Murder, kidnappings, bombings and political cat-fighting have resumed in Iraq, but still the images linger from last month's election. Men and women, sometimes dressed in their best clothes, sometimes bringing children along to witness the historic event, walked for miles at times with a sliver of hope, filing between an occupying army and an insurgency to cast their ballots.
From this side of the globe, it seemed as miraculous as a plant muscling its way through hostile pavement. For Inland Northwest locals serving as soldiers in the Idaho National Guard and beginning a year's deployment in northern Iraq, the closer view of the election showed threats and violence, political shenanigans and fraud.
Election week was a big one for soldiers in the 116th Brigade Combat Team: They pulled security near the polling places, suffered the brigade's first death in Iraq and are assuming full authority for the countryside around the oil-rich and ancient city of Kirkuk as other units -- kept in-country through the elections -- are finally being rotated out.
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Warren, 44, of LaGrande, Ore., died on Jan. 31 in what the military is calling a noncombat-related death. Despite repeated e-mail inquiries, no further information has been released. Warren served in the Third Battalion of the 116th (3-116) along with his son, Lt. Chris Warren.
Out in the countryside, it seems, there were plenty of close calls.
"Well, we made it through the elections. We were out in the field for four days," Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Kincheloe, 48, wrote in an e-mail last week. "Within the Task Force's AO [area of operations] over the course of four days, there were 26 IEDs, 18 small arms engagements and one RPG attack. No one was hurt seriously. Two civilian kids were killed by what we think was a sniper. They were standing by a Hummer when they went down."
Kincheloe is a high-school counselor from Harrison, Idaho. In the Guard, he's a squad leader in Charlie Company of the 116th's Combat Engineers Battalion. The engineers in Charlie are teachers, college students, landfill workers, tribal casino workers -- roughly 100 North Idaho locals, from the south end of Lake Coeur d'Alene to the Canadian border.
The engineers trained extensively last year in combat infantry tactics and are assigned to a battalion of infantry, the 163rd of the Montana National Guard, to form a task force.
In the predominantly Kurdish territory around Kirkuk, TF 1-163, as it's known, has drawn the brigade's shortest straw -- being stationed at FOB [forward operating base] McHenry, which is a sort of razor-wired Precinct 13 near the Sunni Arab-dominated town of Hawija. The town is about an hour's drive southwest of Kirkuk.
McHenry is the smallest, crudest and most-attacked of the seven or so forward bases occupied by the 116th. Just over a year ago, Hawija was sealed off in the night and surrounded by the 4th Infantry Division while 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne went door-to-door looking for rebels, guns and money. The town, at the tip of the Sunni Triangle, is hometown for some of Saddam Hussein's top aides and is seen as a hot spot in the insurgency.
"At least in our area, the election was a sham," Kincheloe wrote from Hawija. "This area is primarily Sunni. Kirkuk [province headquarters] is Kurd. They hate and distrust each other immensely.
"Well, long story short, Kirkuk withheld 62,000 ballots from the Sunni areas," Kincheloe continued. "There was supposed to be 16 polling sites in the Hawija/Abassi area. They only ended up opening 10. Of those 10, four didn't get ballots or didn't have the required number of election officials -- they either quit or were scared off."
Kincheloe's account matches others that have emerged in the last week as Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians -- ethnic minorities in the Kurd-heavy north -- have decried being shorted on ballots or finding unstaffed polling places in their enclaves.
Every unit in TF 1-163 has its own area of operations. For Charlie Company, the soldiers were to help with security at polling sites in the Arab villages of Talali, Hawdsitah and Jubeirieh.
The soldiers set up barriers of concertina wire and dragon's teeth around polling places to prevent car bombs from getting close. The troops then rotated through eight-hour shifts of manning traffic control points (TCPs) or being on alert as the quick-reaction force (QRF) -- a Humvee-mounted group that rolls out as backup in the event of attack.
"Our AO was fairly quiet. Third platoon got rocked by an IED while on TCPs," Kincheloe wrote. "We were on QRF and rolled out. Must have been a buried 155 arty round. The hole was steaming and the fragments were still hot. No one got hurt -- one flat tire and the gunner got rocked a little."
At 7:30 on the morning of the election, Kincheloe's platoon drove into Talali to help relocate the polling site, a maneuver to stay a step ahead of insurgents, who had blown up a number of the buildings used as polling places in the runup to the election.
"We really like that village," he wrote. "The mukthar [a village leader akin to a mayor, but think more in tribal or clan terms], Iraqi Army, police, elders and most of the kids are very cool. Ballots should have been there by 0900. They didn't show up. Had to go back a couple of times and try and communicate what was happening to the mukthar. You could tell they were getting pretty pissed. From the radio traffic on the task force net, the whole AO was experiencing similar problems. We finally got ballots to Talali at 2300 [an hour before midnight]. By that time, most people had gone home or were afraid to come out in the dark. In addition, the roads were totally closed down, so people from the outlying areas couldn't get in."
Only a few people voted, Kincheloe wrote, so he was surprised when village officials turned more than 2,400 completed ballots. "The mukthar said they knew how the people would have voted."
Ballot-stuffing like this appears to have occurred all around Kirkuk, according to media accounts. The election in the surrounding province [the Tameem Governate] was especially feisty given the ethnic mix that is uncommon in the rest of Iraq.
There are Kurds, who have lived in the northern mountains for millennia. Spread across southern Turkey, northern Iraq and parts of Iran and Syria, the Kurds, like Israelites, have long sought an independent homeland. This drive gained steam in the years following the first Gulf War, with the Kurds essentially setting up their own country under the shelter of the northern No Fly Zone that kept Saddam's army at bay.
On the eve of the 2003 invasion, the two main political parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) agreed to end a bitter civil war. They supplied 30,000 fighters, tanks and artillery to take on Saddam's northern divisions and have so far stayed attuned to the goal of a Kurd homeland. The Kurds call the area around Kirkuk Southern Kurdistan and refuse to fly the Iraqi flag outside government buildings.
There are also Assyrians, doubly a minority as they are Christians in a Muslim world. There are the "original Arabs," mainly Sunni tribes who have lived in the area for generations. Then there are Turkmen, descendents of a ruling class brought in from Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, and the so-called "new Arabs." The latter, mainly Shia from the south of Iraq, were transplanted to Kirkuk by the thousands by Saddam during the infamous Anfal Campaign of the late 1980s. Kurds were evicted from their homes, villages were bombed and razed and thousands died in chemical weapons attacks.
Now the Kurds are turning the tables, bringing in 70,000 refugees to tip the political balance and buying out "new Arabs" and telling them to go back to where they came from.
"There is a lot of tension," said Lt. Col. Steve Knutzen, commander of the 116th Engineers Battalion, during a telephone interview from Kirkuk late last week.
As a civilian, Knutzen, of Lewiston, was a sales rep for Mazda in the Inland Northwest. As a battalion commander in the Idaho National Guard, he assumed he would be running a task force at one of the forward bases.
Instead, like so many soldiers, the 47-year-old finds himself doing something completely different.
"I'm running the reconstruction office," he says. He holds the purse strings for the Commanders Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), which disbursed $25 million during 2004. Add the Corps of Engineers and various NGOs [nongovernmental aid organizations], and Knutzen has a hand in "$300 million to $400 million" for reconstruction efforts in the Kirkuk area.
Banks in Kirkuk don't have electronic transfer yet, Knutzen says, so all the reconstruction money arrives as cash stuffed into duffel bags.
Knutzen, liaison to the regional governing council, finds himself confronting any number of daunting issues -- waste disposal, pollution, sewage treatment, health care, education and road construction.
And then there are the other tensions. Knutzen says he had recently spoken to a Kurdish contractor who was adamant that reconstruction money not go to Arabs. "He had scars -- rope burns on his neck and his waist where he was hung by Saddam. He was hung, sometimes upside down, for days.
"He has hard feelings toward the Baath Party and Arabs in general," Knutzen says. "I told him that when I see two children, I don't see an Arab child and a Kurd child: I see two children."
Whether one on one or in small groups, says Knutzen, the Iraqi people with whom he has dealt do recognize the larger goals of unity and reconciliation. Arabs and Kurds have been neighbors in Kirkuk -- often, as individuals, on good terms -- for generations. Out on the streets, it's a different story.
And when it comes to ethnic tension, "We have the same problems in our country," Knutzen says. "We haven't made much progress in 200 years."
The election, he says, "was a big win. There is hope -- if they can figure out how to lessen the ethnic tension. There are a lot of good people, and they all want the same things we do -- a home, a school, a safe place for their kids."
Just before the election, many of the officials he dealt with in Kirkuk said they didn't plan to vote. Either they were scared of violence or saw the vote as American string-pulling. But when the city offices reopened last week, "they all had ink on their fingers to show they had voted, and they were very proud of it."