Preparing for Iraqi takeover

Published 11:11 am Monday, July 6, 2009

Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher is nice. This place was known as Al Sahra Airfield prior to the invasion in 2003, when it was seized by Coalition Forces. It was the home of the Iraqi Air Force Academy. Our accommodations are nice and comfortable. Not quite like being at home, but better than some. The Relief in Place and Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA) went quite well considering it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. You want to know as much about what has happed, is happening, and is going to (or might) happen. Cpt. Elijah Chung, a fellow artilleryman, is my counterpart. Like him, I will be assisting the Provincial Police with personnel and finance.

We hit the ground running. Day two was an early morning. We met at the rally point for the convoy/safety brief. We would be heading outside the wire today. During the intelligence portion of the brief, a deep sigh went out. The report told that the area was quite and there was no reason to suspect an attack on the day’s chosen route. Many of the members on my team have been here two or three times. To them the report was bittersweet. The situation can change in a moment’s notice and you’ll never know until it’s too late. We exited the gate, and hit the highway for the short convoy into Tikrit. I can’t speak for the other guys, and I’m not sure they would ever admit it, but I was a little nervous during our first trip out. Salah ad Din was once a hot spot. It contains cities that are always in the news, like Samara, and is close to Baqubah, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

The city that greeted us that day was not what I expected. There were Iraqi Police manning all the checkpoints along the route that waived us through with a smile. Children riding their bikes and walking along the side of the road smiled and waved. The market was business as usual. The security in Salah ad Din is now very good. We pulled into the Provincial Headquarters downtown in our Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles some while later. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. All the training in Kansas, Kuwait, and Taji was now about to go to work. I met up with my linguist, and Cpt. Chung and I went in to meet the Colonel. Col. Shakur is a small man in stature with tapered, black hair and a large, thick, black mustache much like the other men in the headquarters. I had done my homework before coming and learned that Salah ad Din had been recognized by the Government of Iraq for its financial and personnel systems. As a matter of fact, Col. Shakur’s department had become the standard by which all the other provinces were judged. After the introductions, I congratulated the Colonel on his successes, and expressed my desire to help keep him on top. He presented Cpt. Chung with a departing memento, and he and I got straight to work.

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We’ve been working together now for about two weeks, now. The systems used here very much Iraqi. Relationships are everything. A grudge between two officers can stop supplies from being purchased, personnel from being paid, or even from being hired. Respect is demanded and earned at the same time. The key for me to earn it was to give it first. It’s not hard when you look at the fact that, Iraqi or not, Col. Shakur out ranks me by three grades. When we meet I greet him with the word “Sayeedee” which means master or teacher. He has begun calling me “Sa-deekee”or “Ha-beebee” which means friend or someone I admire. The big sign of earned respect is what we call “Man Kisses.” It’s just a stiff handshake followed by a kiss on the cheek. I haven’t reached that point yet, but it’s okay with me. When we’re not working we talk about everything, his family, my wife (Leslie) and two girls (Mea and Briana Kate), old cars, politics, and even vacation spots we’d like to visit one day.

Another milestone for the province and the country came on July 1. That’s when the Iraqis took back total control of their government. While there are new constraints, it doesn’t affect us much. My team is not considered a combat force, so technically we are allowed to continue business as usual. The issue is that our trucks don’t say “We are not a Combat Force,” nor do we want them too, so travel can be tricky at times. Col. Shakur is very proud of this day. I asked him for his thoughts. He said: “This is a great day for Iraq. Every man wants freedom. I appreciate everything Coalition Forces have done to help us get to today, but it is our turn to take responsibility for our own people.”

The province threw a three-day festival to mark the day.

Cpt. Joshua Whiddon, 27, is a native of Greenville and the son of Joreka and Allen Pitts. He attended Greenville Academy until 1997, and then moved to Niceville, Fla., graduating high school in 2000.