Soldier confronts Iraq’s complexities in year-long stay
For Christopher Dabbs, a year of unexpected, war-zone contrasts has pointed the way to a future career.
Dabbs spent most of the last year in northern Iraq, but maintained he was probably in one of the safest places in the Middle East. Dabbs said he lived much of the time in the luxury of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.
Dabbs, a private first class in the 101st Airborne, is enjoying a three-week leave at the home of his parent's, Dave and Ann Dabbs. The leave came after returning from a 341-day tour of duty in the Middle East, nearly all of it in northern Iraq.
While in Iraq, Dabbs was based out of Mosul, a city of 1 million people about 300 miles north of Baghdad. The young soldier said he soon found Iraq was much different from what he expected.
"They have Internet cafes, but politically, it's like walking into Chicago in the 1920s," he said. "Ninety percent of the women wear western dress. When they go out, they definitely dress to impress."
The Internet did much to keep him connected to his family and De Soto, Dabbs said. He could e-mail his parents regularly and made Internet phone calls once a week. He also placed phone calls to De Soto High School, talking to Karen Wall, Brad Scott and Principal Debbie Lynn.
"They were actually surprised I could call from a third-world country," he said. "Again, 90 percent of what I learned in high school was wrong."
Dabbs and his unit entered Iraq on March 21, 2003, racing behind the Army 3rd Infantry Division as it pushed through Iraqi resistance, stopping only to re-supply. The 101st Airborne was to help overwhelm resistance in the north, but the Iraqi military disintegrated before that was necessary.
The trained paratroopers were to make a jump near Karbala, but that was called off. Dabbs said he and his fellow paratroopers were disappointed until they learned the jump would have placed them in the middle of an armored division.
As it was, Dabbs and his unit got a quick look at southern Iraq and Baghdad and more than a taste of desert heat and sandstorms before arriving at Mosul, the city that marks the transition for Iraq's Arab population and the Kurdish majority to the north.
It was there that Dabbs said he learned of the intricacies of Kurdish politics and a crash course in Iraqi history.
Dabbs said his 36-man unit split its time between Mosul and Aslaimania, a small city of about 20,000 to the east. At Aslaimania it worked to establish an Iraq border patrol along the country's mountainous frontier with Iran. To do so, they worked closely with the Kurdish party that controlled the area, the PUK.
The letters stand for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Dabbs said, but in that the party wasn't unique. Two other parties, the PKK and KDP, pretty much identify themselves the same way.
"They fought their own civil war with Saddam's help the last 30 years," Dabbs said. "Now they all have their own territory or states. That's why it's like Chicago in the 1920s. One party is in control here, and another party is in control there."
The Kurds were united in two things: their hatred for Turks and their suspicions of America.
"All Kurds everywhere hate the Turks," he said. "Turkey won't let Kurds speak their own language or practice their religion.
"They like America, but the thing is America has screwed them over so many times, it's like, 'OK, when are you going to leave again?'"
Saddam infamously gassed the Kurds in the 1980s. Their uprising near the end of the First Gulf War led to further suppression and a humanitarian disaster.
But as a consequence of an American no-fly zone in northern Iraq and the strength of the para-military parties, the Kurds enjoyed near autonomy in the years between the two wars.
His unit's job required some early scouting of the border, Dabbs said, but the core of the task was creating an organizational structure using the American border patrol as a model and training the personnel.
Although the border guards were to stop extremists from infiltrating the country and control drug traffic, it was also charged with stopping the importation or exportation of more routine items banned in either Iraq or Iran.
It was, Dabbs said, interesting and safe work.
"I was completely safe in the Kurdish area," he said. "I could walk on main street with a soft cap, no body armor, and one clip. Our PUK guards would tell you, 'You can shop there, but don't shop there.'"
No American would attempt that in Mosul, the home base of the 101st Airborne in Iraq. It became dangerous after Americans convinced Kurdish forces, which captured the city from the north with American Special Forces, to withdraw.
But in yet another contrast to the harshness of the postwar situation, Dabbs said his unit had little incentive to leave its Mosul bivouac in the local Saddam place.
"Our unit was in the guest house, actually," he said. "We had a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, marble everything, and porcelain bathrooms."
Neither his high school studies nor anything he read prepared him for Iraq's technological modernity or its political complexities, Dabbs said.
Much of the area's troubles could be traced to the political divisions the Americans and British imposed after World War I and II that didn't account for ethnic populations like the Kurds, which found themselves divided among Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Georgia.
Kurds want their own land but could be convinced to join a united Iraq, which remained a foundation of American policy, Dabbs said..
"They don't want to, but if it ends the violence of their own people, they could," he said. "It's one of many things that has to do with Iraq that is thrown in the air right now. We'll have to see where it comes back down."
The many questions ensure America won't be leaving Iraq soon, Dabbs said. He learned as he was leaving the Middle East that he and his unit would return to Iraq in June 2005 for another year of duty.
That would take him through his current enlistment, he said. Despite plans to become a 20-year career soldier, Dabbs would like to take four years off at that time.
"I want to get a degree so I can teach high school history," he said. "I'd like to get my 20 years in so when I'm 42 I could share the knowledge I had gained; things I learned from people and not from a book."