Events in Iraq stir 116th’s emotions

Capt. Mitch Smith of Boise visits with a Kirkuk man and his baby while patrolling Kirkuk neighborhoods in 2005. Today, the city is in the hands of the Kurds after Iraqi security forces — trained by the U.S. — fled a militant group sweeping through Iraq. Idaho Statesman file photo

Christopher Chesak fondly remembers handing out bags of candy, gum and other snacks to children on the streets of Kirkuk, Iraq.

He also recalls residents smiling, waving and offering soldiers fresh flatbread.

Chesak, a former specialist with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, spent more than a year in Iraq with 2,000 fellow soldiers from the Idaho National Guard and Reserves during 2004-05.

Besides combat operations, the troops helped the Iraqis establish government institutions, provided security for two national elections, trained Iraqi soldiers and police officers and worked to improve water treatment plants, solid waste disposal, electrical plants, roads and mass media outlets.

After expending all that effort, Chesak said it’s sad to read and hear about recent events that have brought turmoil and uncertainty.

Two weeks ago, thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq as Sunni militants invaded from Syria. Quickly, the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took control of Mosul; opposing Kurdish peshmerga forces moved in to take over Kirkuk and block the advance of ISIS.

“It’s completely disheartening,” said Chesak, a former Boise resident who lives in Cincinnati. “It’s sickening. It’s disappointing to see all the time, money, effort and lives go to waste.”

A chance for the Kurds?

Oil-rich Kirkuk is outside semi-autonomous Kurdistan, which takes in northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria, but it has a sizable Kurdish population.

Some Kurds refer to Kirkuk, located 150 miles north of Baghdad, as their Jerusalem. The city is considered an important piece for establishing an independent Kurdish state — a goal that in its current incarnation dates back to a rejected treaty following World War I. The city also is home to sizable populations of Turkmen (an ethnic group from Turkmenistan), Arabs and Assyrians.

As the Kurds sought their own nation, governments in the region have targeted them in turn over the last century, including Iraq. Kurdish support for Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s resulted in Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons against Kurds and destroying their villages.

Iraq again sent troops against Kurdish towns during further rebellion in the 1990s. Two million Kurds fled to Iran, with 5 million remaining in Iraq. The United States established a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in an attempt to protect the Kurds and encouraged various Kurdish factions to unite in an attempt to undermine Hussein.

Ethnic conflict remains

Last week, a Turkmen leader said militia forces had been mobilized to strike back against jihadists and against the 200,000-strong peshmerga if Kurdish forces fail to return Kirkuk to the Iraqi government.

Master Sgt. James Mace disagrees with his friend, Chesak, that the latest unrest undermines the work that the National Guard troops did in Kirkuk. If the Kurds end up controlling Kirkuk for the long run, it would benefit their people, he said.

“My personal hope is that this works out for the people of Kurdistan,” said Mace, who called Kirkuk an ethnic melting pot. “If the Kurds are able to stabilize their lives, then our mission has been a success.”

There wasn’t a strong sense of nationalism among Kirkuk residents, he said. Iraqi flags, for instance, only were found on government buildings.

“We saw Kurdish flags all over the place,” Mace said.

Mace will retire next month after nearly 21 years with the National Guard.

A squad leader during the time he was in Iraq, Mace said local residents were friendly to soldiers. A Statesman photo from early 2005 shows a young girl smiling and waving to Mace as he walks down a street on patrol. Two women behind the girl also are smiling; one is giving a thumbs-up.

“For the most part, I didn’t feel threatened in Iraq,” Mace said.

History repeats

The unrest doesn’t surprise retired Lt. Col. Gordon Petrie.

“This is precisely what I predicted would happen,” Petrie said.

Tribal feuds in Iraq date back thousands of years. He feared that once the U.S. left the country, regional disputes would resurface.

“They’re more interested in settling a score than democracy,” Petrie said.

In his day job, Petrie served 17 years as a Gem County magistrate judge. He also was a Third District judge for nearly four years before he retired in 2009.

The 116th — which also included soldiers from Oregon, Washington, Utah and Montana — was well-suited for its mission, Petrie said. The National Guard unit had members who in their civilian lives oversaw the operation of Idaho cities, constructed and maintained water and sewer systems and built and repaired roads. The average age of those soldiers was nearly 30, meaning they had more education and real-world experience than the younger regular Army troops.

That experience, he said, gave the men and women of the 116th the skills to tackle the immense infrastructure needs of Kirkuk, a city of about 851,000 residents.

Lamenting changes

Both Chesak and Petrie lamented changes made after the 116th returned to Idaho and was replaced by a younger Army unit. Replacement soldiers had a more aggressive manner toward Kirkuk residents, Chesak said, and that led to an increase in explosions from improvised explosive devices and car bombs.

“We never saw car bombs while we were there,” Chesak said.

Petrie said the Army soldiers were trained with a focus on combat.

“They weren’t very good at what has become known as nation-building,” he said. “It wasn’t how they were trained.”

The National Guard units maintained a good relationship with locals, Petrie said. Part of their on-the-ground diplomacy involved medical exams and treatment.

“For the first time in their lives, they saw a medical or dental professional. You could see it in their eyes that they thought this was democracy,” Petrie said.