A September 2003 trip
to Baghdad by C2WnDC
Quote: In September 2003, another officer and I escorted two European contractor friends of ours from Al Jaber Air Base Kuwait to Balad, Iraq. Our flight was canceled, so we basically hitchhiked, with some interesting stops along the way at Tallil Air Base, An Naseriah, and Baghdad.
Prior to the 1990 Iraqi invasion, the Kuwaitis had contracted with a French firm to construct these heavily reinforced concrete bunkers in, which they could park their fighter aircraft. When Iraq captured Jaber, they parked their own inside of them. At the onset of the U.S.-led liberation, our Air Force placed a single laser-guided smart bomb neatly through the top of each, devastating everything inside. Rumor has it that, after the war, the government of Kuwait attempted to sue the French contractor since their super-bunkers were basically worthless. Apparently, the French warranty didn’t cover U.S. weaponry.
We worked our way back to the operations tent and rested uneasily on the floor until an airman announced the cancellation of all flights into Iraq. Either he didn’t know the reason or wasn’t disposed to say. Immediately, we began discussing ideas for alternative transportation. Another officer overheard us and asked if she could go with us since she was trying to get back to her unit at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). So, the six of us loaded into our vehicle and drove to another base in Kuwait, from where we knew that a CH-47 Chinook unit operated frequent cargo lifts into Iraq. Somehow, we talked our way onto the next flight—destination Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq.
En route to my friend’s compound, we drove past the Korean Army Engineer’s camp. The stench was horrible. They were burning the barrels full of human waste from their outhouse latrines, the smoke from which was black-grey and billowing over the road. We held our breath as we passed. It was great seeing the guys here. They offered a tour, so we geared up some security escorts and headed to the Ziggurat, aka the Temple of Ur. Immediately outside the gate, we were greeted by Iraqis lining the road selling blocks of ice, soda, and bootleg whisky, all of which was of questionable quality.
We sped past the traffic circle in An Naseriah, easily identified by its statue known as "Rocky." This is near where Private Jessica Lynch was captured. Our guide at the Temple of Ur was the fourth generation from his family to hold this job. He was extremely knowledgeable and fluent in English. We were allowed to climb to the top (see picture below) as he described the history and significance, and explained the site’s neglect under Saddam’s reign. Then we walked to the site of the Prophet Abraham’s home being recreated/built on its original foundation. His family was wealthy, and it was reflected in the size of the house. Another Sumerian-era structure there was in even greater disrepair, but our guide pointed out the detailed cuneiform inscriptions on several of its bricks. Another feature was the oldest known architectural arch in the world—circa 2000 BC.
Afterward, we convoyed to a cluster of newly erected vendor stalls. Several enterprising Iraqis were selling all sorts of items to the US soldiers/tourists: stacks of Iraqi dinars, bayonets, flags, soccer shirts, Saddam posters, etc. The bargaining was typical of a third-world market and lots of fun. Their typical retort to a lowball offer was "you, my friend," then a higher counteroffer.
We followed a different path back to the passenger terminal. This time we saw women and children living in abject poverty. Tallil is situated in the southern third of Iraq and its encompassed within the decade long UN imposed "No-Fly Zone". The people there were of a sect in opposition to Sadam’s. He rerouted their irrigation systems and destroyed the south’s economy. We passed out MREs and sodas than left hoping that they now would have a chance for a better life.
On the other end of the base was a huge reinforced concrete bunker that had likely cost Saddam millions to build. Like the fighter aircraft bunkers in Kuwait, though, this one had a neat US-provided smart-bomb hole in the top. Spewed around it was what remained of the bunker’s internal contents, which had apparently been sucked out by the force of the blast over a decade ago. At dusk, my friend dropped us at the airfield where we prepared to board a C-130 to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). We ate an MRE, drank bottled water, and watched the sun set over the shell of a pre-Gulf War Iraqi army hanger that had been stripped of its sheet metal by the oppressed local populace.
In the passenger terminal at BIAP, the other officer who tagged along with us paid her way. She called her unit and they picked us all up. As we convoyed in the darkness toward their building, the base came under mortar fire. The rounds impacted a considerable distance from us. The outgoing counter-fire was quick, and maybe even effective, since the mortar attack was short-lived.
Her unit was one of the higher-level headquarters there, so they were housed in one of the few livable hardstand buildings. There were no flights to Balad the following day, but an NCO told us about a convoy of commercial trucks that departed to Balad from the airport every morning with US MP escort vehicles. We walked the half-mile or so to the hose-fed plywood shower, then slept soundly on our borrowed cots. Our hosts drove us to the truck marshalling area at first light. The dispatcher said his boys would be glad to give us a ride. He showed each of us our truck, and we traded introductions with the drivers. Mine was Larry from Texas. He has been working for KBR since the U.S. involvement in Bosnia began. He had just come to Iraq following a year in Afghanistan. We both put on flak vests and moved into our position in the lineup. He lit a smoke and drank from his gallon-size coffee cup until the armored MP armored HMMWV pulled up alongside with their top-mounted 50-cal machine guns. Without much further ado, we moved out.
We passed a huge mosque, children waving and running beside us and open-air roadside butcher shops and long lines of beat up Iraqi vehicles waiting for gasoline. We were all a little tense during the times when we were stuck in traffic, not moving, with all of the other vehicles surrounding us. I was pleased to note that all of this traffic suggested that the commerce was again moving and the economy was on the upswing. The farther north we drove, the greener the countryside became. Balad is blanketed with fertile soil and vegetation: the country’s bread basket. Once through security, we found our way to our contact unit on the base there. The meeting went well. We conducted a reconnaissance of available real estate within the perimeter and found our Dutch friends a suitable site for their Iraq operation. As luck would have it, we secured seats on a C-130 that evening directly back to Kuwait. Mission accomplished.
Washington, District of Columbia