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The Birmingham Post-Herald March 12, 2003

Alabama on cutting edge

Experts: State unit may build U.S. military base in Iraq

By Thomas Hargrove

WASHINGTON - U.S. military strategists are scrambling to develop new and perhaps revolutionary military tactics now that the Turkish Parliament has refused to let U.S. forces use Turkey as a base for attacking northern Iraq.

That's probably why the Pentagon has ordered the activation of the Alabama Army National Guard's 877th Engineering Battalion, a 620-man unit of construction workers from rural northwest Alabama who know how to build airport runways even in the wilderness, according to two military experts.

"Activation of a specialty reserve unit this late usually means that an unforeseen problem has arisen," concluded Loren Thompson, military analyst for Washington-based Lexington Institute consulting group.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and state Guard Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen issued a joint announcement early Tuesday that the battalion was being called up for a classified "final deployment location at an overseas location."

Until this week, the Pentagon had slowed its activation orders of reserve units, suggesting most of the needed troops for a second war with Iraq were in place or soon would be.

But the U.S. Army's plans were changed dramatically when Turkish lawmakers refused to grant permission for tens of thousands of men and pieces of military equipment to pour through Turkey en route to oil-rich northern Iraq. If war becomes inevitable, Pentagon officials repeatedly have said they want to approach Baghdad simultaneously from the south and the north.

"In the end, we will have U.S. forces in northern Iraq one way or the other," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers vowed last week.

Yet northern Iraq currently can be reached only through Syria, Turkey or Iran. That is, of course, if troops and equipment are moved by land.

"What might unfold in northern Iraq could very well presage a new style of warfare where we use mobile and lightly armed units on the ground," said military analyst John Hillen, a decorated Army veteran from the first Persian Gulf War.

Hillen said the Army would have to "establish in the middle of nowhere a forward-area refueling base" in northern Iraq so helicopter gunships as well as air-ferried tanks and armored personnel carriers could land and prepare to attack central Iraq from the north. He said such a base, constructed deep into enemy territory and supported primarily from the air, would be a remarkable military accomplishment.

"My guess is that airfields are going to need to be constructed in the Kurdish portions of Iraq in order to compensate for lack of access to Turkish bases," Thompson said.

Northern Iraq is dominated by the Kurds, a minority group that has suffered brutal reprisals under Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. United Nations observers have reported several Kurdish villages were destroyed by Iraqi use of chemical weapons during the 1980s. The Kurds are likely to be open to requests from the U.S. Army for rapid development of military bases in their territories, military experts agree.

"This thing has become more complicated than the Manhattan Project," Thompson said, referring to the secret development of the atomic bomb during World War II. "But the good news is this: Not only do we have the capability to have a northern front without Turkey, but it gives us more leverage to keep the Turks out of the Kurdish areas."

Both Turkey and Iraq claim the Kurdish people and are opposed to any creation of a Kurdish homeland.

Thompson said construction of forward bases deep into Iraq also would allow the Army to employ its decades-old dream of a "vertical envelopment" battle in which U.S. troops flank their enemy not by going around him but by flying over him with helicopters and air-deployed ground forces.

There is no guarantee that Alabama's 877th Engineering Battalion would be tagged to build a forward base in northern Iraq, experts said. They may have been activated to free up other construction groups already near Iraq.

And not all military experts were in agreement about the meaning of the Alabama deployment.

"My guess is that the military is getting ready for a postwar environment," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, a consultancy group. "A considerable amount of concrete will have to be poured, and we will need a lot of engineer skills."

But Thompson discounted notions that the 877th would be used in reconstruction.

"That work is going to be awarded to private contractors. And this (airport construction) is not a standard logistics activity associated with the military campaign plan, because those details were worked out months ago," he said.

"This deployment looks like something new that has arisen at the last minute, possibly due to political problems."

The battalion is based in Hamilton with detachments in Sulligent, Guin, Winfield, Berry, Vernon, Millport, Fayette and Carbon Hill, state officials said.

They described the unit as "a combat heavy battalion with both horizontal and vertical construction capabilities. The unit has bulldozers, road scrapers, packers and other equipment to construct roads, airfields, landing zones and similar projects. The unit also has vertical construction capabilities and can erect fixed buildings for all purposes."

"The battalion has been called to active duty for a period of up to one year," the officials said.

Copyright 2003, Birmingham Post Co.