Thursday, October 4, 2012

Going through Saddam's Ring of Steel

by Dan Coakley     © 2012    

An Irish Engineer passes through the Iraqi Military Area on the Borders of Kurdistan.

I was on my way to the Autonomous Kurdish Region in early 1998 to assess the Electricity Sector there. I was apprehensive, as I left Kirkuk, at the unpleasant prospect of going through Saddam's exit procedures. I soon passed through the northern city military checkpoint, left Kirkuk behind and headed for the border with Kurdistan. On the road north I soon began to realize what my mission was all about. Some High Voltage Transmission lines followed us all the way up and for a distance of 70km each mast was either wholly on the ground or broken in two with the upper half leaning drunkenly back to the ground. It looked as if the tops were pulled down by tractors with wire hawsers. The destruction was complete. For the entire route not one mast remained intact. I estimated that to replace one line alone would cost $8.25 million and for parts of the route there were many parallel lines. 

A damaged high-tension power line tower. 
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Sean Riley, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division Public Affairs)

Imagine similar damage to every mast on a line 60 or 70 Km long  in the sanctions era of 1998 and the work required to reconstruct it.
We then drove through a barren area with many ruined villages. However they were not devoid of life. One could see rows of tank gun barrels poking out over the ruined walls as Saddam's Tank Brigades nestled in the homes they destroyed during Saddam's savage campaign against the Kurds. Now they were menacing the precarious Autonomous Region of the Kurds to the North. The scene was replicated in every former village we passed. One could see Iraqi conscripts walking along the road leading donkeys with panniers of water, filled from the adjacent streams, to service their comrades in the large camps dotted across the landscape. In many instances the conscripts were barefoot and wore their berets in a very casual manner like chefs' hats. They certainly did not give any indication of being an elite fighting force. We passed many Soviet type T54 tanks broken down on the road. The T54 had a notoriously un-reliable engine and the old Iraqi ones would not pose much of a threat to any potential modern adversaries. Further north the wide open plain was dotted by earthen-walled square forts each about an acre in extent and guarded at the four corners with small  Chinese made ZPU-1 and ZPU-2 anti-aircraft guns constantly manned by conscripts. Not much of a defence against supersonic planes with air to ground missiles I thought. Any future conflict with a modern western army would result in slaughter for those poor souls and I felt genuinely sorry for them and their families. It must be remembered that this was a conscript army that endured sadistic discipline and as it contained Kurds and Shia was ruled by terror. I have seen videos of a line of Iraqi soldiers being forced to shoot a line of their comrades who were sitting on the edge of a pit (their future grave) with their backs to their executioners. I also noticed that the senior officers on their constant visits between the various units traveled in battered civilian cars. This was obviously an army in decline. As we passed the destroyed villages and the Army that wrought such devastation on their countrymen the Kurdish drivers remained stoic and drove on without comment. At that time Saddam was still very much alive and the Kurds had to rely on the guarantees of Powers that reneged on their promises in the past (Britain after World War 1 and the US after the first Gulf War). What must have gone through their minds as they saw their powerful oppressors right on their border, choking the life out of their little country?

Shewi Qazy, a destroyed Kurdish village. 
(Photo source Twana Mardowkii)

The former inhabitants of this village are probably mouldering away in some mass grave in the desert.

Soon we came to the last Iraqi military checkpoint before we crossed the border into the Kurdish autonomous zone. This checkpoint was the real thing and stretched for about 200 metres along the road. It was the lock on Saddam's Ring of Steel. Each vehicle was minutely searched by armed soldiers. There was an open shed where the men were body searched with an equivalent closed tent-like structure for searching the women. Nobody seemed to mind as they joined long queues snaking back from the search units, the women in their long black chadors chatted away as they awaited their turn. Once or twice an army deserter was discovered. I saw one of these unfortunates being kicked the entire length of the checkpoint area by an Iraqi army NCO. One could only speculate at the poor boy's fate as he was thrown into a military truck and carried away. The people at the checkpoint, overwhelmingly Kurds, pretended not to notice and averted their gaze as their compatriot was brutalized in front of them. This was their reality in Saddam's Iraq.

Tankers being inspected prior to joining an American Army convoy in post-Saddam Iraq. 
(Photo by Brandon Questor US Army)

I noticed the long line of massive sanctions-bursting oil tankers cruising slowly past. Lines of tankers were at every checkpoint during my time in Iraq. One Iraqi soldier was positioned along their lane and as each truck passed him the driver dropped a number of Iraqi 250 dinar notes into his hand. It was said that this oil trade was a tripartite trade run by Saddam's son Uday and the profits were shared three ways between Uday, the Kurds and Turkey. Our papers had to be processed by an officer and again the Irish passport evoked a friendly response. Soon we were on our way and crossed into the Kurdish Autonomous area.

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