The U.S. 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade along with Special Forces were the only American units sent into northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion. Their task was to destroy the Iraqi formations in the area, and then move onto Kirkuk city. The 173rd was stationed in Kirkuk for almost the next year when the province became wracked by ethnosectarian divisions and violence between the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians. Kevin Petit was the executive officer or second in command of the 173rd during this time. This is an interview about his time serving in Kirkuk during and immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
1. After your unit landed and headed for Kirkuk how much resistance did you face from the Iraqi forces?
Virtually none from the Iraqi Army (IA). The 173d Airborne jumped into Bashur DZ near Erbil Iraq on the evening of 26 March; we spent the next two weeks’ air landing sorties of twenty (20) C17s loads from Central Region (Germany); this included the US Army Europe’s Heavy Ready Company of M1 Tanks, a company of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and various 113s. This was the largest airborne assault since WWII, and the first time we flew M1s into a conflict zone via an air bridge.
You’ll recall, the original plan for the war was the US 4th ID (MG Odierno) and a British division attack Iraq form the north. 173d was attached as an additional brigade for that attack. But Turkey didn’t open the land bridge, so 173d [came under the operational control of] the Combine Joint Special Operations Forces (CJSOTF) in the north.
The CJSOTF in the north was comprised of 3d and 10th Special Forces groups. They were embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga and they called in a lot of aerial fire support (what the press called ‘Shock and Awe’ – horrible name). So they saw IA; but by the time the 173d attacked south to seize Kirkuk (to prevent the destruction of the oil reserves and open a second front to hold Baghdad’s IA from repositioning against the Coalition main effort in the south), the IA had melted away.
2. Before your landing had the 173rd worked out a plan with the local Peshmerga on how they were going to cooperate during the war?
No; we went in blind to the Peshmerga, except what we heard from the special forces liaison officers (LNOs) who were part of our HQs. There was also a large covert operation (OPERATION HOTEL CALIFORNIA) going on since August 2002… but we did not benefit from much of that intelligence. So there were two separate unconventional Warfare operations happening there at the time – the CIA with the Pesh, and the US Army Special Forces with the Pesh. To be fair, our concerns were very tactical, and the others had more strategic concerns. They were WMD hunting, searching for chemical facilities, running down the “Scorpion Force’ that would allegedly help with a coup against Saddam Hussein, and other larger objectives.
3. Kirkuk city fell the same day as Baghdad. Immediately there were reports that Arabs Kurds and Turkmen began looting, attacking, evicting and killing each other not only in the city but the surrounding villages. There was a Christian community there as well. What was the situation like and what did your unit do to try to defuse the situation?
It was a confusing time. There were feuds and vendettas being carried out everywhere in the early days. There was a community of “10,000 Dinar Families” which was a control measure put forth by Saddam Hussein in the 1960s. He displaced Kurds from Kirkuk and paid Arab families to move in and settle. Saddam also gerrymandered Hawija, a very Sunni Arab place, within Kirkuk Province to further control the population.
So you had Kurds and Arabs, the two most robust groups totaling about 45% and 40% respectively. You also had Turkmen, which were sponsored by Turkey to keep a foothold in the region. Turkmen made up about 10% of the population. Finally, there were Christians: Armenians and Chaldo-Assyrians – Christmas of 2003, my commander COL (now LTG) Bill Mayville and I attended two-and-a-half-hour Christmas mass, in Latin, held in a church in Kirkuk. It was surreal.
We were desperate to stop the infighting because it was too hard to know if the violence was directed at you or not; thus, restraint, discrimination fires, proportional response--- all those things become very difficult to execute well.
CENTCOM Deputy Commander John Abizaid gave us our mission. We were to protect the oil infrastructure from burning as had been done in Desert Storm, and the oil would go to the rightful rulers of Iraq, once that sorted itself. But it was important to preserve it since it would be the revenue source to re-build the country after years of regime-neglect and sanctions. We, the US, rightfully did not want to be stuck with the reconstruction bill. Therefore, it was important to preserve the financial endowments for the Iraqis.
With that end in mind, we sought to quell the internecine criminal, gang rivalry, and sectarian conflicts that happened multiple times a day in the early days after the fall of the regime.
4. Turkey was extremely worried about what the Kurds would do after the invasion, and especially about them seizing Kirkuk. Ankara even threatened to send in its army to stop Kurdish ambitions. The 173rd found and arrested a Turkish Special Forces unit. What were they doing in Kirkuk and what were the repercussions of their detention?
Turkey had, and still has, a tremendous fear of the Kurdish movement. For the Turkish state, it is understandable that they fear Balkanization and losing sovereign territory should there ever be a successful Kurdish independence movement. Here is also the PKK issue, which is the pursuit of Kurdish independence using insurgency, terrorism, and other political violence.
We caught a Turkish Special Forces Colonel twice. The first time, he was in Iraqi Kurdistan and was simply in the battle space without permission. We do not know if he was conducting subversion or strategic reconnaissance. We escorted him to the border near Silopi and dropped him off. The second time was around Kirkuk election time. We were having elections and the regional governorate was a parliamentary systems, so there would be one mayor, but plenty of deputy mayors and other bureaucrats which would balance the ethnic and religious actions. It looked, as the election loomed, as though the mayor was going to be a Kurd. The Kurds, who had a market economy and understood political strategy better than the Arabs, consolidated their vote and created an alliance with the Assyrian Christians. The Turkmen needed to have a balancing alliance with the Arabs but the Arabs boycotted, could not organize, conducted in-fighting – it was obvious it would fall to the organized Kurds. We received intelligence that a group was trying disrupt the Kirkuk elections and prevent the Kurds from gaining seats. Of course, much of our intelligence came from the Kurds, so you just never knew how much you were getting played on these things. There are no straight deals in Iraq; everything is a Brooklyn 3-card trick. Nevertheless, we conducted the raid on and there were several Turkish special forces members, including our colonel. They had a huge weapon and explosive cache and plans to disrupt the election. This time we went public with the capture and detainment of the Colonel. We made it a spectacle and trusted the shaming function would kick in for Turkey and they would cease with their adventurism.
Interestingly, while the group of Turkish special forces soldiers and the Colonel were flex-cuffed in the back of a 5-ton truck heading toward Turkey, one of the passengers claimed to have smuggled a grenade past the search and he had it on him. The Colonel asked for it, so he could blow himself and everyone else up. This would reverse the Turkish fiasco and would end as a strategic U.S. embarrassment as it would appear that the U.S. deliberately killed NATO allies. Fortunately, the rest of the riders in the truck were not happy with that plan and did not relinquish the grenade. Again, it was indicative of the two-level game (multi-level game) that was playing out every day.
5. When the 173rd was pulled out of Kirkuk what were the major accomplishments and what were the on going problems in the province?
There were many accomplishments that received no notice or fanfare. The restoration of schools, civil society, establishing a (local) body politic, giving voice to a section of people that had known only authoritarian patronage politics. All that was immensely satisfying and fruitful. None of that made U.S. papers or congressional briefs and barely made the Division and CJTF slides. But it was supremely satisfying to bring order out of disorder, and set froth folks on a path to better, more fulfilling life by giving them tools to do it.
We also foreshadowed, I believe, COIN [counterinsurgency] as we would do it in 2007 and after the FM 3-21 came out. We (173d) were in Kirkuk alone without the 4th ID for over a month. The 4th ID had to sail around, offload in the south and road march up to Tikrit. In that time, we recognized there was no shooting war but the peace needed to be won and it needed to be contested within the civil society. We immediately put joint security stations in the town in neighborhoods. We contracted our food with locals to revive the economy. We aligned all the company areas of operation and managed the battlefield architecture to match the police districts, so we could mentor and help the police stand backup. You’ll recall, General Odierno takes some grief on this in Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco (although he redeems himself in The Gamble, the sequel, as he finally ‘gets’ COIN)– but when he arrived in the battle space we came underneath him. His mechanized guys were set on building big forward operating bases, commuting to work, extreme force protection measures… they understood the threat differently – as they were biased by ‘worst cases’ analysis, war games, and other dour intelligence estimates. The 4th ID came to town expecting something very different than was there. Brigade Commander Mayville and Battalion Commander Dom Carricillo recognized it for what it really was. So I would like to think we contributed to the education of Odierno – who really did get it in later tours, and contribution to the new way of war. We would, after all, conduct war in this new way for the next 15 years.