Alaska to Iraq

Daily News reporter Rich Mauer is on special assignment for six weeks to the McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad bureau. For Mauer, who has reported on politics, the oil industry, military and other topics in his 23 years at the Daily News, it is a return to a region he covered as a much younger free-lancer in 1981-2, including the civil war in Lebanon. In this blog, he'll provide snapshots from his reporting.

The Pumpkin in the Pothole - 4/6/2007 4:31 pm

Catch - 4/6/2007 1:35 pm

Car Bomb - 2/24/2007 9:42 am

Our Bloggers - 2/21/2007 12:48 am

Southern Cooking - 2/20/2007 1:30 pm

Battlefield Circulation - 2/20/2007 10:36 am

Soldier of the Month - 2/19/2007 6:34 am

Night vision - 2/16/2007 12:29 pm

The Pumpkin in the Pothole

Back in February, when I was embedded with the airborne brigade from Fort Richardson, I hitched a ride from one base to another with 1st Lt. Ryan Hintz and his platoon. It turned out to be an eventful trip.

A row of armored vehicles — RG-31s, a Humvee and a Buffalo — are ready to leave on patrol.A row of armored vehicles — RG-31s, a Humvee and a Buffalo — are ready to leave on patrol.

Hintz’ platoon is part of the 425 Brigade Special Troops Battalion. Their mission that afternoon, besides driving some 25 miles from Kalsu to Falcon, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, was to look for IEDs — roadside bombs.

Improvised Explosive Devices come in a wide variety of shapes and forms — mines, artillery shells, mortar rounds, many of them looted from Saddam’s ammo dumps after the U.S. invasion. IEDs are triggered by timers, cell phones, garage door openers, wires or the weight of a vehicle rolling over them. They’re disguised in trash, shaped like rocks or mud, stuck in potholes, even melted into the pavement.

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Catch

I’ve been back comfortably in Anchorage now for about three weeks. I’ve given a few slide shows and wrote one last story about a foot patrol I joined with troops from Fort Richardson. I’ve spoken to a reporter from Kansas City who’s thinking about rotating into the McClatchy Bureau in Baghdad as I did, and who is filled with the same trepidations I had before I left.

Apartments damaged by 2005 vehicle bombs.Apartments damaged by 2005 vehicle bombs.

In truth, it was much scarier thinking about going to Baghdad than it was being in Baghdad itself — at least where I was, in a well-guarded hotel in the Shiite-dominated Karada district. But that’s not saying there weren’t constant reminders of the civil war.

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Car Bomb

[Note: Audio links added Feb. 26]

BAGHDAD, Feb. 24 — There was a big explosion outside about 5 p.m. today, the closest blast to the hotel since I arrived here five weeks ago. Cautiously, I stepped out on the balcony.

Car bomb. Photos by Mohammed Al Dulaimy.Car bomb. Photos by Mohammed Al Dulaimy.

The kiosk outside, within the security zone of the hotel, was doing its normal trade — two or three people from the neighborhood buying vegetables or candy bars. Several men from the hotel’s security squad were walking briskly toward the boulevard where the sound came from. A woman dressed all in black was running from that direction, gesturing wildly. Moments later, she reappeared with a man pushing a large two-wheel cart. They rushed toward the explosion.

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Our Bloggers

BAGHDAD, Feb. 21 — The Bureau here was all abuzz today over the news that one of the monkeys who got laid off from the Shakespeare Project brought a typewriter back to his cage and banged out a blog in which he denied the existence of our Iraqi staff.

Sahar at the bureau.Sahar at the bureau.

It’s amazing how a monkey’s random keystrokes can appear to be intelligent design. He was typing about the blog produced by our staff, Inside Iraq.

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Southern Cooking

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 10 — I met Sgt. Johnnie French just after getting off the helicopter here Feb. 5. I didn’t know it yet, but French keeps an ice box filled with caffeine power drinks — all I knew was that he was wired.

We dropped off my bags at billeting and walked to headquarters.

Sgt. Johnnie French.Sgt. Johnnie French.

“I need a Valium the size of an Oreo cookie,” he said. I probably agreed.

Turned out it was a late night on the base and a lot of people didn’t get much sleep — the Super Bowl was the night before, and it didn’t start here till 2:30 a.m. Some people were still unhappy that the Armed Forces Network preempted all the Super Bowl commercials with their regular, never-ending recruitment and informational spots that have all the life and creativity of Soviet state TV.

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Battlefield Circulation

Staff Sgt. Thomas Carachilo briefs the platoon before setting out.Staff Sgt. Thomas Carachilo briefs the platoon before setting out.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 9 — I finally got outside the wire on a convoy with Lt. Col. Greg Bell, who took a tour of three bases yesterday afternoon — “battlefield circulation” for the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment.

The paratroopers of that battalion are responsible for the area around Kalsu, a rough rectangle about 15 miles by 25 miles.

Heading out of Kalsu.Heading out of Kalsu.

The mission briefing included a lesson for me in getting out of the humvee in a hurry, and how to use the crossbar wrench, tied outside on each humvee, to remove the door armor to free anyone trapped inside.

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Soldier of the Month

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 9 — Trying to win soldier of the month honors isn’t just to get a certificate to put in a drawer. It’s a way to improve your chances for promotion, too.

Staff Sgt. Tass Ryan watches Spec. Devin Dahmer handle a machinegun.Staff Sgt. Tass Ryan watches Spec. Devin Dahmer handle a machinegun.

But it’s an ordeal by practiced scowl.

I saw two soldiers being tested for the competition.

Spec. Devin Dahmer was at a table outside of brigade headquarters, assembling and describing the operation of a 7.62mm machinegun to two scowling sergeants, Sgt 1st Class Stephen Link and Staff Sgt. Tass Ryan. Link is the master gunner for the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, so he knew his stuff.

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Night vision

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 9 — I returned to the firing line Wednesday night. The artillery regiment was supposed to be doing some night-time firing in support an operation.

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery, prepare a howitzer for a night-fire attack.Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery, prepare a howitzer for a night-fire attack.

Sgt. Johnny French in the public affairs office for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, lent me a night vision adapter for my camera.

I’d been having a run of bad luck. I was scheduled to fly with the brigade’s commander, Col. Michael Garrett, to Fallujah, where some of the troops from Fort Richardson are stationed. The flight was cancelled because of weather. The other day, I got to the firing line just as the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, were cleaning up after firing 10 rounds. I was supposed to go out on a mission with some brigade troops and the Iraqi army that involved surrounding residences and searching for insurgents. That was postponed because the medevac helicopters were grounded.

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Base Tour

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 9 — Going to war doesn’t always mean going to fight.

Maj. Will Stewart and Capt. Carolyn Carden of the 725th Brigade Support Battalion.Maj. Will Stewart and Capt. Carolyn Carden of the 725th Brigade Support Battalion.

Hundreds of soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based in Fort Richardson, rarely if ever get outside the wire — the blast walls and razor wire surrounding this sprawling base some 35 miles south of Baghdad.

Some of the soldiers are doing what they’ve been trained to do — the mechanics, electronics technicians, medics, warehouse and order clerks, and the gutsy troops who manage the ammo dump.

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You always lose the good ones

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 7 — Brigade headquarters for the soldiers from Fort Richardson is a single-story plywood building with two flagpoles in front and a set of steel entrance doors. The main headquarters and three others administration buildings form a rectangle around a large field.

Col. Michael Garrett at the brigade wall of remembrance in Kalsu, Iraq.Col. Michael Garrett at the brigade wall of remembrance in Kalsu, Iraq.

If, in your mind, you transform the concrete blast walls into adobe, you could be looking at the center of Santa Fe or any of the provincial capitals in Mexico built by the conquistadores, except that here the plaza is gravel and no one is selling anything.

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Artillery

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 6 — This is not a traditional war and there’s not a lot of call for artillery.

Soldiers of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, after firing 20 105mm rounds against militant positions Tuesday afternoon.Soldiers of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, after firing 20 105mm rounds against militant positions Tuesday afternoon.

So a lot of the soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, have been pulling other duty.

Sometimes they go on patrols like other grunts.

Four of them were in the provincial headquarters of Karbala Jan. 20 when the fleet of Suburbans showed up with guys in American uniforms speaking English and were let through the gate. They were not who they seemed.

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Kalsu: No picnic

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 6 — One of the civilians waiting for the helicopter with us yesterday in Baghdad was a contract employee from Macedonia. He wore a company jacket that said “Ecolog.” He was a truck driver, he said.

That impressed the Romanian TV crew also waiting to board, because of the dangerous roads.

Matthew Cooper of Fort Richardson with takeout Baskin-Robbins from the mess at FOB Kalsu, Iraq.Matthew Cooper of Fort Richardson with takeout Baskin-Robbins from the mess at FOB Kalsu, Iraq.

No, the Macedonian said, he only drove truck on base.

How big was the base that it needed a truck drivers?

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FOB Kalsu

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb 6 — The theme is brown.

The hard clay underfoot is light brown when it’s dry and dark brown when it’s mud. The camo draped over the buildings and emplacements is a patternless brown. The chunky gravel spread over the mud is brown.

Forward Operating Base Kalsu was named after NFL player Lt. Bob Kalsu, who died in Vietnam.Forward Operating Base Kalsu was named after NFL player Lt. Bob Kalsu, who died in Vietnam.

And there’s gray. The 12-foot concrete blast walls surrounding every building are gray. It’s a gray maze by day. At night, it’s black. The walls hold in the light. They keep out blast waves and shrapnel. The mortars and rockets don’t land often, though — I’m told it’s been more than a week since the last one.

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The Dedication

ERBIL, Iraq, Feb. 1 — A state department public affairs officer called the other day to offer a tour to the new reconstruction effort in Erbil, one of the provincial capitals of the Kurdistan region.

The C-130 is readied for the ambassador's arrival.The C-130 is readied for the ambassador's arrival.

I leaped at the opportunity. Sure, it sounded like a junket, but I’d been cooped up in Baghdad for a week. Besides, I’ve wanted to see the Kurdish region, a place with its own language and national pride.

The Kurds occupy the three northeast provinces of Iraq and the cross-border regions of Turkey and Iran. And they’ve been making political inroads in adjacent Iraqi areas, like the oil town of Kirkuk. One of their divisions is being sent to Baghdad for the Iraqi security plan, though it’s unclear how that will work. Few Kurds speak Arabic, and many have said they would desert rather than leave their region.

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Focused Engagement Strategy

BAGHDAD, Feb. 3 — I thought I was attending a press conference.

Iraq reconstruction officials from the State department, Army and Army Corps of Engineers hold a press conference for Iraqi media. That's Erich Langer on the left in front of the map.Iraq reconstruction officials from the State department, Army and Army Corps of Engineers hold a press conference for Iraqi media. That's Erich Langer on the left in front of the map.

The handouts said “Press Conference.“ There were officials at the table, reporters in the seats and TV cameras in back. The officials spoke. The reporters scribbled. When the moderator opened it up for questions, I rose to speak. I was told to sit down.

I was American. This was a press event for Iraqi and Arab media.

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The Green Zone

BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 — Sometimes my day job as a temporary correspondent in the McClatchy Baghdad bureau leaks into a night job too. We start at 9 a.m. with a staff meeting. The Iraqi staff translates the day’s headlines from the independent, religious and party newspapers and report what the TV is saying. My favorite part is listening to the drumbeats of their neighborhoods.

Even in the Green Zone, bureau chief Leila Fadel doesn't go uncovered in public.Even in the Green Zone, bureau chief Leila Fadel doesn't go uncovered in public.

The other day, one of the staff, a woman with streaked red hair and nearly perfect English, told how she had just lost a neighbor. In the days of Saddam, her block was separated from the next by a strip of common ground planted in a garden — a small park. Now the strip is covered with trash and weeds. Her neighbor inexplicably decided to cross to the next block. A rooftop sniper there saw him and killed him, assuming him to be a terrorist. Both blocks erupted in gunfire, the neighborhood watch on each street shooting at the other across the small divide. They got tired and stopped, no one else apparently hurt. Someone retrieved the body from the former garden.

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US helicopter down

BAGHDAD, Jan 28 — We just received a report from our correspondent in Najaf that a U.S. helicopter was shot down in a battle with Iraqi and foreign fighters in the town of al Zarga.

The correspondent observed the helicopter shot down about 25 minutes ago by rocket fire from the ground. It fell and was burning.

No information on casualties was available. Military public affairs officials in Baghdad said they were unaware of the helicopter downing.

Al Zarga is about 5 miles from Najaf.

The battle is being fought against alleged religious fanatics. Iraqi intelligence had received several reports that this group of fighters planned to attack the religious shrine in Karbala Wednesday, the holy day of Ashura, and to kill all the clerics.

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Days will reveal what you conceal

BAGHDAD, Jan. 27 — One of our few luxuries in the McClatchy news bureau are the lunches prepared by our chef. Today the main course was a mixture of beef stew on one side of the plate, chicken on the other, and the longest grain white rice I have ever seen in the center.

I was nearly done eating today when Hussam Ali, our stringer from Karbala, buzzed the gate to our floor and charged into the room.

Hussam is thin like a runner. His cheekbones look sculpted and his skin is darker than olive. He has a thin mustache. And he was excited like any reporter with a big, big story.

Hussam had been up well passed 2 a.m. this morning, talking on the phone to bureau chief Leila Fadel about the events of a week ago Saturday in his town. That’s when four American soldiers, most likely all from Fort Richardson, were abducted and executed, still handcuffed, following a brazen raid on a provincial government compound.

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Early Cabin Fever

BAGHDAD, Jan. 25 — It seemed awfully quick to be getting cabin fever. But after a day and a half in my dark hotel suite, that’s what I was feeling.

Ground rules: I can’t mention my hotel. I can’t describe how we’re protected. I can say we’re in a mostly Shiite neighborhood in which some measure of order is enforced by a militia as well as the government. Or maybe they’re working together. Who knows around here.

Our building sits behind blast walls, gates and gauntlets. There’s enough private security in the immediate neighborhood to withstand most imaginable direct assaults by militias or insurgents looking to bag a western journalist or two. The biggest concern is car bombs or rockets. Our windows are covered with film to keep them from shattering into tiny slicing slivers. We’re advised to keep our thick dusty curtains drawn. What natural light penetrates has the quality of light passing through glass unwashed for decades.

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Arriving in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Jan. 23 — The passengers waiting to board Royal Jordanian flight 814 from Amman to Baghdad almost could've been awaiting a flight to Deadhorse. Lots of strong guys, a few official-looking people, lots of tattoos on muscular biceps. Among the 45 or so was one woman.

They called the flight nearly an hour late, about noon in Amman. We took a bus to a far corner of the tarmac where a white, unmarked plane was parked, a twin-engine Fokker F28-4000. Aside from the tail number, the only identifying feature on the jet was the name “Jessica” painted on the nose.

It was a good sign. My daughter’s name is Jessica.

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