Long an Iraqi target, no U.S. help in sight

Base: Complaints by soldiers under daily fire contrast sharply with White House and Pentagon statements.

October 11, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LSA ANACONDA, Iraq - This sprawling supply base on a dusty stretch about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad is officially known as a "logistical support area." But some of the thousands of soldiers and contractors who suffer daily mortar and rocket attacks have another name for it: "Mortaritaville."

At least a half-dozen soldiers and contractors have been killed and nearly 100 wounded here since April. There have been about two attacks a day since July. Three weeks ago, a young airman lost both legs and his right hand when a mortar shell slammed into the base.

Officers say Anaconda, the largest support base in the country, with 22,500 U.S. troops and 2,500 contractors spread over 15 square miles, is also the most frequently attacked. But there is no indication the soldiers will get the help they want to deal with their nagging and deadly problem.

Requests and questions

Since May, Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman, commander of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Washington state that operates the base, has requested 500 to 700 more soldiers. But he said the request has been denied.

"Because the enemy is persistent, we need additional forces. We asked twice," said Hilman, who arrived here in April for a yearlong stint. But Hilman said he was told that "there are no additional forces," and that U.S. soldiers are needed elsewhere, particularly to battle insurgents and cover a large area to the north that includes the rebellious cities of Tikrit and Samarra.

The 81st Brigade's top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Robert Barr, said the soldiers here are frustrated, and that he often hears the same question: "Why aren't we stopping it or killing their guys who are doing it?"

Their complaints contrast sharply with statements by President Bush and top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who say U.S. troop strength is sufficient but that more soldiers will be sent if senior commanders ask.

While the 81st provides security inside the fence that surrounds the base, the task of protection outside the concertina wire falls to the 2nd Brigade, part of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Tikrit. During the past week, the division has participated in the effort to take back Samarra from insurgents. Those units, too, are stretched thin.

"They have other operational concerns," said Lt. Col. Harry Gonzalez, a spokesman for the 81st. "There's a lot of real estate."

Hilman said he requested additional forces in the spring and again in the summer from 13th Corps Support Command, which is responsible for LSA Anaconda and all other multinational supply and transportation facilities in Iraq.

Maj. Richard W. Spiegel, a spokesman for the 13th Corps, confirmed that Hilman put in the request and that it was endorsed by the command's top officer, Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers.

The request was forwarded to Multi-National Corps Iraq headquarters, which assesses troop requirements and makes the final decision, Spiegel said. The request was denied, he said, declining to provide details.

Sharon Walker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, said officials had no comment on why the request was not approved.

Planes won't stay

Meanwhile, the Air Force will not base its big cargo planes here because it is considered unsafe, said an officer at Anaconda, who requested anonymity. Instead, pilots keep their engines running as they drop off cargo, then quickly take off. Officers say the attacks are not interfering with the flow of the thousands of tons per month of spare parts, fuel, clothing and food needed to keep an army running.

Hilman calls Anaconda "the life support" of the theater of operations.

Over the past month, tall concrete slabs have been installed at Anaconda to protect sleeping areas from the Soviet-era 82 mm mortar shells and 57 mm rockets that hit daily. Shells and rockets have landed near the operations center, the mess hall, a mosque and a chaplain's car. A sort of gallows humor has infected some of the soldiers. The base store sells T-shirts picturing a soldier looking skyward and the words: "Mom, I'll call when the mortars stop."

On Thursday morning, two mortar shells landed near the south gate. No injuries were reported. Just before dinner, there was another explosion outside the fence. A siren warned those inside to take shelter in the bunkers. Contractors in the mess hall stopped serving food and hunkered down.

A blast and a shrug

"You can never tell where they're coming from," said Sgt. Charles Rhoade of Havre de Grace, part of a five-member team from the Maryland Army National Guard that helps bring supplies into Anaconda.

Sgt. Richard Trucks, a guardsman from California, was finishing his dinner nearby and simply shrugged. "You accept it," he said. Still, he added, "We would appreciate a little more direct action" from U.S. forces.

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