Vilseck unit in Kirkuk finds need for both warfighting, rebuilding
KIRKUK, Iraq — Before Sgt. Ricardo Ruiz landed in northern Iraq last fall, he pictured a war full of gunfire and glory. Instead he’s standing watch over Iraqi ditch diggers.
He’s part of the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, a 300-strong 1st Infantry Division unit from Vilseck, Germany, called up in early April for duty in Iraq. The unit landed in northern Iraq with the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Regiment and took the oil hub of Kirkuk with almost no fighting.
Until June 1, the 1-63 Armor spent its time patrolling the streets, strutting its might to discourage would-be rebels. Then came word from higher headquarters: The soldiers would switch to a “softer” mission, working side-by-side with the Kirkuk city government when they’re not quelling riots.
“In between the slight distractions, we rebuild roads and sewers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Wright, 34, of San Antonio, Texas. “We have sergeants and specialists doing the work of city councilmen and city engineers.”
“I expected a big show, a big firefight,” said Ruiz, 23, of Rosamond, Calif., who helps to supervise a city department. “I wasn’t expecting to be doing all this.”
The job requires troops to switch from peacekeeping to warfighting at a moment’s notice — a big change for infantry troops.
Lots of infantry units in the Balkans and Afghanistan have found them doing the work of civil affairs soldiers, mending both infrastructure and relations with the locals. Now troops in Iraq are taking up the same job.
“We’re basically rebuilding Kirkuk,” said Maj. Brian Maddox, 37, of Jefferson City, Tenn., the battalion’s executive officer. “We were the first ones to do this in Iraq.”
Kirkuk is about 180 miles north of Baghdad, sitting atop a sea of oil with proven reserves of at least 10 billion barrels a day, according to the Web site globalsecurity.org. The crude lies so near the surface, soldiers often see it floating in streams.
But, Maddox said, it also sits on an ethnic fault line between the Kurdish north and the Sunni-dominated region that stretches south to Baghdad. Its population is about evenly split among Kurds, Sunnis and ethnic Turks, groups that dislike one another.
“We’ve had a pretty large task, making sure these people felt comfortable enough that they didn’t shoot each other,” Maddox said. “We could have had a civil war right in the city.”
The troops of the 1-63rd Armor found city hall in chaos. Local citizens with grievances roamed freely throughout the looted building, overwhelming the beleaguered city staff. So the soldiers helped set up and staff a reception area near the front door, where visitors could be screened and sent to the right places. It also allowed Maddox and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Kenneth Riddle, to spend time each day with the mayor and map out the city’s recovery.
Besides supervising the slow reconstruction of the city’s battered utility grid and street network, the soldiers also spend time refereeing disputes between citizens of different ethnic backgrounds.
“It gets a little irritating at times, because all you do is listen to people’s problems,” Ruiz said.
“Helping these people is a different kind of feeling,” he added. “You can see yourself making a difference.”
One of the biggest problems was simply getting the Iraqi bureaucrats to do their jobs. Even upper-level officials had been conditioned by years of dictatorship to do nothing without orders.
After weeks of frustration, Wright and Capt. Mike Ohman, 27, said they discovered that memos — preferably bearing an official-looking seal — usually will prod an Iraqi civil servant into action.
“They’re afraid to do anything,” Wright said. “We’re trying to transition from a totalitarian system, where the Baath Party told them [what to do]. But once you give them direction, they’ll do it.”
Despite the ethnic melange, Kirkuk has seen little of the violence that has plagued the Sunni Triangle just to its south.
An ugly incident in late summer, though, showed how quickly 1-63rd Armor troops sometimes must switch from peacekeeping to war-fighting mode.
Late on the scorching hot morning of Aug. 23, Wright and Ohman prepared a small convoy at city hall for a tour of public works projects around Kirkuk.
Suddenly bursts of automatic rifle fire cracked a short distance away. As soldiers scurried to defensive positions around the building, a cloud of black smoke billowed up a few blocks away.
Ohman and Wright quickly received reports: Ethnic Turks, protesting what they believed to be the desecration of a Muslim temple in a city 25 miles away, had fired grenades into a Kurdish police station three blocks from city hall. In an exchange of gunfire, one civilian already had been killed and a policeman wounded. (Two more Iraqis subsequently were killed, according to news accounts.)
During the next hour, soldiers watched tensely as an estimated 800 protesters marched to city hall, shouting and chanting. Several men climbed the roof of a bombed-out hotel that was missing its facade and waved Turkomen flags. Two AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters buzzed over the compound as some of the rioters jumped on, but not over, the city hall barricades strung with concertina wire.
After the crowd finally broke up, the U.S. commanders sighed with relief that no Americans had fired their weapons. For awhile, the scene had resembled the Samuel L. Jackson movie “Rules of Engagement,” in which a Middle Eastern mob lays siege to an American embassy.
Ohman sent the shaken Iraqi workers home for the day, while the soldiers rested in the safety of the city hall break room. They talked about the sudden switch from peace to war that happens so fast in Iraq.
“The changeover is kind of hard,” said Spc. Edwin Giovannetti, 22, of Shamokin, Pa. “You go from expecting combat and firing back to a peace mission. You never know what's going to happen.”