Mideast edition, Thursday, May 31, 2007

BAQOUBA, Iraq — The mission was simple enough: Deliver 18 new ambulances and a truckload of medical supplies to Baqouba General Hospital, the largest and most important treatment facility in Iraq’s volatile Diyala province.

For U.S. troops advising the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Iraqi Army Division, the mission Sunday couldn’t have been more important. All but a handful of the hospital’s doctors and nurses have quit because of the war, which has worsened in Diyala in the past six months, and the facility lacked basic necessities.

Since Iraqi troops would help deliver the supplies, the visit also would provide a chance to ease tensions with hospital staff, who are squeezed between local security forces, Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads.

At least that was the plan. But as with almost everything in Iraq, simple is often easier said than done.

The first sign of trouble came when Military Transition Team Alamo arrived at White Castle, a small base downtown. The 11-man contingent, many of them Army reservists, was accompanied by an eight-man team that would replace them in a week. The soldiers arrived at 7 a.m. in a convoy of heavily-armed Humvees, but their Iraqi partners were nowhere near ready to go.

Alamo’s executive officer, Maj. Dustin Awtrey, 37, of Decatur, Ala., sighed heavily and went inside to have a look. He returned 10 minutes later and fired up a cigarette.

“Waiting on the IA (Iraqi army),” he said. “They’re inside, farting around as usual.”

More trouble came at Warhorse, the largest U.S. base in the region. The Iraqis appeared more interested in taking photos with the Americans than starting the mission. Three vehicles had dead batteries. That took an hour to fix.

The convoy finally got moving around 9 a.m. on the main road through Baqouba. A year ago, all of the shops along the road were thriving. But as more insurgents drifted into the region, especially after President Bush announced the Baghdad security crackdown in January, Baqouba has become a full-on war zone.

Many of the mud-brick and cement structures along the road were shuttered tight and pockmarked with bullet holes. The asphalt was peppered with freshly scorched craters and dozens of others that had been patched over, evidence of bomb attacks increasing in recent months. There was little traffic and only a few pedestrians.

“It’s a bad AO (area of operation) around here,” said Awtrey.

As if on cue, a muffled explosion erupted minutes later a few hundred meters ahead. A convoy of Stryker vehicles in the opposite lane had been hit by a bomb. But the explosion was small and appeared to have caused little damage. The Strykers kept moving.

A second bomb struck as the MiTT team and Iraqis turned off on a road to the hospital’s rear entrance. The blast jolted an Iraqi Humvee leading the column.

“IED! IED!” voices yelled. An Iraqi officer leapt out of the vehicle to inspect the damage.

“Get back in the vehicle!” Awtrey and other soldiers barked. The Iraqi commander got back in the truck. The convoy made it the rest of the way to the hospital without incident.

“Those were drop-and-pops,” said Capt. Damon Holditch, 39, from Birmingham, Ala. “They were probably alerted by someone at the hospital that we were coming. But it was nothing big.”

Iraqis unloaded the medical supplies; there were handshakes all around and the obligatory photos. At one time, the hospital employed more than 200 doctors, nurses and staff. But now, only 12 remained.

Holditch and Staff Sgt. Ty Curry had worked for months to gather the supplies. Many of the medicines were donated by family support groups back home. The ambulances were arranged through U.S. forces.

“We’re dependent on making this work,” said Curry, a 23-year-old medic from Charlotte, N.C., now on his third tour in Iraq. “If this doesn’t work, then everything we’ve done over here is in vain. These people deserve a chance to live their lives just like anyone else.”

A doctor insisted on taking the Americans on a tour of the threadbare facility. The triage room was little more than a half-dozen rusted gurneys with torn padding. Bloody bandages and clothing lay in heaps atop several of them. A small wastebasket full of bloody rags was pushed against a wall. The sick and injured stood aside as the U.S. troops passed.

“We need everything,” said Dr. Ziyad Yassin, one of four doctors who remained on duty. “A lot of times, we collect money ourselves to buy medicines.”

A heated debate just down the hall underscored how difficult it will be to heal the open wounds that fester here.

Alamo team chief Maj. Jim Bowie, 46, of Huntsville, Ala., visited the hospital administrator to introduce him to a new Iraqi commander. Bowie hoped the meeting would encourage better relations between the hospital staff and the Iraqi troops who depend on them for treatment.

Instead, Dr. Ahmed al-Kaisy, the administrator, said he couldn’t trust the security forces since they ransacked his house several months earlier.

“How can I do a surgery for such a person when he threatens me in my own house?” he said, gesturing at the departing commander.

The officer, Maj. Baraa, whom the Americans consider one of the more promising Iraqi officers they’ve worked with, replied flatly, “If we take fire from an area, we will search every house.”

But al-Kaisy continued his harangue. Baraa said he had no reason to trust the doctor either, since his Humvee had been struck by the bomb that morning while en route to the hospital.

Bowie finally told both men to quiet down.

“Hey! Hey!” he shouted. “Will you hate him forever? Will he hate you forever? If that’s the case, then nothing is ever going to get done for Baqouba General Hospital.”

“You want us to be brothers?” al-Kaisy shouted. “With these people, we can never be brothers. These people don’t know how to behave. They have no ethics. The solution is to pick soldiers who are better qualified.”

Bowie urged calm, counseling both sides to trust one another.

The discussion went in circles until Bowie said he was out of time. He asked al-Kaisy to pick one project that U.S. forces could finance to improve the facility. He never got a straight answer. The visit ended with a handshake, after the administrator went out to look at the new ambulances.

From a nearby Humvee, Awtrey watched the goodbyes.

“It’s fun when you sit through one of those,” he said. “You bring this guy 18 ambulances and a truckload of supplies, and he wants to complain about how his house was searched.”

Back at the U.S. camp, Bowie took a more charitable view.

“Sometimes you just gotta let them air out their grievances and let them fuss at each other for a while,” he said. “But then you try and prod them in the right direction, toward a solution … It’s just another day in Iraq.”

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