Thursday, February 26, 2009

Babagurgur and the Turkomen

Welcome to Kirkuk, Iraq's melting pot! Several ethnic varieties call Kirkuk home, including Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and Turkomen (remnants of the Turkish Empire).

And I do mean *melting* - The crude petroleum bubbling up in the tribal areas is of such a high grade that the villagers refine it into diesel with the help of home-made stills. Standing vents of natural gas shoot 20-ft flames into the sky around our Army base. The most famous of these is called "Babagurgur", aka the Eternal Flame. Written about in ancient Egyptian carvings, these ground-flames probably pre-date human civilization.

These spouts of natural gas are not unlike the Earth farting. And those farts have been lit for 5000+ years! Magnificent!

I've been on a couple missions, standard PSYOP stuff, even sat in on the Kirkuk Provincial Council meeting. My favorite character so far has to be our new interpreter, Lahib. (God's Poetry aside: "Lahib" means "Flame" in Arabic.)

Lahib (aka "Larry") is one of the Chaldean Christians, remnants of the earliest Mesopotamian tribes who converted to Christianity in the Common Era. The Chaldeans speak a modern version of Aramaic, Jesus' native tongue. Larry claims he could understand Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" without subtitles!

At 6'0" and a jovial 260 lbs, Lahib left Iraq in the early 90's to settle in Dearborn, Michigan, where he has a wife and daughter today. Lahib also holds an engineering degree (Civil), so we discuss the finer points of soil drainage and cement composition while waiting for patrols.

Lahib is new to the interpreter racket but eager to please - his first real mission came when I took him out for man-on-the-street interviews in western Kirkuk. He performed admirably, helping me to build rapport with the Kurds, Turkomen, and Arabs who crossed our path. He also managed to score us some rather sophisticated lamb-kebabs.

The unit I'm supporting is called the 3-82 Field Artillery "Red Dragons", a battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, out of Ft. Hood, Texas. "Mortarmen" they like to be called, but the Iraqi conflict has little need for traditional artillery (cannons and such), so the mortarmen were given rifles and humvees and sent out on patrols just like regular infantry.

The Red Dragons are new to Kirkuk just as I am, and we're all trying to get our footing and figure out our mission. With the SOFA deadline looming overhead we all have an eye to the future - will we be confined to the bases soon? Will the interminable patrols finally come to an end?

(The Status of Forces Agreement calls for American troops to be pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns by June 2009)

Stay tuned!

(Wanna trip out? Open the photo below to its full size and peruse all the US military bases currently operating in Iraq.)

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