Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Road to Klaw Kut

The road to Klaw Kut was rutted, narrow and peppered with the occasional landmine. This was early in the invasion of Iraq and the Improvised Explosive Device had not become popular as of yet with the citizens as a weapon of choice. The explosive devices we encountered as we drove along were probably left over from the 1980’s when Saddam Hussein had launched a campaign of eradication against the Kurdish people in the north of Iraq. Or possibly they were left over from the constant inner tribal turmoil between the Kurds themselves.
We had been directed by our company command to find a suitable base of operations from which to launch airstrikes and reconnaissance missions against the Iraqi armored units amassed along the “Green Line” northeast of the city of Kirkuk. The Green Line roughly corresponded to the non official border between the Iraqi held territory and the semi autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq. However the Kurds considered Kirkuk as historically part of their territory and were very intent on getting it back. With the help of the good old U.S. of A, they saw their chance.
Within that context my Special Forces team was making its way from the location of our company headquarters or AOB in Taq Taq, Northern Iraq towards the village of Klaw Kut. Accompanying us were about 30-40 Kurdish Pershmerga fighters, we all had the intent of setting up a patrol base from which to harass the Iraqi Army. We really had no idea what to expect in Klaw Kut, we had literally picked it off a map. It was far enough back from the Green Line to provide protection from artillery fire and looked large enough and we hoped friendly enough to sustain ourselves and our Kurdish compadres.
As we crested the ridgeline surrounding Klaw Kut and I got my first view of the village, literally my first thought was of Indiana Jones. This village was right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, not the jungle chasing natives’ part but the windblown dusty desert part. Even though this part of Iraq experienced a modicum of rainfall and was actually quite green this little village was a dustbowl sitting on dirt patch. Klaw Kut was located in a small valley with an unnamed creek running through it. The road we drove in on ran parallel to the creek and had to be forded to get to the main part of the village. All the structures consisted of the mud walls and flat roofs that were common in Iraq. Each family housing unit also had a stable attached directly to the living area, apparently so light-fingered neighbors wouldn’t run off with the family goat or donkey. Livestock is wealth in this part of the world and they take their goats seriously. It was kind of disconcerting to see a donkey poke his head in the window while you were trying to talk but you get used to it.
The only structure not constructed with mud was a small cinderblock building sitting next to the road and adjacent to the creek. This building looked empty and we figured it would do as good as any for our patrol base. The creek would provide a suitable water source and the valley would provide protection and allow us to place observation posts for early warning. As soon as we stopped our little convoy we were surrounded by children trying to all talk at once and grab at our equipment. Through our interpreter we managed to contact the village “headman” and ask for permission to commandeer the building for our use. Apparently this building had been built as a school by some international aid organization but had sat unused for some time. They were happy to let us use it for a price.
After a few hours we had negotiated rent for the building, the procurement of a diesel generator with weekly resupplies of diesel and a once daily hot meal provided by the local women. After some “man hugs” and hand shakes we proceeded to occupy the small two room building. The Pershmerga erected a large tent, similar to a U.S.GP (General Purpose) medium, which to stay in while we laid our sleeping gear in one room of the cinderblock building and put our communication equipment and supplies in the other. One room would be our sleeping room and the other would be our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) /radio room.
We would split our team into two parts. One half of the team would be commanded by the Captain our Team Leader and as the Team Sergeant and senior enlisted member of the team I would command the other half. We would rotate between our patrol base and the Green Line performing reconnaissance and calling in airstrikes on the Iraqi positions along the Kani Domlan ridgeline. Each half would stay out 2-3 days and return while the other manned the TOC.
Eventually we bedded down pulling fifty percent security and planning on sorting out our first mission in the morning. In the morning however we were greeted by the village headman and his wife with a pot of hot chicken and rice. They also provided some flat bread with which to scoop up the food and some tomatoes. While we were eating, the headman mentioned that to officially seal the deal myself and the Team Leader needed to meet with the local village elder who also happened to be the village religious leader. His house was the largest in the village and doubled as the mosque; by largest I meant it had two rooms and a mud wall surrounding his yard. This created a small compound that was shaded by a very large tree that looked to be of the pine family. We agreed to meet him for lunch and the headman and his wife left to take him the news.
Approximately 1200 hours we moseyed down the hill and across the creek then back up the other hill to the elder’s compound. We were accompanied by our interpreter and a few Peshmerga. We stopped briefly at the gate to the compound as our interpreter talked to another Peshmerga soldier who seemed to be guarding the entrance. We entered the compound and were taken around to the back of the hut under that big pine tree. There were a few male individuals sitting around on mats drinking tea and talking to each other. One of the Peshmerga was playing some kind of stringed instrument similar to a ukulele and singing softly to himself. I asked what he was singing and our interpreter told me it was a popular Kurdish folksong, He must have killed on Karaoke night. We were offered hot tea which we accepted. The tea was served in the Middle Eastern style in small glass cups with no handles; it was loaded with sugar and about five thousand degrees. Even though I tried to be careful I burned my tongue and later developed a blister, I neglected to turn myself in for a purple heart however.
Eventually we were called inside the hut, entering through a small doorway and were greeted by a few women who were cooking something in a big pot over an open fire in the center of the room. I started getting nervous when we had to take off our boots and leave our M4 rifles by the door. However the Peshmerga were guarding the door and I decided to quit being so paranoid. We stepped into the other room in the house which had about 20 carpets laid in a crazy patchwork pattern to cover the dirt floor. There were about 5 men surrounding a large carpet laden with food and sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the corner was an old television set on one of those 1960’s TV stands with wheels. There was nowhere to plug in the television and it was more or less a piece of art. We sat down around the carpet and accepted another glass of tea, the elder motioned for us to dig in and we started piling some goat meat, rice and vegetables onto flatbread. The flatbread served as both plate and napkin for the meal. I couldn’t help but think how much this meal reminded me of “Robin Sage” the culmination exercise for the Special Forces Qualification Course. During Robin Sage I had also been a student team sergeant and had to endure a scenario eerily similar to this. Although the country was “Pineland” and the natives were drunken North Carolina rednecks. Never the less I marveled at how the training scenario had actually got it right.
We continued to talk to the village elder through the interpreter and he related how he was very glad to see us because Saddamn was no longer sending aircraft to bomb the village. He also asked if we would be helping the villagers and their relatives reclaim their lost possessions in Kirkuk. He certainly had a long memory as Saddamn had bombed the north in the 1980’s and kicked the Kurds out of Kirkuk during the 1970’s “arabization” of the city.
While my Team Leader engaged the religious leader in conversation I noticed that one of the other men was constantly trying to tune in a radio station on a small transistor radio. He would find something he liked on the dial and listen to it momentarily before he would move on down the dial, he must have had the Kurdish version of ADD. Eventually all the goat was gone and all the stories told, we politely said our goodbyes, put our boots back on, retrieved our weapons and went back to our little hootch. At that point we had no idea how long we would be staying in Klaw Kut but the best I could tell was that we had made a good impression and we would have a solid base from which to rest and recuperate from our patrols against the Iraqis.

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