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.
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.
We were the second vehicle in a four vehicle convoy. We passed through the gate, up a service road and onto the superhighway between Kuwait and Baghdad, renamed Route Tampa by the military.
Our driver was Private First Class Robert Near. Bell rode shotgun. Spec. Michael Pinkerton was in the machinegun turret above us. In the back seat next to me was the translator, a middle-aged Lebanese woman with a booming voice named Mariam Thompson, who had married an American. Unlike many of the Iraqi translators who feared that insurgents or militia would learn they were working for the Americans, Thompson, who lived on base, cared not a whit and loved being out with the troops.
“Pinky” sat on a strap, his legs dangling on front of us. If Near thought there was a chance we’d roll, it would be up to me and Thompson to yank Pinky into the humvee.
We drove north at 25 mph, on the lookout for IEDs — improvised explosive devices, aka roadside bombs — and anyone who might be placing one. We were also looking for a police car that had been stolen the other day in the commission of a murder.
The road was in great shape except for potholes and bomb craters — hard to tell which was which. Wearing a helmet, goggles, a radio headset, body armor and fire resistant Nomex gloves, and looking out the small thick glass of the humvee, I felt like I was in a body cast inside a diving bell — and I didn’t have half the gear the soldiers did.
As we crawled up the road, cars would cross the median and pass us in the southbound lanes — they weren’t allowed to drive next to us.
We saw some “dismounted” people by the side of the southbound lane in what looked like a pile of glass. One of our humvees went over to investigate. It turned out to be Iraqis who got an Army contract to clean up a huge bottle spill by the side of the road. The Army likes to keep junk off the road so there are fewer places to hide an IED.
Our first stop was what appeared to have been a family compound that was now used by the military for a base. One side housed some of Bell’s troops. The other was a base for an Iraqi army unit commanded by Maj. Bassem Taleb al Abrahimi.
Lt. Nat Bretz was the platoon leader on the American side.
“We patrol with them,” Bretz said of the Iraqis.
Relations were good with the troops and also with the people in the largely rural area. He’s got relationships with the local Imam, the councils and the mukhtars, the local government heads. The area is mostly Sunni, while the army is Shiite. The Americans felt comfortable patrolling.
We stopped and had tea with Maj. Bassem.
“I want our country to be safe, like before,” he said through a translator. “People feel more secure when they see the American force. This is the truth,” he said.
The base has suffered through the routine discomforts faced by Iraqis. It’s been without power for four days.
We went further up the highway, turned onto a lane and drove for miles till we came to an outpost called Copper.
The soldiers at Copper guard a checkpoint and guard themselves. There’s not much here besides a small fort and farms. The local mukhtar wants them here, but there’s a town about four miles away that doesn’t.
Because of that, they sleep on cots in concrete bunkers and someone is always watching the perimeter. The soldiers spend a week here, then are replaced for a week by another platoon before they rotate back again.
Lt. Dennis Maher said the local people would strongly oppose an Iraqi army presence. His goal was to slowly change that attitude, he said.