On the ground: pops of gunfire, reek of sewage

March 1, 2006 

— Editor's note: Statesman reporter Roger Phillips and photographer Kim Hughes are spending the next month covering the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team in northern Iraq. They filed these dispatches about their first two days in Iraq.

We visited a police station in Azadi neighborhood in Kirkuk, made up predominantly of Kurds and Turkomans.

On a building next to the police station, a painted sign said: "Human right organization."

"I've never seen the door open," said Sgt. 1st Class Rik Williamson of Eagle.

The sign also raises these questions: What is that one human right? And when are they going to get a second one?

— Roger Phillips

Monday was the first day of the Kurdish New Year, year 2705.

“Willie” the interpreter with Bravo Company gave us this explanation of the legend behind the Kurdish celebration of the new year:

More than 2,700 years ago, King Azhdahar had a disease and killed virgin daughters and ate parts of their bodies to cure his disease. Willie didn't say which parts.

Kawa, the blacksmith, had lost nine of his daughters to the king so Kawa killed him. After killing the king, Kawa climbed a hill and started a fire to signal to all the tribes that he had killed the king. The bonifres lighted during the three-day new year’s celebration signify Kawa's fire after he killed King Azhdahar.

The celebration is not unique to Iraq. It's also celebrated in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries.

— Roger Phillips

Iraqis love a celebration and no celebration is complete without someone firing an AK-47 automatic rifle into the sky. "There's lots of celebratory gunfire," the soldiers told me.

I sat on the second story of the house we are staying in at Forward Operating Base Barbarian in Kirkuk. A door leads to a balcony that overlooks a local neighborhood. In the distance I heard the staccato "pop-pop-pop" of gunfire.

"How do you know it's celebratory gunfire and not some Iraqis shooting at each other?" I asked.

"Because if they're not shooting at us, it's celebratory," Staff Sgt. Brad Carr of Boise said.

Good answer.

— Roger Phillips

Midnight Sunday marked the beginning of the Kurdish New Year. Sunday evening, then, was the new year's eve, but the celebration was a muted affair. We did see and hear some celebratory gunfire, though. Today is the first

day of the Kurds' three-day celebration marking the new year.

Sunday may have been New Year's Eve here, but it's not the weather Americans associate with the beginning of the year. It's spring in Iraq, sunny with temperatures in the 70s during the day and nice cool nights.

— Roger Phillips

Our final destination at Fire Base Barbarian in Kirkuk, where we met up with the soldiers of Bravo Company, was about 10 miles away from FOB Warrior at the air base outside Kirkuk. But it took us about 24 hours to get there.

We had to get our media credentials and be briefed by the military on the situation (relatively quiet) and the progress in Kirkuk (slowly making headway and turning things over to the Iraqis). We were told that about 40 percent of Iraq's oil supply — 6 percent of world supply — lies within 30 miles of Kirkuk.

"This place ought to look like Dallas," Lt. Col. Don Blunck of Boise said. But it looks more like slums south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Take the nastiest trailer park in southern Idaho, shut off water and garbage service for about a year, and you're in the neighborhood of what Kirkuk looks like.

"If we were back in the States, some safety group would shut this whole town down," 1st Sgt. Steven Woodall of Boise said.

— Roger Phillips

Most of Kirkuk lacks a sewage system or sanitation service, meaning that the streets are awash with sewage and trash. And after spending some time driving around here, the smell stays with you. Children run through it and play in it. We even saw some young boys down in the river — which is mainly a river of sewage — "washing" their bikes.

— Kim Hughes

Kurdish children in Kirkuk love to have their picture taken. If they see you with a camera, they will tug on your shirt sleeve and chatter "mister, mister" (even though I'm a Ms.) and mimic taking a picture — telling me they want me to take theirs. Then they will tug at your sleeve again — "mister, mister!" — and point to others in the street who curiously look at you and obviously want their picture taken as well.

— Kim Hughes

Traveling from Kuwait to Kirkuk, we ran into Staff Sgt. Ken Mort of Burley, a soldier we'd met last November while covering the 116th in Louisiana. Readers may remember the story about how the people of Alexandria, La., helped Mort and his fiance, Shamara Brown of Burley, get married in style at a Southern sugar plantation.

Mort was returning last week from two weeks' leave in Idaho.

We all boarded a C-130, the same bulky transport plane you frequently see flying to and from Gowen Field in Boise. Our plane had to stop in Baghdad. The pilot did a "combat landing" at Baghdad, banking the plane hard and dropping it fast onto the runway. The quick drop minimizes the time the plane is a target.

Staff Sgt. Mort said that nearly every plane that lands in Baghdad gets shot at. We don't know if our flight was shot at or not: We were strapped to bench seats running fore and aft up the belly of the aircraft, and the dinner plate-sized window showed us nothing but sky.

— Roger Phillips

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