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Troops do the dirty work to maintain berm in Mosul

An armored combat earth mover from the 43rd Combat Engineer Company repairs a hole Sunday in the "Riyadh Line," a dirt berm that surrounds Mosul, Iraq. The Riyadh Line aims to funnel people through checkpoints where Iraqi Army soldiers can search and identify possible insurgents.

JAMES WARDEN / S&S

By JAMES WARDEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 28, 2008

MOSUL, Iraq — As the sun rose Sunday, it found the 43rd Engineer Company’s bulldozers already at work scraping dirt into ever larger piles. East of the engineers, the sun lit up the buildings of Mosul — at about 2 million people, Iraq’s second biggest city. To the west, it shone on the vast emptiness of the desert outside the city.

Mosul has just three main roads going into it, but that desert offers an alternative for anyone who wants to circumvent the checkpoints on the official routes. So Army engineers have built a massive dirt berm around the city to funnel any insurgents through checkpoints, where they have a better chance of being discovered during routine searches.

"There are basically an infinite number of routes if you’re coming in from the desert," said 1st Lt. Ben Weaver, a platoon leader in the company.

Leaders have named this massive berm the "Riyadh Line," after the senior Iraqi commander in the area. The berm is a wall of dirt at least four feet high — but twice that in many places — that almost completely encircles Mosul. The 43rd Engineer Company maintains about 15 kilometers of the berm, essentially the western half of the Riyadh Line.

Similar berms have been built around other Iraqi cities in the past, most notably in nearby Tal Afar. And long concrete blast walls have divided many parts of Baghdad in recent months.

In Mosul, the soldiers built their section of the line over eight freezing days in December. The city was still extremely violent then, so they tried to do as much of their work as possible at night. Still, some of the engineers worked upward of 20 hours a day.

Pvt. Edwin Ocampo drives one of the unit’s armored combat earth movers, a bulldozer built like a tank. He recalled moving dirt for almost three days straight, getting a rest and then working another three days straight.

"It was a long, painful process," he said.

Soldiers anchored the berm to steep ridges and other natural obstacles that surround Mosul, as well as tank ditches from the Saddam regime. The majority of the engineers’ time Sunday was spent just negotiating the rough ground around the perimeter.

Most of the soldiers ride in massive armored trucks over steep ridges that would give many drivers pause even in vehicles with a lower center of gravity. Yet the soldiers doggedly plugged away at their mission, even when one of their bulldozers blew a hydraulic line and had to be towed by another bulldozer.

With no one guarding the Riyadh Line, insurgents can make a hole in the berm and get through, Weaver said. So soldiers with the 43rd Engineer Company must head out about once a week to repair the holes in their section of the line.

Even the holes aren’t completely without merit, though.

"At least we can identify their routes and pick ’em off easier," said Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Lerue, a platoon sergeant in the company.

Like other engineering projects in Iraq, the work has become a chess match with insurgents. Soldiers build the berm. The insurgents make a hole. Soldiers fill the hole. The insurgents plant a bomb in the next hole they make.

The engineers now use an armored truck to run a bomb-detonating device over each hole before they try to fill it with their bulldozers.

Soldiers are mixed in their opinion of the operation’s success. Ocampo credited the berm for reducing the number of attacks around Mosul in recent weeks. Weaver, however, said that although it was important it was just one piece of an overarching strategy that’s also seen success in standing up the Iraqi army and catching insurgents.