Iraq Diary: On the Euphrates at Habbaniyah

November 15th, 2006 8:20 AM

After last night's slight detour, we headed out toward Habbaniyah today, but not before we were given a windshield tour of the huge Al Taqaddum Marine base. We were passing by some absolutely desolate, petrified sand dunes when, almost miraculously it seemed, we saw a huge body of water - Habbiniyah Lake, so vast that even from some elevation we couldn't see the other side. Along the way we saw remnants of Saddam's air force that never made it into the air in Desert Storm.

The trip was made by conventional SUV till we got to a bridge that ties Al Taqaddum to the Habbiniyah base but that is not secured. We were met by two Marines in an armored Humvee who gave us a quick lift to the other side.

At Habbiniyah, the Marines' focus is the training of Iraqi military, and the 1-IA, the First Division of the Iraqi Army, is stationed side-by-side with the Marines. HQ is known as the "British Hotel," because that's exactly what it was back in the 1930s when there was a UK base here.

We headed down to the Euphrates, biblically lined with rushes. Our forces are training the Iraqis to navigate patrol boats on the river for purposes of interdiction. Let's just say that the Iraqi soldiers were enthralled by the presence of Lt. Schultz and jostled to have their photo taken with her.

On the way back we stopped at the British military cemetery. Some headstones were intact and those that had been vandalized had been painstakingly reassembled to the degree possible. I can tell you that May 22nd 1941 was a bad day here. I noticed RAF flight sergeants as young as 19 who had been killed. Lt. Schultz has been Googling and just let me know Roald Dahl was based here in the 1940s. Update: for the touching story of how the cemetery came to be lovingly restored, read here, with thanks to a reader.

We drove into a small stadium area where a group of Iraqi army recruits were just about to graduate. A group of red-hatted sergeants started running toward us as we were about to photograph some recruits. We thought they going to tell us to stop shooting. But as it turned out they . . . just wanted to be in the photo ;-)

And for you fans of our Public Affairs Officer Navy LT Corey Schultz of CENTCOM, who both organized the trip and is with us here in Iraq nimbly guiding us through all the hoops and hurdles, here she is! On the left, LT Schultz from her trip to Iraq last year. On the right, one of her many admirers down at the river on Wednesday. He proclaimed his readiness to get married on the spot.

UPDATE: To those who question the Iraqis willingness to fight - I just spent an hour with Navy LT Eric Torres, instructing the Iraqis here in both river boats and weapons. He mentioned that his recruits are very highly motivated, spending 12 hours a day in weapons training. He stated that he has been out in combat situations with Iraqis and that they were absolutely ready, willing and able to fight.

To give me a sense of the weight troops carry, LT Torres put me in full gear. The vest was loaded with eight rifle magazines and several M9 clips. It felt snug and comfortable but to carry it for several hours under combat conditions in the 120+ heat that occurs here is very hard to imagine. By the way, LT Torres' personal preference among all the rifles available is the M-4. Among other advantages, the magazine can be replaced more quickly.

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