Friday, July 30, 2010

No Man's Land

We had established our patrol base in the Iraqi village of Klaw Kut. After dusk myself and my A team had moved out in our Land Rover Defenders accompanied by some Kurdish Peshmerga in a rusty Suburban. We had recently moved from the larger village of Taq Taq through the former Iraqi lines and into our current place of residence. Some of the ODA remained at the patrol base while we conducted a leader’s recon, attempting to pinpoint the Iraqi lines and identify a good observation post from which to call for fire and report back intelligence on the Iraqis.
The Peshmerga took the lead driving along the rutted dirt road by the light of the moon, utilizing no headlights or markers for fear of an Iraqi ambush. We drove with night vision goggles mounted to our helmets and I wondered how the Kurds could see at all without the aid of technology as the moon was half full at best and often covered with clouds. Great night for concealment, poor night for driving, we were spaced out in tactical convoy formation the Pershmerga followed by our two vehicles.
Eventually we left the road and started driving straight across the Iraqi countryside generally heading southeast through terrain littered with large rocks and short stubby grass. The terrain was gently rolling hills whose shadows hid many small villages that lay in ruins. These were the product of Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish eradication policy and had been abandoned for some time. Knowing this did not keep me from peering through and around every tumbled down wall with my night vision goggles as if they would grant me x-ray vision to see the ambush that I felt was lurking in every corner.
At the start of the war the Iraqi’s had pulled back from their original defensive line and consolidated just north of the oilfields surrounding Kirkuk. My unit the 10th Special Forces Group along with elements of 3rd Special Forces Group, A Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the Kurds had filled this gap and were pressing south trying to keep the Iraqis engaged in the north of the country so they could not reinforce Baghdad and cause trouble for the main Allied thrust which was coming from the south. Our main mission was to pinpoint where the Iraqi’s had their defensive perimeter so we could reengage them.
As we crept forward at approximately 15-20 kilometers per hour we were constantly stopping to dismount and check the terrain ahead for any signs of the enemy. Our dismounts would clear the area to our front and then we would move ahead, in a modified bounding overwatch technique.  This area we were driving through belonged to no one, it had become a buffer, a no man’s land between the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq and the readjusted Iraqi lines. It was inhabited by wandering Iraqi units, Pershmerga, American Special Forces, and bandits. It was what I imagined the Wild West must have been like, no boundaries no definite good guy/bad guy; just a lot of guys with guns and everyone had an agenda.
Suddenly my vehicle came to a silent halt and my driver motioned that the Kurds up ahead had stopped their vehicle and dismounted. They were moving slowly forward in the Kurdish version of a patrol formation, what I might have called a gaggle, towards where the valley we had been following intersected with a small ridgeline. After we dismounted we could hear some faint noises ahead and see the barely present glow of what looked like tail lights about 200 meters ahead. We all trained our weapons on those glowing lights in anticipation of a night about to go badly.
Our Team Leader took a few of our guys and moved off in the darkness towards the Kurdish gaggle in an attempt to identify what lay ahead. After what seemed like forever the word was passed back “Peshmerga!! Bring the vehicles forward.” Believe it our not we had run across another vehicle full of Peshmerga that was roaming the battlefield and they had managed to run themselves axle deep into a small pond. After a security perimeter was established, as quietly as we could and using our night vision equipment we towed their vehicle out of the pond using the winch on the front of one of our Defenders.
These Pesh were so happy we had helped them out they decided to become our personal body guards and followed along behind our vehicles like baby ducks following their Mom. As we inched closer towards Kirkuk the skies overhead were being lit up by flashes of flares and chaff being dropped from U.S. fighter aircraft towards the Iraqi lines as the Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery shot red and green tracers into the sky in random patterns. We could hear the muffled thuds of explosions, and the budda-budda like sounds of the DSHK machine guns, however our immediate surroundings were so quiet you could hear a pin drop and it all seemed very surreal. The thought kept crossing my mind that I had seen the same sort of scene on the news during the first Gulf War but know here I was living it.
We continued to skirt the Iraqi positions with our little convoy stopping, watching, listening, and reconnoitering possible observation post positions. As the night wore on and turned into morning we headed back to the northeast meandering our way to our patrol base by another route. Arriving just as dawn was breaking, we enjoyed a breakfast of flat bread, chai, chicken-rice. We laid out the map and prepared our patrol order for the upcoming evening’s activities. Based on our recon we would be establishing an observation post along the edge of a fairly deep and wide ravine with a good view of the Iraqi positions. The ravine was about a mile wide and cut through the countryside like a mini Grand Canyon right up to the huge ridgeline the Iraqis had set up shop on. We conducted the patrol order, rehearsals and gear preparation, and then the majority of us took an afternoon siesta after our long night and day in no man’s land.

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