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Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Boston.com / News / World / In Iraq desert, war simmers for Army units

The idea is stay high enough to avoid clipping camels," said Warrant Officer Wilfrede R. Bonilla one of the pilots on the mission. "But low and fast enough that by the time the bad guys realize we're coming, we're gone."

The gunner on the forward chopper fired bursts at a brush thicket that might conceal an insurgent team armed with surface-to-air missiles. Plumes of mud, pulverized rock, and shattered bark rose along the embankment, an almost surreal stitchery since the fusillades could not be heard above the screaming engines.

Finally, journey complete, the helicopters hopped the sand berm and entrenched tanks surrounding this forward base of the Army's Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, 150 miles from the Saudi Arabian border, and settled onto a landing strip pocked by mortar rounds.

In the wastes of Iraq's vast and largely barren Western Desert, the Third Armored and attached units -- including the 94th Military Police Company based in Londonderry, N.H. -- are fighting a war different from the urban combat of small arms ambushes, rocket attacks, and roadside bombs that have ensnared American units in central and northern Iraq.

The mission here is to secure the border against infiltrators, especially foreign terrorists, radical Islamists, and other volunteer jihadis -- would-be holy warriors -- believed to be trickling into Iraq. That means a grind of daily patrols but also the training of Iraqi border police.

"The Syria line is the main focus, but every border is a potential source of trouble," said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hickey, 39, who claims the Army as his hometown but whose parents live in Harwich, Mass. Hickey is the commander of the Second Squadron of the Third Armored Cavalry, responsible for an operations zone covering thousands of square miles and including much of the border with Saudi Arabia, the entire line with Jordan, and a vast swath adjoining Syria.

Most of the region is trackless desert. As winter rains fall, the wasteland -- dotted here and there by forlorn oasis villages and tiny bedouin camps -- is turning into a morass of mud and flood flats. The air is cold night and day, The soldiers lack hot water and other amenities. But transport units from Al Asad, Third Armored's main base near the Syrian border, risk a twice-weekly gantlet of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades to bring such nonstandard cargo as a Nautilus workout machine, crates of Cheerios, and a television satellite that receives sports programming.

Spotter helicopters and patrols of combat vehicles venture out daily, scouring the wilderness for vehicle tracks and other sign of travel -- although these usually lead not to terror camps but to bewildered nomads. Foreign fighters are believed by US authorities to be entering Iraq by the hundreds, but interception of the would-be jihadis in the desert is rare. Intelligence officers suspect that most cross into Iraq at legal entry points using false documents rather than risk the desolate outback, which is haunted by bandits, more than happy to slit anyone's throat, fellow Muslim or not.

But Army officers also believe aggressive military patrols have deterred foreign fighters from following the sheep paths and camel caravan trails. "We are disrupting terrorist activity, especially on the Syrian border," Lieutenant Colonel Richard Piscal said in an interview at the Al Asad base.

Forward Operating Base Quinn -- named for a Third Armored soldier, Michael Quinn, killed during fighting in the Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah -- is perhaps the most isolated US position in Iraq, a cluster of concrete barracks and bombed-out aircraft hangers on a former Iraqi military airfield.

"It's pretty much like being on the Western frontier," Hickey said. "Rough, wild, and lawless." There is danger here. "No place in Iraq is safe," said Specialist Andrew Harrington of Salem, Mass. But it is not like the daily round of ambushes and bomb attacks endured by soldiers serving in Fallujah, Ramadi, and other fronts in the Sunni Triangle. The lower level of conflict in the Western Desert is fine with the troops of Second Squadron and the 94th MPs, both of which took losses in the Triangle this year -- Second Squadron suffered six killed and more than 70 wounded.

Casualties still occur, however. Later on this day, soldiers at FOB Quinn would mourn a Third Armored comrade killed late last month near the Syrian border.

Meanwhile, a big part of the base's mission is creating homegrown law and order -- shaping Iraqis recruited from local villages into a functional border constabulary. Getting volunteers is easy: At $70 a month, the 204 members of the first class rank among the highest-paid desert dwellers.

Teaching discipline, respect for citizens, and basic police procedure is a trickier proposition.

"Iraq has had decades where the concept of police is linked to baksheesh" -- taking bribes -- "and pushing around people," said First Lieutenant Travis Nelson of Berkeley, Calif. "So we put emphasis on civil rights and approaching people with respect, as well as making traffic stops and diligently carrying out searches."

Eventually the trainees will receive US-issue uniforms. For now, they are a motley crew in black Arabic robes, coarse-spun tunics, patched cotton shawls, and -- in the case of one young tribesman -- a purple velour smoking jacket.

They brandish new AK-47 assault rifles provided by the US military. So far, however, they have not received bullets -- and some American troops are quietly appalled by the prospect.

"Soldiers are definitely wondering what happens when we give these guys live ammunition. There is some pretty dark joking about which way they'll point their guns," said Sergeant Jerome Ciolino of Gloucester, Mass., who carries shrapnel in his triceps received during a firefight over the summer. "But if arming Iraqis is what it takes to get us home, we'll do it."

There is a battle-weary edge to many of the American troops here, and definite cynicism when it comes to Iraqis. But none of the dozens of soldiers interviewed showed signs of strained morale. Most seemed chipper and proud.

"There is no point in getting angry or depressed because this is a job that someone has to do -- and we're it," said Sergeant Kristina Brown, medic with the 94th from Littleton, N.H. "I miss my two kids more than I can say. But I just try to soldier on with a positive attitude."

And the losses mount.

On Nov. 29, a Third Armored soldier attached to the squadron was among those killed during an ambush on a convoy near the Syrian border. He was Specialist Aaron J. Sissel, and the traditional military ceremony held in the small, dimly lit chow hall at FOB Quinn has become a familiar ritual to the soldiers in attendance.

At one end of the room was an inverted M-16 rifle topped by a battle helmet. A sergeant read off a roll call, starting with the names of two soldiers in the room who shouted, "Present!"

Then the sergeant called: "Specialist Aaron J. Sissel!"


"I repeat, `Specialist Aaron J. Sissel!' "

The silence was so prolonged it was painful. Tears streamed down the cheeks of the seasoned combat troops.

Outside, a mud-spattered honor guard of seven soldiers fired three volleys that cracked over the barrens with grim finality: Specialist Sissel's 21-gun salute.

Boston.com / News / World / In Iraq desert, war simmers for Army units

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