In Iraq, war marked by endless contrasts

by Jenn Buck | 4/13/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the second in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks.

ERBIL, IRAQ -- April has been the deadliest month of the war for American troops in Iraq, with a reported 73 deaths from hostile fire.

Close to 20 hostages have been captured by militant groups in recent weeks, including one American, three Japanese, 11 Russians and two Arab aid workers.

Seven Chinese citizens who were captured at gunpoint on April 11 while traveling from Amman to Baghdad have since been released.

Gallup polls indicate that public opinion supporting the war has not fallen in response to the recent increase in violence.

President Bush's approval rating has taken a hit, however, sinking 12 points to a minority 43 percent since September.

The Coalition Provisional Authority maintains its firm stance that military forces will continue to "conduct powerful, deliberate, very robust military operations until the job is done," according to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in a media briefing in Baghdad April 8.

It is hard to imagine what the troops on the ground must be feeling, though. Many have seen comrades wounded or killed before their eyes.

Most wear body armor and flak jackets daily to protect against potential attacks.

In Kirkuk, air raid signals blare almost every night as incoming fire rains down on base. Soldiers must scramble out of bed for shelter whenever they hear the sirens.

In the northern Kurdish city of Erbil, however, coalition troops enjoy relative peace.

"I feel lucky," said Spc. Shaun Chandler of the 416th Civil Affairs battalion. "I think we're the luckiest soldiers in Iraq to be working in Erbil rather than Fallujah."

There is a feeling of solidarity on the Kurdish base, though, as soldiers keep misty eyes fixed on television news broadcasts when casualty reports come in. The troops in the north enjoy their calm and the good work that they are able to do in the community, but said they are ready to do battle if necessary.

The American troops in Erbil are part of a larger battalion whose home base is in the city of Mosul, which lies right along the Kurdish border.

Home to large Kurdish and Arab populations living side-by-side, Mosul is a hotbed of terrorist activity. The troops exercise caution every time soldiers have to use the highway between the two cities.

Last week a convoy of U.S. troops traveling between the two cities was hit by an improvised explosive device planted in the ground in the median of the highway.

The perpetrator detonated the device by remote.

Windows of the soldiers' SUVs were blown in by debris. The commanding sergeant shouted, "Everybody okay?" and then told the drivers to speed away, witnesses said.

It was a good thing he did. Seconds later, gunfire came from the direction of the explosive. A second car had been ready to fire on the soldiers from behind.

"If we had waited 10 seconds, we'd be dead," said the sergeant, presenting a calm exterior following his harrowing experience. "Lucky we took off."

The eight members of the convoy were unharmed. The vehicles, however, were totaled.

Upon return to base, the soldiers experienced a strange transformation. While one might have thought their resolve would be shaken following a near-death experience, the eight men -- and their fellow soldiers who gathered to listen -- seemed more determined than ever.

"Does this make me want to go home?" said one, a sergeant and a veteran soldier. "Hell no. I'd go right back out there right now."

Part of that bravado could be attributed to the competitive nature of trained warriors.

But there's more.

Staff Sgt. William Harbin of Decatur, Ala., explained: "The people [in Kurdistan], they can tell you some stories. They've been through some hard times."

Harbin's unit, the National Guard's 115th Signal Battalion, was deployed in December 2003. They have been in Iraq for close to a month and are anticipating a one-year tour of duty.

The team in Erbil, which handles communications for the 416th, has been working together for years. Some have been friends for over a decade.

Though they recognize the dangers -- especially in traveling outside their relatively safe Kurdish city -- most said they are glad to be there.

"If I can make any kind of small contribution, it's well worth it," said Spc. Jason Greenhill of Russellville, Ala. "When you hear the horror stories from these kids, the hardships they went through, it's a privilege being here to help out."

Security procedures at their compound include required body armor, helmet and weapon when leaving the base. Soldiers leaving the neighborhood by vehicle must travel by convoy and bring armed guards.

An interpreter for the unit, who preferred to remain anonymous for safety, noted that many Americans link Islam and violence.

"Islam is not by nature a violent religion," he said. "The word itself means 'peace.'"

The interpreter was a U.S. Marine sergeant who returned to Iraq after a tour of duty to work as a civilian.

"The problem is that no one [Iraqi] person is standing up as a voice for the new Iraq," he said. "There is no one on TV telling the people to support our [American] brothers and tell them where the bad people are hiding."

The interpreter credited the Kurds for the progress they have made.

"Kurdistan is a prime example of how you can clean up a place," he said.

But the way to stop terrorist violence elsewhere in Iraq, he said, would take more than just military might.

"The people of Iraq have to have good leadership. Good Iraqi leadership," he said. "There are so many opportunities for this country once we get it secure enough for [redevelopment]."