pops and I could see lights against the inside wall of the aircraft. I looked at another American traveling with me who had been looking out the window and gave him a “what was that?” look. He said the aircraft was dispensing defensive flares. Before my first visit to Baghdad I had never seen an aircraft pop flares in a real world situation. Now I was in an aircraft popping flares in a real world situation! A few minutes later I asked the USAF loadmaster/trainer onboard what had happened and he explained that they think the defensive system detected flashes from a welding machine back at the airport. The crew flies into the airport all the time and the event was an odd contradiction to the time we spent on the ground in Erbil so I’m inclined to think they were right.

I finally got some sleep during the rest of the trip to Basrah and woke up some hour and a half later as we should have been landing. I went to the flight deck again and they let me sit up front through the landing.

Just after landing we rushed over to the chow hall to eat dinner. During dinner Susan called and I told her I’d call her back. I called her back a little while later and while we were talking the “incoming” alarm sounded…welcome back to Basrah! She put on a brave face but I knew she was relieved when I called back.

Col Sami came in the office today and explained that several weeks ago a member of the IqAF stationed at BIAP had stolen some 20+ weapons from Coalition forces in BIAP. Coincidentally, the guy was from Basrah and returned here to try to sell the weapons. He and his brother were picked up today by the Iraqi Army’s 10th Division in downtown Basrah. However, since the guy was IqAF the IqArmy saw it as an IqAF problem so called Col Sami to tell him that they would deliver the prisoners to him to detain until they could get them up to Baghdad for trial.

Col Sami asked me if I could coordinate having them placed in one of the British jails on base until a flight could come from BIAP to get them. However, the British explained that the legalities are such that if the British arrest them, they must incarcerate them; if the U.S. arrests an individual me must incarcerate them and likewise for the Iraqis. With that the Iraqis set about making a makeshift jail in their compound using zip ties as hand and leg cuffs, boards over all the windows and doors and a deadbolt on the outside of the door. Without someone standing constant armed guard it still will not be enough for a determined detainee. Nader was made officer of the guard.

A few days ago I told you about the insurgents rocketing the base until an F-16 showed up to eliminate the team. Today I got to see the video of the attack taken from a small patrol plane nearby. You could see a rocket fire from the back of the truck and as they were getting ready to fire again the bomb exploded. It was awesome!

The temperature rose to 108ยบ today…I got back to my hooch and there was no power in the RAF camp and there hadn’t been for several hours. Ugh!


emitch1 said...

I wonder if we could get the soccer team over here to play the team I play with! We just finished the season Tuesday, a loss in the division championship, so we're looking for some revenge! Who is the guy with you in the pic at Erbil? I couldn't make out the name as it's mostly covered. Do you think Kurdistan could ever become it's own country? It seems those folks have an independent streak like the early American settlers.

USAF Guy said...

A lot of international relations experts think a three way split is where the country is headed. The Kurds want nothing more and already act like an independent nation with it's own government. They're probably the strongest group in the country and certainly the strongest, most capable group of putting the violence to an end...the problem is they aren't willing to. Their region is stable and they were treated so badly for so long that they don't really care about the rest of Iraq. They would like to break away with all their natural resources (i.e. oil) to a separate Kurdistan.

A lot of western analysts liken the Kurds to American mountaineers...very independent, etc.

The Shiias would accept a separate Shiia state in the south and they would break away with all their natural resources (i.e. oil).

That leaves western Iraq for the Sunnis. The Kurds and Shiias would love to see them cast out into that no man's land. Whoever inherited that wasteland would inherit water, no farm land, no other natural resources (i.e. oil). Since the Baath Party Sunnis were so brutal under Saddam, the other Iraqi groups think it would be poetic justice to cast them out into the desert to live in poverty.

The Bush Admin is commited to a unified Iraq. Consequently, we may be working harder than any Iraqi ever will to hold the country together. There are some legitimate reasons for a unified Iraq: 1) we want assurances of a stable government and a gov't capable of defending itself to prevent the country from becoming a terrorist haven, 2) we don't want a large scale genocidal civil war, 3) we want a regional power capable of checking Iran and Syria, 4) much of "Kurdistan" falls in Turkey and their have been uprisings amongst their Kurds...Turkey will refuse to accept a Kurdish nation from Iraq unless they can base troops there to ensure the Kurds don't attempt a land grab from Turkey to help complete Kurdistan, and 5) the Kurds hate the Turks and would never accept a Turkish presence in their region.

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