Friday, February 8, 2008

The War at the BOR

February 8, 2008

Often, it seems, the busiest soldiers in Iraq enjoy the sparest living conditions. There is a small patrol base set up on the property of the Bayji Oil Refinery (the BOR) where soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade live and breathe Iraq’s most valuable resource. Commanding Officer Captain Joe DaSilva and Captain Steve Wright know more than most of us would ever imagine a soldier should have to know about oil production and distribution. And the soldiers of the 1st Battalion’s HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company) work to ensure that all runs smoothly at the BOR, which keeps them busy. Very busy.
A typical day begins with a trip to the gate, the entrance to the BOR, where soldiers from the Iraqi Army (IA) manage the traffic into and out of the facility. Some Iraqi soldiers are more driven than others. These guys are flagging. Indeed, a meeting conducted over orange drink juice boxes confirmed that there were morale issues, related mostly to staffing and equipment shortages, and also a general malaise perhaps associated with always being surrounded by gas, living in a world lit day and night by gas. Excess propane is burned around the clock, at least one precise orange flame always beating like a silk flag atop a tower visible from miles away.
Each of Iraq’s provinces has a specific day (or days) when they are permitted to send tanker trucks to the BOR to be filled with gas or another refined product. The Iraqi soldiers must guard against trespassers; attempts to breach the system are frequent. Truckers try to get in out of turn, civilians try to get in though only select civilian vehicles are supposed to be allowed through the gate, everyone has an angle or an excuse, all of which seem to weaken the IA’s resolve.
Soldiers like Lieutenant Michael Saur, who during this visit found himself nursing a cold as well as the IA, listen to the issues and concerns raised by the IA, and try to help them strive for a higher standard of performance in spite of the obstacles.
In addition to monitoring gate security, our soldiers also pay regular and frequent visits to the pumps where the tankers trucks line up and wait. The trucks are there for hours, giving the soldiers an opportunity to see what the drivers have to say. Some complain of being forced to pay for their space in line. Apparently someone claiming to be a guard has positioned himself outside the gate and convinced the drivers it would be easier to pay than protest. Now the soldiers will have to develop a strategy for preventing extortionists from interrupting the flow of traffic to the BOR.
There is no more valuable and plentiful product in Iraq than the gas that leaves the Refinery every day in tanker trucks. Terrorists, government officials, gas station owners, and of course the truck drivers themselves are unable to resist the money and the power that comes with controlling where the gas goes. One of the ongoing challenges facing Captains DaSilva and Wright involves accounting for all of the gas that is pumped into those tanker trucks.
When a truck is filled up, the amount of fuel it receives is recorded. When the truck arrives at its destination, most often a gas station, the amount of fuel it delivers is recorded. These numbers should be the same, but funny things happen, and a simple math equation becomes a convoluted word problem. Sometimes the number itself is recorded but the truck leaves without delivering the fuel to the gas station, and it is sold on the black market instead.
It should be easy to spot discrepancies, but when they are discovered, the drivers and gas station owners questioned, even arrested, the punishment is never so severe as to act as a deterrent. And with so much money at stake, it is possible to buy one’s way through the system, a system which seems deliberately primitive and flawed.
The Chief Operating Officer of the BOR, Mr. A---, himself a study in refinement, acknowledges the corruption but there is little he can do about it. He is responsible for production, not distribution. Still, he knows that any truck leaving the Refinery might be a player in one of Iraq’s biggest problems, carrying the product that should be the solution to all of its problems.
Mr. A--- himself feels pressure from all sides. His job is to make sure the Refinery runs at or near capacity. He has succeeded. But buried in the fine print of his job description, written in invisible ink, is the ever-growing list of people he must try to please, or try not to anger, or try to work with rather than fight against. These people make outrageous demands, asking for everything from furniture to cars, demands he says he tries to meet about fifty percent of the time. “I cannot refuse all the time. I cannot agree all the time,” he explains in his perfect English.
Captain Ali, head of Bayji’s ESU (Emergency Services Unit), a specially trained branch of the Iraqi Police Force, is as fiery and intense as Mr. A--- is cool and collected. Lieutenant Trent Teague and members of his platoon visited Captain Ali at his home, which has the feeling of a men’s club with an edge. Members of the ESU hang on the perimeter of the room as if waiting to receive orders. On the walls are pictures of relatives and ESU members killed in the line of duty. Recently a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) exploded near Captain Ali’s house, killing many civilians and one of his men.
The violence and losses Captain Ali has experienced seem to have galvanized him. “His heart is dead; he has no fear,” says Fadi, one of our interpreters, and he appears not to, ready to name names, ready to take on anyone he sees as doing wrong. He embraces the American soldiers, happy to have an ally in his war.
During our visit, Captain Ali’s young nephew wandered into the living room and over to his uncle, who pulled him into his lap and held onto him as if trying to recapture his own boyhood innocence, which he undoubtedly lost too soon. The boy sat silently while his uncle discussed the death and violence that fill his world, and it looked like the boy’s days of innocence would be cut short too.
The HHC soldiers who call the patrol base at the Bayji Oil Refinery home are fighting a different kind of war. The enemy is corruption. The enemy is everywhere. Even the otherwise innocent people who buy black market gas from the boys who sell it on the side of the road are helping the enemy. The only way to make headway against so relentless and pervasive an enemy is to be equally relentless and pervasive. This means maintaining a constant presence in and around the BOR. This means frequent foot patrols and meetings with Refinery personnel and security forces. This means there is very little time off, very little time for the soldiers to realize how much they are doing without.

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