Near capital, troops setting up at airfield

Sun Foreign Staff

NEAR ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq - Brig. Gen. Edward Sinclair, touring what amounts to a small city he is building on a former military airfield here, hopped out of his Humvee and marched over to a truck parked near a battery of howitzer guns pointed skyward.

"It's General Sinclair," he announced. "Get your butt out here so I can talk to you."

As soon as Lt. Marshall Clay poked his head out, Sinclair asked, "Who told you to set up here?"

The battalion, said Clay, tentatively.

Sinclair shook his head no. Clay had set up operations on what was going to be the parking place for a general's helicopter.

"All this has to go," he said, gesturing to Clay to move his howitzers away from the end of the runway. "You've got to go down there."

"Roger, sir," Clay said. "Roger, sir."

Sinclair patted the young lieutenant on the back. Then he set off again, architect, construction boss and city planner for this emerging forward base for the 101st Airborne Division.

This former Iraqi military airfield just south of Baghdad is turning into a huge staging ground for forays to the capital, with up to 17,000 troops expected by week's end. As assistant division commander, the general must make sure everything goes where it belongs within about 6 square miles of sand.

Now it's a runway with scattered, and very flimsy, metal buildings with corrugated roofs. It needs to become a well-organized settlement with tents for troops, refueling depots for trucks and generators and repair shops for weapons and broken-down Humvees.

Huge numbers of trucks and people are heading this way, and Sinclair has to find a good place for each of them.

The people and equipment are necessary to keep the war effort going, but many of those here now are jealous of those on the frontlines, wishing they too were part of the dwindling fight in the capital.

Some soldiers, at least, have gotten to go on missions just outside camp.

They have found vast storehouses of ammunition and weapons nearby, as well as some fighters who apparently never got word that the regime of Saddam Hussein has fallen.

Yesterday, soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment detained 12 prisoners. Of the four held by scouts, one had Iraqi military identification and one a Baath Party ID. The scouts found a detailed map showing where rocket-propelled grenades and other arms were stored.

Before the war the airfield, like the sprawling military complexes that surround it, was under the control of the Iraqi regime. By the time Sinclair arrived Monday, it was the domain of civilian looters and wild dogs.

Since then, its transformation into a U.S. base has moved apace. The airfield seems equal parts port, construction site and war zone. The roads are clogged by Humvees, tractor-trailers, large tanks and small all-terrain vehicles called gators.

One hears everywhere the hammering together of tents, the thwap-thwap of helicopters, the rumble of bulldozers, the strain of tank engines and the groan of giant cranes hoisting metal containers.

A laid-back leader

But since none of this happens automatically, Sinclair must watch over it all.

The 48-year-old Montana native has an easy smile and a reputation for being laid back despite his rank. He can be tough when underlings err, but except for the star on his lapel, it's not readily apparent he is a general.

A 1976 West Point graduate, Sinclair still flies Apache attack helicopters, one of two generals who do so. In spare time here, he has mused about going fly-fishing at his family's cabin back home.

Mainly he is focused on getting the base camp ready.

Early on in his driving tour he got out to mediate a skirmish over space, a precious commodity as the line of arriving trucks lengthens. An aviation unit wanted to annex land occupied by a bunch of trucks. Sinclair told the fliers to stay put.

"Terrain management," he said with a chuckle after climbing back into the Humvee. "Everybody's fighting for their space." Heading down the road, he pointed out flimsy metal barracks now home to infantry troops and an open space farther west that will sprout tents for the support units that keep soldiers going, vehicles running and weapons firing.

Off to the left stood four Patriot missile batteries, rectangular boxes angled toward the sky. His driver tooled past a refueling site where three tanker trucks sat and, a hundred yards up, a water depot with gigantic bladders strapped to flatbed trucks.

Next came a blue hangar that is home to elite Special Forces soldiers, who seem to swagger even from a distance. Two other hangars were being readied for helicopters.

That's when Sinclair spotted something he didn't like. Some trucks were parked on a stretch of concrete set aside as a helipad for three-star Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army's V Corps.

The corps has aroused the envy of infantry battalions because it has televisions, phones, air conditioning and a latrine with a device that resembles an actual toilet. No one was about to take Wallace's helicopter parking space.

"Hurry up," Sinclair said to his driver. "Get down there." When he reached the spot, Sinclair told another aide, "I want a guard out here full time. This is the third group I've had to run out of here." Moments later he was giving Clay his talking-to about putting field artillery guns in the wrong spot.

'Looking good'

Finally Sinclair saw something worth praising - the runway. "This is looking good," he said as the Humvee glided down the 9,840-foot stretch of concrete, now cleared of the dirt piles Iraqi forces had put there to prevent aircraft from landing.

Bobcat vehicles with brushes on the end were sweeping away the dust left after graders cleared the mounds. Fourteen Apache attack helicopters sat on the pavement, their bulbous noses covered to keep dust out of sensitive scopes and sights.

Five Black Hawks flew in minutes later, disgorging more troops. Each landing kicked up a huge cloud that momentarily obscured the helicopter and sent dust billowing to the rear.

Driving back, Sinclair looked out at a dog roaming around. "Poor dogs," he said, "they don't know what to think."

He knew what he thought, though: "Considering all the moving parts, this is pretty good."

Sinclair has been impressed by most soldiers' patience, with Baghdad a short drive away. He thinks it may be because many soldiers got into firefights in places such as Najaf and do not feel they are missing out.

Some soldiers say they do not care if they ever get to Baghdad.

"Not everybody is going to see what people think a war is," said Pvt. Jacob Snyder, putting down his copy of Guitar One magazine. "And we're not getting shot at - that's the upside." But others do not hide their eagerness to go the rest of the way after trekking hundreds of miles across Iraq.

'Let's keep moving'

"I've been waiting to get up there. Let's keep moving," said Capt. Matt Johnson, who calls in artillery fire for the battalion.

"It's not like I'm hungry to have people shoot at me," said Lt. Chris Case, the signal operator. "I'd just rather be in Baghdad to see it firsthand, rather than hear BBC's interpretation." Indeed, while many in the battalion rely on BBC reports for their war news, they deride what they consider its overly pessimistic reports.

Yesterday, Maj. Chris Forbes suddenly launched into a parody, complete with exaggerated British accent.

"Nigel, Nigel!" he exclaimed. "What is happening to the 101st? Mass confusion! How these buffoons managed to get this far I'll never know."

Forbes, an intense man who has written "Al Haig" on his coffee cup, guffawed at his impersonation. Then he spotted the 5-foot-by-5-foot map of Baghdad that someone taped to the wall and got even happier.

"Look at that map," Forbes said merrily. "That is one sexy beast."

The battalion, it now seemed, might be heading north sooner than expected.

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