Monday, December 28, 2009

Road Trip: Kirkuk

Yes, I'm on a road trip to Kirkuk, Iraq. Kirkuk is in NE Iraq. It's a city that is central to the future of the country. Kirkuk sits on top of some of the largest oil reserves in the country. It's claimed by both the Kurds and the Arabs. Years ago, Saddam Hussein forced out a lot of Kurds and bused in a lot of Arabs in a deliberate effort to change the city's ethnic makeup. Now the discussion centers on whether they're going to undo that change, or live with it, or what. There has been no agreement on any way forward yet and there doesn't appear to be any breakthrough on the horizon. It could cause serious trouble to the future of Iraq in the future.

But that's not why I'm here. I'm meeting with a lot of different people about how to move one of my capacity development programs forward. It's been a very interesting trip so far and there's still more to come.

I left Baghdad on Sunday morning. Our little convoy of armored SUV's headed north out of Victory Base. We passed a lot of Shi'ite pilgrims who were walking back home from their pilgrimage to Karbala, a city about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad that is one of the holy centers for their branch of Islam. (Yes: the ones we saw walked at least 60 miles to Karbala, and were walking back home.) Almost all the pilgrims wore black. There were men, women, children, and even some dogs on leashes, heading north along the road. Some of them carried black flags. None of them looked particularly friendly to us, but at least none did anything unfriendly. Enterprising young boys had set up small stands to sell water, drinks, and snacks to the pilgrims.
We headed north up the main highway past Balad (where a huge US air base is located) to Tikrit. Along the way, I saw a bunch of "gas stations in a box". There are a lot of cars on the road, but the large filling stations must be charging a fortune for gas. So there's a company called Patrol that takes the short shipping containers and put a tank and a fuel pump in them. They drop them off every few miles along the side of the road. They don't even put 'em on cinder block foundations - just plop it down on the dirt, open up the doors to reveal the pump, set up a chair for the guy operating it, and they're in business. And if that guy is too expensive, well, there's always the kid down the road who has a bunch of 5-gallon containers lined up, ready to provide service for somebody. They don't even give the kid a chair.

There are a lot of security forces on the roads. You can't go a mile without going through a checkpoint manned by police or Iraqi Army soldiers, or passing by some soldiers or police or even some Sons of Iraq on the side of the road. (The Sons of Iraq are civilian paramilitary forces - the subject of a whole 'nother post).

We rolled into Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's hometown) about three hours after leaving Baghdad. We'd made pretty good time. I then made like a Pony Express rider: a quick pit stop, a run to the Subway shop next door for a sandwich (yes, we have Subway's on our bases), and then I changed to another team that would take me on the next leg.

We rolled out about noon and continued north to Baiji, which is where the oil fields begin. There's a huge refinery there, as well as a large power plant. Which, to judge from the black smoke pouring from the stacks, has no pollution controls whatsoever. Once over the small mountain range by the power plant, the road ran straight as an arrow to Kirkuk. That's not to say that we went straight. The road is full of potholes and we were constantly zigging and zagging to avoid them. And in a top-heavy uparmored Ford Expedition moving at high speed, that's quite an interesting experience.

Some of my fellow travellers go right to sleep as soon as they get rolling with one of these security teams. I don't. Can't. If I'm in a new area, I'm wide awake, looking around to see what's there. Fortunately, the security team is doing the same thing, only they're usually looking for something different. I took a lot of pictures and will post some once I get home and can download them to my own computer. Some of the things I noticed:
- Everywhere I go in Iraq, I see piles of dirt. It's as if somebody swept up the rubble, put it into a big wheelbarrow, and then randomly dumped it. I don't care where you go: north, south, west, the piles of dirt are everywhere.
- So is junk. Serious junk. Stripped cars. Truck bodies. Big rusted metal casings that could have gone around industrial air conditioners. Piles of URO's (Unidentified Rusty Objects). We passed a junkyard with squashed cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles that seemed to go for miles. They could do a huge scrap metal business in this country. Maybe they will, eventually. Meanwhile it all just sits there.
- Once we got into the oil region, it was pretty obvious. Oil is everywhere, all over the ground, leaking out from trucks. I saw one tanker that had backed into a depression so that the driver could finish draining the oil out onto the ground. Environment? What environment?
- Never thought I'd see a mud hut with a big satellite dish on the roof. Now I've seen a whole bunch.

We arrived at the US base outside Kirkuk in mid-afternoon. I jumped right into discussions with some of the people I'd come to see, and it turned out to be very worthwhile. Then I got settled into my room, had some chow at the DFAC (theygripe about their DFAC just like I gripe about mine ... only theirs is better), and hit the rack early. It was a long, tiring day, and I was a beaten little puppy.

Today was just as interesting. Up early, over to the DFAC for breakfast, and then on the road again. Today we went to Sulaymaniyah. "Suly" is in the Kurdish autonomous region. It is almost a separate country. We rolled through Kirkuk right during morning rush hour. Our security team knows the town like the back of their hand, and we went through neighborhoods and down alleyways that I'd have never suspected led anywhere. Eventually we popped out onto the divided highway that led eastward. The landscape became hilly and dry, much like some parts of the American southwest, and we climbed pretty steadily up a very long, slight incline.

We were able to relax our security posture as soon as we crossed over the provincial border. In the Kurdish region, everything was in markedly better condition: roads, buildings, everything. There were crews out repairing roads and re-installing guardrails (which were demolished a few years ago to prevent them from hiding roadside bombs). There was little visible war damage - occasionally we'd see a building still damaged or even destroyed, but not often. Off in the distance to the north and east we could see high mountain ranges with snow at the top. Very beautiful country. The people seemed much more friendly toward us. Not that there's a lot of interaction between people on the street and passengers in armored SUV's, but there's a noticeable difference between the cold hard stare we got in, say, Baghdad, and the open, friendly expressions we saw in Kurdistan.

The team dropped me off at the office on an Iraqi-controlled base outside of Sulaymaniyah. Slight correction: a peshmerga-controlled base. Peshmerga are the Kurdish military forces. There's not a whole helluva lot of cooperation between the Arab-dominated Iraqi military and the Kurdish-controlled peshmerga. The two forces have fought many battles over the centuries and so they still keep their separate identities. The peshmerga seemed very efficient. They certainly have more Western ideas: I noticed that almost all the crew at the gate to our compound were female. Can't imagine a woman in the army in Baghdad ... where would you put rank insignia on an abaya? Anyway, I had another very productive meeting with several people about my program. They opened my eyes to some aspects of it that I had not foreseen ... which, of course, is exactly why I wanted to come talk with them.

We had a great lunch and finished up with a good bit of coffee to get ready for our afternoon discussions. And that's what gave me trouble. About as soon as we got back into the office, I found out that my team was going to be leaving very soon to head back to Kirkuk. Uh oh ... there's no way my body could process all that coffee that fast. I delayed as long as I reasonably could, made a final pit stop, and off we went. Ten minutes into the trip, I knew I hadn't delayed long enough. Thirty minutes later, my teeth were beginning to float. I tried to keep myself busy by looking out the window, but all I could see were things like a man watering his plants, or a big yellow gas can, or the splash from a car going through a puddle. It was NOT FUN, so quit laughing! I made it back without embarrassing myself, but it was a near thing ... a portajohn never looked so good.

So now I'm back in my room. This place has its own bathroom, a good internet connection, and even a phone on the desk. I'm waiting on my wife to call right now, as a matter of fact. Very cool and much better than my own room back at Victory Base. Tomorrow I have some more adventures planned. Hopefully, tomorrow's post won't be quite as long as this one.

And I won't have any coffee at lunch.


lorraine said...

Hi Painter. Your posts are so informative. It it is great that you like to write as well as paint. I so enjoy reading about the details of the country. So many mil blogs are of a different nature. Thank you for sharing your experience. I traveled in the early '70's - starting in Japan and after a year and 1/2 in India and Nepal, I headed overland to England. Quite an adventure for a 22-23 yo female alone. Without the advantage of the internet or phones - all I have is the letters my brother saved from my time there. I have tried to write about it but I end up with verbal stories when something reminds me of it. You will get a smell or something said years from now that will take you right back. Usually the smell of a pig sty or badly kept portajohn in a park somewhere. no joke. Keep writing I really do look forward to your posts. lorraine

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/29/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.