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PFH - 1.2.05 Taza, Iraq 

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & Where Bombers Spin Brodies and a Sheep Is Slaughtered & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t was mid-morning on the first Sunday of 2005, and Capt. Kory Turnbow, new to Iraq, already had his hands full. He'd been assigned to live at an Iraqi army barracks even though he spoke no Arabic. On this day, he was taking a brigade-level staffer on a meet-and-greet, driving a sluggish Toyota Land Cruiser -- top heavy with protective glass -- through a scrungey industrial neighborhood in an unfamiliar city and was trying to keep control of his four-rig convoy via walkie-talkie because there was no radio in the car.


And then there was the lowboy coming the other way, carrying a massive load and crowding the decayed asphalt street.


So much had changed. Turnbow was studying law at the University of Idaho when the Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team was mobilized for active duty in 2004. The 29-year-old, trim and bespectacled with receding hair, had arrived in Iraq by Christmas as the eager commander of Bravo Company, made up of 96 soldiers, from teens to gray-hairs; people who are teachers, grocers, farmers, firefighters, painters, students and cops from Moscow, Orofino and Grangeville. Once in Iraq, though, the company was broken up and its platoons scattered to several different bases. Most wound up "behind the wire" at FOBs (forward operating bases) isolated by blast walls and razor wire throughout northern Iraq -- or southern Kurdistan as the locally dominant Kurds insist it be called.


Turnbow himself was detailed to a special missions team and was sent "outside the wire" to an Iraqi Army barracks of 15 soldiers in Taza, a city of 30,000 just south of Kirkuk. In a rare circumstance among American soldiers, he was immersed in a fuller version of life in Iraq. Like much of the country where Americans don't live, the Iraqi barracks typically went without electricity for 18 hours a day and was a place where soldiers would "turn on the tap and hope something good came out," Turnbow says.


He was still adjusting to his first week at Taza and had driven up to the main American base at Kirkuk that morning to pick up his first sergeant, Guy VonBargen, and the brigade's master sergeant. Their mission was to meet some local contractors and eyeball potential reconstruction sites in the nearby cities of Daquq and Laylan.


"It was supposed to be an easy one," Turnbow says. He was on his way back through Taza after picking up his passengers when everything changed.





* * *





On the way north that morning, Taza's jumbled industrial area was a noisy hive of diesel-spewing trucks in motion and sparks flying from cutting torches and grinders.


"There is junk everywhere," Turnbow says, describing a Third World chaos of sheds and shanties and factories that are little more than metal roofs on posts. Trucks, crates, barrels, piles of steel, noise, oil, glittering shards of glass and flakes of rust smother the forsaken soil.


Scrap metal was selling for $165 a ton in Iran, just to the east, and there was a bustling trade cutting apart the ribs of ruined buildings, the spines of blown-up bridges. Even the unexploded bombs and artillery shells that litter Iraq -- a deadly tide line of detritus in a country lapped by the waves of war -- were cut up and sold.


The trade in explosive materials recovered from these bombs, or in whole bombs, was even more lucrative -- booming, one could say -- and far more black-market.


As the small convoy of three gun trucks and the Land Cruiser nosed south, Turnbow was suddenly alarmed to notice the industrial area empty and still.


"That tells you somebody went around and warned people to clear out because they were going to blow something up," Turnbow says.


At the moment, the lowboy kept him preoccupied.


"Did you ever see pictures of that 'Mother of All Generators' they took down to Baghdad?" Turnbow asks. "This was just like it."


The giant machine perched on its trailer was taking up a lot of road as it inched along, and was obscuring much of Turnbow's view. It was only after the Land Cruiser cleared the truck that:


"We were on it."


There, 10 feet away, was a white Mitsubishi taxi parked by the side of the road with its hood up and nobody around. "My first sergeant was in the passenger seat and he said 'Oh, fu...' but he didn't even have time to finish before it touched off," Turnbow says.


In his journal, Turnbow wrote this account:


"I looked right just in time to see a flash of light come from the side of the road, followed by a gigantic dust ball encroaching on my entire viewing area. This was followed by a ka-boom like I've never heard before. Simultaneous with the noise, giant pieces of steel shrapnel started flying through the air, puncturing the Toyota in all manner of places. The passenger side tires were blown out and a giant piece struck the windshield, finishing off the outer layer for good. ... I was able to push it 500-750 meters down the road from the blast before the Toyota finally gave up. ... Somehow this little car absorbed the blast of 2 or 3 130 mm shells ..."


It's the aftermath that is the worst part, Turnbow says, when you have time to go over the details: Were there two shells or three? What was their caliber? How does a young guy from Post Falls get his head around the idea that someone deliberately just tried to blow him to bits?


"And the worst part is, I'm thinking it's January 2nd and I have 10 more months of this," Turnbow says.





* * *





Whoever blew up the taxi had a fairly short window -- it was roughly an hour to get to Kirkuk and back, Turnbow estimates. "They worked fast, likely started the setup immediately after we passed through the first time," he says. Perhaps in haste, the Chinese-made shells, the equivalent of American 155-mm artillery rounds, were positioned so that the main force of the blast went straight through the Mitsubishi's roof.


"If somebody had just put a little weight on those shells, the force of the blast would have come sideways, and I wouldn't be here," Turnbow says.


As the powerful fist of fire and dust, noise and steel slammed the Land Cruiser, Turnbow's head snapped around. "I happened to look to my left and saw a white Toyota pickup, mid-'80s, do a victory donut and then take off."


It was the bombers, he's pretty certain, spinning brodies to celebrate the hit.


People who set off the remotely detonated IEDs often videotape the explosion, and it's a sick realization that somebody's got a thumb on the button and everybody's watching you drive, unaware, to your doom.


In the minutes after the explosion, the apparent abandonment of the industrial area was shown to be false. Workers had stayed to watch the show; over here and over there, heads began to peep out from behind the helter-skelter of sheet-metal shanties, which had sprung up like clusters of rust-streaked mushrooms from the oil-soaked ground.


Turnbow, even as he was horsing the mortally wounded Land Cruiser out of the blast, was on his handheld radio setting up a perimeter, checking for injuries (there were none) and calling for help. Then, on an impulse, he got on his cell phone and called the Iraqi Army barracks.


The Iraqi commander he was just getting to know, Capt. Ehsahn (like many Muslims, he uses one name), had troops there in six minutes. The coalition took 45.


"They pulled my fat out of the fire more than once," Turnbow says of the Iraqi Army.


Following standard drill, the soldiers hunkered behind their rigs, waiting to see if there would be a second bomb or a rush of small-arms fire. Tense minutes clicked by -- five, 10, 15 -- and all remained quiet, the small circle of soldiers watching the workers who were watching them.


"The individuals I talked to at that point all had smiles on their faces," Turnbow says. He coldly stalked the junkyards with Capt. Ehsahn and interpreters, questioning the smiling people who stayed to see if he would die.


He ended his journal entry for the day with the words: "Dirty bastards."





* * *





After five hours of interrogation with little to show for it except the name of the taxi's owner, Turnbow went back to the Iraqi barracks where there was one more surprise. Capt. Ehsahn ordered a sheep to be purchased and had it butchered in the ritual manner. It was for Turnbow.


"When Allah spares you, you slaughter a sheep," Turnbow says.
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