Day Two In Iraq

To: Center for American Progress

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

Our days in Iraq are quite long because we cannot spend our nights there. We left Baghdad at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening and did not arrive back at our hotel in Kuwait City until 10:30 p.m. Some eight hours later, we were back on the bus again, heading to the Kuwait airport.

Interestingly, in addition to the large U.S. military presence in Iraq, there are substantial numbers of American troops in Kuwait. In fact, an entire part of the Kuwait International Airport is an American military airbase, manned by hundreds of U.S. military personnel and filled with dozens of U.S. aircraft. Based upon my conversations, I estimate there are more than 20,000 U.S. military personnel in Kuwait.

The crews flying us back and forth between Kuwait and Baghdad are all National Guard units (today’s unit is from Delaware). Since the majority of the Air Force’s aircraft capability is in reserve component, these Air Guardsmen are in effect part-time regulars who have been serving extended periods of active duty on and off since the mid-1990s. The entire unit was involuntarily mobilized in March 2003 and have been told that they may remain on active duty for the full two years allowed under current law. Moreover, after being recalled to active duty, they can be involuntarily recalled again after only 90 days.

During the time they are mobilized, these Guardsmen cannot leave the service, even if their enlistment expires. Many of them indicated to me that they would probably not re-enlist. However, they said if Senator Tom Daschle’s bill passes, which expands health care coverage for the reserve component, they might change their minds.

After landing in Baghdad, we boarded our armed Blackhawk helicopter for a flight to al Najaf, located 75 miles south of Baghdad on the Tigris River in a predominantly Shiite area. The city is the headquarters of one of the two multinational divisions (MND) in Iraq. This MND, which covers five provinces in the south central part of Iraq, is commandeered by a Polish Major General. The division’s Area of Responsibility covers five provinces with an area of 80 square kilometers and a population of 5.2 million. Al Najaf, one of the holy cities of the Shiites, is the largest city with a population of 500,000 (Baghdad alone has more than 5 million people).

The MND based in al Najaf consists of 8,200 troops from 17 nations. However, only three nations – Poland, Spain and Ukraine – provide about half of the troops. The other 14 nations provide only token contributions. The unit uses English as a common language. Given the lack of experience with NATO, the division would not be a very effective fighting force. Luckily, it does not have to be, since the area, which is 80 percent Shiite, is relatively calm. In the last two months, there have been attacks only every other day and most of them have been minor.

The unit is not going to become more effective anytime soon, since no nation will assign its troops for more than a six-month period. In contrast, U.S. soldiers must serve at least a year in Iraq. The domestic activities (paying cash for weapons, rebuilding schools) of the division are funded by Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which means that the U.S. taxpayer is footing the bill.

After the briefing, we visited Hillan University for a meeting with the Dean Sayyid, who is also a religious leader. His message: Iraqis are not terrorists; 80 percent of the attacks on Americans are by non-Iraqis; regime change was worthwhile because of the number of people Saddam killed (one of the massive gravesites is near here); if the U.S. withdraws prematurely, it will be a loss for everyone; and the Iraqis appreciate the sacrifice the U.S. has made.

Just as I was thinking that President Bush could have written this speech, Sayyid told us we ought to vote for Bush. This pleased our mission from the Pentagon, but stunned the rest of us. Then he mentioned that he could not see Iraq conducting elections before 2006, which stunned the Bush supporters.

Before flying back to Baghdad in our heavily armed Blackhawks, we returned to the headquarters of the Polish-led contingent. Despite the fact we were in a military compound in a supposedly safe area, we were escorted by three armed vehicles and 20 armed soldiers during our brief visit.

Dinner with the troops back in Baghdad gave us a dose of what life is like for our enlisted men and women serving in the Baghdad area. We chatted with reservists who were called up on short notice and have not yet been told how long they will remain in Iraq. The soldiers wondered what their mission was, why they had not yet received their ceramic vests (inexplicably, since some foreign troops already had them), why there were not enough phones, and why, if we are making so much progress, mortars are being lobbed into their compounds every night. The downing of the Chinook helicopter was a real shock to many.

That night, our flight back to Kuwait was delayed so we could load the body of a dead American onboard for the first leg of his trip home. The Pentagon may not let reporters film the bodies returning to Dover Air Force Base, but you cannot escape the reality over here.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.