The U.S. soldiers at the 101st Airborne 1st Battalion’s base in Tall ‘Afar were in a grim mood. It was a week ago and the men were feeling angry and betrayed after a popular sergeant lost his leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in an ambush a night earlier. He was struggling for his life.
THE YOUNG specialist who drove the vehicle that was ambushed was standing against the wall, trying to balance his cardboard tray of chow while smoking a cigarette.
He seemed still mesmerized by the events he has experienced in the attack. “It was unreal sir,” he said. “Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do. It was automatic.”
Yet, he admitted it was a frightening experience, one that thousands of American troops deployed in Iraq have become increasingly familiar with due to a steady rise in insurgent attacks.
More than 140 soldiers have now died in fighting in Iraq since May 1, the day President Bush declared an end to major combat after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
“Well sir, it’s been a rough deployment,” said the soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This [and] then the stuff at home — my wife’s probably cheated on me 15 times,” he said, shaking his head and takes a long drag from the stub of his cigarette.
Many of his colleagues, chowing down in this northern Iraqi town, were doing a version of the same thing, smoking and shaking their heads.
The anger was palpable. “I looked around town today,” one lieutenant admitted, “I was hoping to find someone doing something bad, somebody I could hurt, but there wasn’t one. Just people that needed my help.”
It’s just that kind of mission whiplash that has confused and demoralized so many troops in Iraq.
Soldiers are ordered to go on a night patrols or raids — where danger can lurk at every corner or behind every door-and life-and-death decisions have to be made within the hair-fraction of time it takes to pull the trigger on M4 assault weapon.
InsertArt(2063113)Then the next day they’re told to monitor the selection of a new local mayor or to rebuild a school.
“It’s not that they don’t want to win hearts and minds,” 1st Battalion commander Lt. Col. Christopher Pease said. “If you told my guys the way to get home faster was to sweep every street in Iraq — they’d be out there with brooms 24 hours a day until the place sparkled. But it’s not necessarily what we’re trained to do.”
Pease is a tall, powerfully built 46-year-old who at one time was a state champion wrestler with Olympic dreams. A bad knee ended that, but he still applies the lessons learned from the sport as a part of his leadership philosophy.
“Wrestlers are disciplined. No one is out there on the mat but you so you have to push yourself and train hard. I always try to hire former all-state wrestlers in leadership positions,” he said, smiling. “I know they’ll get the job done.”
Pease himself is a doer and a prime example of a soldier squeezed into the role of a diplomat. He’s a man who admits he doesn’t like to read much, gets bored easily.
You can imagine him smiling uncomfortably, drinking pot loads of tea and enduring small talk and other requisite niceties in all his meetings with sheiks and local tribal chieftains.
He’d rather be out on raids with his men — leading and giving orders rather than sitting and listening.
InsertArt(2063086)But one of Pease’s missions is to provide stability in his AO or area of operation, which includes Tall ‘Afar, a town east of Mosul primarily inhabited by Turkmen.
The Turkmen, a minority ethnic group in Iraq, were no friend of Saddam Hussein and this area was largely neglected by the regime.
So when Pease came in, like other U.S. military commanders, bearing cash captured during the war that could be spent at his discretion, the population was fairly welcoming.
But now that those funds for schools and clinics are drying up, violence against his troops is on the rise.
For his 1st Battalion, part of stabilizing the region requires protecting a large stretch of the two major oil pipelines that run through northern Iraq.
One is the Iraq-Syrian pipeline the other the Iraq-Turkey pipeline. The pipeline to Syria is working at only half capacity. The Iraqis pump 4,500 barrels of oil a day from the Al Sufaya pumping station into Syria and, in return, the Syrians send 39 megawatts of electricity down the grid to Iraq.
This barter was going on before the war and started up again, once coalition forces repaired oil fields and refineries, which were looted after workers abandoned them during the war.
“The barter has reduced blackouts to just six hours a day,” Pease said. “Before the oil started pumping again the electricity went out every one or two hours.”
But the Iraq-Turkey pipeline is a different story. It has the potential to pump $30 million a day or nearly a billion dollars a month into the shell-shocked, post-war Iraq economy, but so far there’s not a drop flowing in either direction.
With 60 percent unemployment nationwide, the revenue loss is nothing short of maddening for the U.S. administration. But Pease says the pipeline can’t begin pumping until it’s secure.
The exposed parts of the pipeline have already been targets for saboteurs who, according to the United States, want to derail coalition efforts to rebuild Iraq.
At a juncture 20 minutes north of Tall ‘Afar, soldiers showed evidence of a recent attack that left a gaping 3 by 4 foot hole in the 48-inch diameter pipeline.
“You can see where the bomb was probably placed,” said Sergeant Jeffrey Wells, pointing at the damaged section. “The explosives just peeled this back.” The half-inch thick metal was rolled back like the lid on a can of sardines.
The pipeline wasn’t pumping at the time, but had enough residual oil in it to create a fire that burned for five days. “Oil is how this country is going to be rebuilt.” Pease said. “There is no other revenue source.”
CONTRADICTIONS Pease knows that because that mission is so critical to Iraq’s future he and his men must continue their dual roles, working to enable the local elements of the population that will work with them fighting to disable those that won’t.
But these multi-layered contradictions in today’s Iraq are illustrated by both the occupiers — and the occupied.
The following night, Oct. 30th, Pease led his men on a raid against a suspected financier of the resistance.
His troops swarmed in on the multi-house compound in the dark, chill of 4 a.m.
The owner was forced face down on the floor and bound with plastic cuffs, a boot placed was on his back.
A little later, he was stood up and held in a corner of his own house with M249 light machine gun pointed at his chest. His wife and children huddled under thick blankets in the next room.
No weapons or cash were found after the house was searched and the man was released just as dawn was breaking.
And because it is the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, he and his family had missed their chance to eat before the day-long fast. They would not eat or drink anything until sundown.
Yet as Pease and his men loaded up their Humvees and prepared to head back to base, the man, who only moments before had been held at gunpoint, invited his captors to stay for breakfast, a common courtesy in Iraq.
NBC’s Kevin Sites is on assignment in Iraq. His dispatches, more photographs and other observations from Iraq can be found on his personal blog, kevinsites.net