There are so many things — maybe distractions is a better word — going on now that many of you may not be paying much attention to the U.S.-supported offensive now under way to wrest control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from the blood-drenched group of extremists commonly known as the Islamic State.
But I’ll bet many of the nearly 600 men and women in an Alabama Army National Guard unit that came to Mosul in 2003, in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, are paying attention. The 877th Engineer Battalion’s soldiers were stationed in Mosul and other nearby parts of northern Iraq from the summer of ‘03 to the spring of 2004, and I’ve written about them in this space before. I’ve also talked to some who are following the fighting now going on around Mosul. And how could they not be following the fortunes of the offensive when their unit left a lot of footprints in and around that city?
I know about some of these footprints. With my colleague, photographer Hal Yeager, I was with the 877th for about six weeks in the late summer of ’03, on assignment for The Birmingham News. Together, we covered some of the more than 700 missions that 877th soldiers carried out during their deployment. The missions included erecting guard towers at military installations, erecting protection barriers at UN operations, piling up berms to thwart infiltration of hostile fighters from nearby Syria and tearing down much of the house where ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, died in a firefight with U.S. troops.
The missions also included projects in the “hearts and minds” category: renovating schools and orphanages and Mosul’s Olympic-size swimming pool, deepening culverts to reduce the flooding risk in small villages in the area, building a road to more directly connect two communities and hauling supplies of a material known as Bentonite to seal cracks in a big earthen dam north of Mosul. Those initiatives involved forging relationships with village elders, Christian and muslim clerics, businessmen and administrators. But when ISIS took control of Mosul and much of northern Iraq in June of 2014, those who had cooperated with the 877th and other U.S. military units may have found themselves in danger.
“I’ve gotta believe that maybe some, if not a lot of the people we dealt with, may already have been … killed,” said retired Army Guard Col. Randy Martin of Madison, who was the 877th commander during its Mosul deployment.
Martin’s fears may only be confirmed or found groundless once ISIS is driven from Mosul and the surrounding area. Kelvin Price, who was a sergeant in the 877th’s Headquarters Company, said that during the deployment he feared that the U.S. and its allies would leave Iraq too soon and leave a vacuum in Mosul that the Iraqi government and its military would be unable to fill.
“Unprotected vacuums are never good,” Price wrote me in a Facebook message. “This breaks my heart but ISIS has got to go!”
When Hal and I arrived in Mosul in late July, the Army’s 101st Airborne Division was in charge there. The 877th, having driven all the way up from Kuwait after Martin and its other commanders had made some higher-ups aware that the battalion was available to work in Iraq, was trying to settle into a sprawling encampment known as Camp Marez, a military base near the city airport. Daytime temperatures would soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and would drop below 100 after midnight, and dust devils would sometimes spin through the camp and tear down a makeshift structure like a shower tent. Facilities would improve in the weeks to come, but when Hal and I showed up, 877th soldiers were getting their meals from food trucks, sleeping in tents and vehicle repair bays and on rooftops, or in close quarters in hot barracks buildings.
There were no Port-o-Lets, just primitive latrines, and teams of soldiers were assigned to burn the accumulated human waste.
The 877th had shipped over all of its stuff, including trucks, humvees and heavy equipment vehicles, but none of the vehicles they drove around their area of operations bore any extra plates of armor. The canvas-topped humvees were a lot like big golf carts, but they never carried any golfers down fairways.
“It’s hard to imagine going over there now and doing that,” Martin said.
During my stay in Mosul, things were relatively calm, although we were there following the news of horrific bombings and killings going on in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and other cities to the south. But not long before Hal and I left, there were signs that things were getting testy. On a September Sunday afternoon, two men with rocket propelled grenade launchers took aim at some vans carrying 887th soldiers back from a recreational trip. They overshot their mark, but the the Alabama Guard members knew they had had a narrow escape.
After we left, incoming mortar rounds became a regular occurrence in the camp. One day, several rounds landed near the big sparkling new dining facility where a number of 877th soldiers happened to be eating, but no one was hurt. By that time, the group of Iraqi workers whom 877th soldiers usually picked up each morning to bring to the camp had told the soldiers to quit coming for them, that things were becoming too dangerous, that they would get to the camp on their own. Later, after the 877th left, a suicide bomber entered the dining hall and the blast killed 22 people, most of them soldiers.
I’m sure folks like Kelvin Price, who lives near Sulligent in northwest Alabama, is wondering what might have happened to the Iraqi workers and their families once ISIS took over. In a Facebook message, Price said that one of the men, whom he called Rafa, had told him that if the Americans left Iraq too soon, “Mosul will fall to Ali Baba (a common term for insurgents back then)!”
“He said very bad people will take over because the (Iraqi) people don’t know how to fight back,” Price said. “They are used to being told what to do by Saddam. Brother, he was right, and I knew it then!”
Martin, the former 877th commander, also has wondered what might happened to an orphanage outside of Mosul where the 877th did some work. The orphanage was at a hilly village called Al Qosh, where most of the residents are Chaldean Catholics (Chaldean Catholicism is a branch of the Roman Catholic Church) and Martin spent some time with the priest who was running the orphanage, as well as its staff and the children who lived there.
“Hopefully they got out of there,” Martin said. “I don’t know what’s happened to them.”
It appears, according to press reports, that Al Qosh, the orphanage and a mountainside monastery nearby, have so far managed to escape the clutches of ISIS. But I don’t think that has been the case for another structure that 877th soldiers put up at their camp, a big camouflage-netting draped tent that they used with regularity. The tent was a chapel, and Hal and I saw it go up, and we attended one night of a five-night revival held there before we left.
Now all of Mosul is in need of a wide-ranging revival — physical, economic, political and spiritual. But a lot of blood will probably be shed before an effort of that scale can even be considered.