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Eye of Iraqi storm

The Baltimore Sun

CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq -- No one breaks stride on the elliptical trainers when the announcement blares over the loudspeakers every few hours. Nobody pauses at racquetball at either of the two multimillion-dollar gyms at this war zone base.

"Attention, attention, attention, there has been an indirect fire attack," says a pleasant woman's voice, as if announcing the 8:20 Southwest flight into BWI instead of a potentially deadly rocket or mortar attack.

Swimmers continue to plow furrows across the huge indoor and outdoor pools.

"Please be vigilant," the loudspeaker urges. "All clear, all clear, all clear."

For this city of 28,000 Americans, the main U.S. military logistics center in Iraq, and for tens of thousands of other support personnel who make up half or more of the 160,000 troops in Iraq, life creeps pleasantly along, one day at a time, in an existential black hole.

Home seems distant and unreal.

So does the war.

Pairs of F-16 strike fighters torch off the runway every few hours and thunder off into the distance.

Medevac helicopters wheel in bearing unseen battlefield wounded, who are airlifted out hours later on nighttime C-17 flights. The dead also arrive at night, for ceremonies and respectful transfer to Fallen Angel flights home.

After midnight, heavily armed convoys of trucks lumber down dusty streets and disappear "outside the wire," that mythical and fearsome place where most troops assigned to Anaconda never venture.

For that reason, residents here are known as "Fobbits," residents of a Forward Operating Base or FOB. They resemble the hobbits of fiction, reluctant to venture far from their comfortable and familiar burrows.

Elsewhere in Iraq, soldiers and Marines patrol into dangerous Iraqi neighborhoods from squalid COPs, temporary Combat Outposts set in those neighborhoods, places where heat, dirt and foul odor triumph and plumbing, air conditioning and cold water are distant memories, a grueling existence with sudden death or dismemberment as constant companions.

Here, no one goes "outside the wire" except on the nerve-wracking convoys. If something is needed - computer paper, communion wafers, concrete slabs, drinking water, an Iraqi souvenir - it is made here or comes by truck or air. People fly in for a year's duty and never set foot "out there."

Some try.

"I have guys who want to go out to see what it's like," said Lt. Col. Matthew Parsley of Scotts Bluff, Neb., who commands a National Guard battalion on convoy security duty. He is unsympathetic. "If there's no reason to go out, there is no reason to go out."

For Fobbits inside the wire, after all, life is tolerable. The food is abundant, the showers have hot water and usually good water pressure, the $5 million gyms are open 24/7, as are the swimming pools, the post exchange and the 745-seat movie theater.

These are built inside two-story steel buildings that stretch a city block long, hidden behind foot-thick concrete blast walls 12 feet high. Engineers recently added, at a cost of nearly $20 million, additional blast-resistant roofs that sit over the buildings on massive steel girders, comfort against mortars and rockets.

There's a Pizza Hut, Green Beans coffee franchise and a Burger King, but a Whopper and fries go for $5.50 and taste suspiciously like the stuff available for free next door at the immense chow hall (four steam-table entrees every meal, burgers, fries and onion rings and pizza, double 40-foot salad bars and burrito bars, and cakes, pies and Haagen-Dazs over past the mounds of energy bars, Gatorade and Pop-Tarts).

"Biggest threat here is gaining weight," huffed a beefy airman.

Pedestrians wear gym shorts, official T-shirts and combat helmets, and carry a rifle along with a plastic bag of goodies from the PX, where you can get socks, censor-friendly magazines and television sets, but no liquor. You can even order a car or a Harley Davidson here; pick it out from a catalog and have it shipped home from international dealers in Europe.

People work in air-conditioned trailers or 20-foot steel shipping containers that come with plug-in power and sometimes showers and toilets. Flanked by stacks of green sandbags, these "cans" are arranged in rows behind blast barriers, rows of 12-foot high, inverted-T blocks that resemble 5-ton dominos set on end. From a distance, clusters of these offices and living quarters look like some modern incarnations of Stonehenge.

Inside, everyone has a laptop connected into military networks that track convoys or logistics systems or repair activities while denying access to popular civilian Web sites. Windows are blocked with sandbags. People work eight-hour shifts in fluorescent light and emerge into the blast-furnace heat (108 degrees today) and bright sun, squinting like mole-children.

What's missing from this picture, of course, are Iraqis. They are spoken of with distrust and fear, referred to as "Hajis" or other uncomplimentary names.

Here and at other bases, Americans tried to contract business out to Iraqi firms, but after their workers were targeted for assassination, interest flagged on both sides.

Occasionally, small groups of Iraqis are brought in to sweep or clip the date palms. They toil in the sun at gunpoint, under the watchful eye of military escorts.

Once a week the command opens an Iraqi bazaar where real Iraqis come to sell souvenirs and crafts. A large sign outside proclaims "No Bargaining," thus prohibiting the social interaction integral to a Middle East marketplace.

Among the relentless sea of camouflage uniforms, there are bits of unconventional color. Ugandans stand guard at dining facilities, gyms and the movie theater. Convoy drivers are Bangladeshi or Nepalese; they wear white balloon trousers and tunics and thick beards and will not speak English. At a briefing, a Defense Department civilian showed up in camouflage fatigues and a ponytail down past his shoulders. The Red Cross representative here, a frail-looking civilian, also wears baggy battle fatigues.

Down at the cement factory, operations are supervised by a demonstrative young Turkish woman who favors skin-tight jeans, cowboy boots and strategically tight white blouses. Soldiers try to find an excuse to drop by.

Otherwise, the monotony slowly builds stress. Days stretch out in a haze of heat and dust. The chow hall menu rotates predictably - if it's Thursday, it's chicken-fried steak - and everyone usually eats in the same section of the same one of four dining facilities, vast rooms of long tables under giant flat-screen TVs tuned to the Armed Forces Network.

Every day pretty much unrolls like the previous one, whether your job is tracking convoys, logging inventory or preparing the daily intelligence briefing for air crews. Families are close by e-mail or phone and sometimes too close: you can sympathize with a $700 brake job on the family car but you can't do much about it. And there is the guilt of missing birthdays, graduations and the unimportant events that make life precious.

And there is the overriding stress of being at war: Everyone's job is critical, and everyone is mindful that a mistake could cost someone his life, outside the wire.

"There is zero tolerance for error," says Air Force Lt. Col. Pat Pollock, who supervises the ground crews who keep C-130s flying with critical war supplies.

"This isn't like the old days where you'd say to a non-performer, 'Hey, we'll work with you.' No. You gotta rise to the occasion."

david.wood@baltsun.com

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