Special Reports

Soldiers walk a fine line between helping out, waging war

KIRKUK, Iraq — A chance encounter in Kirkuk on Sunday illustrated the tricky dual role of Idaho Army Guard members serving in Iraq, handling the jobs of both community-relations specialists and battle-ready soldiers.

While meeting up with Iraqi police officers to patrol for discarded Iraqi munitions, members of the 116th's Brigade Combat Team spotted an injured man with a badly bandaged wound.

The Iraqi man had been hurt in a car wreck days before, and came to the Azadi police station to retrieve his car. Spec. Jared McKenzie of Boise realized the bandage needed attention. McKenzie, a medic, asked his interpreter to call the man over.

McKenzie sat the Iraqi in a Humvee and slowly peeled back the bandage — mostly tape, sticking to the wounded man's forehead. The man winced occasionally, but patiently let McKenzie dress the wound.

The Boise medic cleaned the wound and put on a new bandage.

He sent the man on his way with five days' worth of bandages, some ointment, bottled water for cleaning the wound and some encouragement.

"Chicks dig scars," McKenzie told him through the interpreter.

Soldiers patrol for several reasons: To build trust and relationships with local citizens, to keep the peace, to train Iraqi officers to take over responsibility for maintaining stability and securing when Americans leave. All patrols are done jointly with Iraqis, so Sunday's patrol started with the trip to the Azadi neighborhood to link up with the Iraqi police who are learning from the U.S. soldiers.

"Our main goal is having them take over the sector in six months," 2nd Lt. Sergio Soto of Nampa said. Bravo Company's aim is to become the back-up, or a "quick reaction force," supporting the police.

There's a stark contrast between American soldiers and Iraqi police officers. Most U.S. soldiers are larger and decked out in an imposing array of body armor and weaponry. Iraqis wear dark blue slacks and light-blue cotton shirts. About half have snug-fitting bulletproof vests that barely cover their upper torso; the other half wear no protection.

Iraqi officers carry Glock pistols; some have AK-47 rifles with a single 50-round banana clip. They drive unarmored Nissan SUVs or Brazilian-made Volkswagen Passats.

U.S. soldiers patrol in Humvees, lined with about 2 inches of heavy armor. Closing a Humvee door feels like shutting a safe. Soldiers ride five to a vehicle, one in each seat and a machine gunner in the roof turret. The gunner rarely leaves his turret.

Insurgents have recently focused on the Iraqi police, killing and injuring many with roadside bombs.

"Iraqi police are a lot softer targets because they don't drive around in armored Humvees," said Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise, Bravo Company commander.

The Azadi neighborhood is a mixture of mostly Turkmans and Kurds. The two groups are nearly indistinguishable, but Turkmans wear baggy pants the soldiers call "M.C. Hammer" pants.

The Azadi neighborhood is more orderly than the Arab slums in southern Kirkuk. It has a marketplace with numerous small shops about the size of one-car garages. One store might sell cigarettes, fruit and soda pop, while another might have legs of goat or sheep hanging out front, uncovered and unrefrigerated. Next door might be a store selling clothes or tires. The stores line both sides of the narrow, two-lane streets for a half-dozen city blocks.

The Bravo Company patrol heads to the outskirts of town, where a gateway and an old Iraqi tank separate the city from the countryside.

"We're going to look for abandoned Iraqi munitions," said Sgt. 1st Class Rik Williamson of Eagle.

Old mortars, rockets and other ordnance are often buried in fields. Farmers sometimes unearth them when they're plowing.

The explosives are dangerous to the farmers and can be used by insurgents to make improvised roadside bombs, one of the biggest risks to U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces.

On the way out of town, the patrol stops at an Iraqi checkpoint. An Iraqi policeman walks up holding an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade like it's an empty pop bottle. An RPG has a small rocket motor to propel it and an explosive charge that blows up when the grenade hits something.

This RPG had been fired, but didn't explode.

The policeman sets the RPG on a concrete block and a call goes out to an Iraqi bomb squad to come take care of it. They likely will take it some place safe and blow it up.

Traffic on the highway starts backing up, a small traffic jam at the RPG. Soldiers surround the explosive with a crescent of orange cones and cars swerve wide around the cones and the RPG.

The patrol continues into the Iraqi countryside outside Kirkuk. The rolling hills are lush with a spring coat of green grass, the rocky soil producing a uniform cover like a grain field.

Bravo Company soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts drive off the highway and up a dirt road that looks like a Jeep trail, heading to check out a place they'd heard might contain munitions.

The soldiers find several pits, but no signs of ordnance. An Iraqi policeman sticks the toe of his boot into the soil and overturns what looks like a rock. It's a partly buried Iraqi battle helmet.

The pits turn out to be dry holes, and the police officers and soldiers return to their vehicles and head back to town. A band of sheep grazes near the highway. A curtain of black smoke hangs just inside the city. It's smoke from the bonfires for the Kurdish New Year celebration. It's mid-afternoon, and the bonfires already are burning.