Trying to Build Trust Along the Iraqi-Syrian Border

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Army photo / Spc. Venessa Hernandez

A U.S. soldier uses the Hide system to check a suspected terrorist's identification in Saab Al Bour, Iraq, in February 2010.

Army Major Phil Nicklas spent much of 2008-2009, on the second of his three combat deployments, with a U.S. Military Transition Team along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In this November 2012 interview, here, with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he discusses the challenges of being four hours away from the nearest U.S. outpost, guarding a major international crossing, and dealing with the Iraqis. Highlights:

I was on a MiTT Team (military transition team) built of, it was a twelve man team, mainly of officers and senior enlisted. There were four E7s, those are sergeant first class, there were three captains, one major and a lieutenant colonel, and there was a staff sergeant who was an E6, who was a medic, and we also had one E5, who was a mechanic.

Our job was to work on the Iraq/Syrian border in a town called Rabiyah and it was the only entryway in between Syria and Iraq for quite a few miles.

It was about one-hundred miles from Mosul and it was also near Kurdistan and the closest town in Kurdistan was Dahouk. It was a main crossing area, because it was also near Turkey.

Our job was, we were what’s known as a POETT team, and that’s not a literary writer, It’s a Port of Entry Transition Team, POETT team. What we had to do was, we assisted and worked with three different factions of the Iraqis. They had a border police, the Iraqi Army was also there, and we also worked with the customs. They had a customs house. Now what we also did and we worked with, we had different other U. S. agencies there, other Army units.

There was a BFSB (battlefield surveillance brigade) and they helped us build and put together intelligence, because there was a lot of illegal activity going on, as you can imagine, through a port of entry of about three countries, right there. Our main job each day was to perform biometrics and search everyone that went through the port of entry.

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When we first started we started using a technique of a machine that did fingerprint scanning called a HIDE and it stored all of the fingerprints in a huge large database. Then we could determine who the bad guys were and who wasn’t.

We never did biometrics on any females. It is really a taboo in the Muslim world and it’s offensive to them. We never searched any females. We did have two female Marines that came and worked with some Iraqi female who finally did towards the end of our tour, start searching some females.

Then in the middle of our deployment we switched from the type of biometric of a HIDE to what’s known as a PEER and it took photographs of the iris and scanned it. That was a better database and we could even store that much more information on all of the populace.

So, we went from the HIDE to the PEER. It was definitely a challenge because of so much illegal activity and distrust. When we first got there, they weren’t even doing any biometrics. The house that was on the port of entry was not able to operate and run it, because they generator was broke. I was the S4 of the team and that’s a logistic person, so it was much job to procure this, it was a some type of piece of equipment that needed to go on the generator and I finally got one and I had a gentleman who operated a shop on the compound where we lived.

We lived inside a barn, out of plywood rooms we built ourselves. When we first got there we had no DFAC (dining facility), no showers, we did not have a room. We built our own rooms out of the plywood. We got a contractor out from the nearest FOB to dive and come up and wire it for us. The nearest FOB was four hours away and it was in Talifar, FOB Sykes.

We were literally on our own that far away. He helped me get that. Now the funds that I used to get that, every ninety days I would go to Mosul and they would issues me funds. They were called FOO (field ordering officer) funds and OMA (operations and maintenance) funds and I could use those to procure to buy things to make our living conditions better and anything for operations. So, I think it was about $4000.00 for that part and he got it in Turkey.

When he got it, we got it back, and we got it up and running. After about the first maybe three weeks we were there, we did not do anything, the port was shut down. If we could not perform biometrics, the port was not open.

Once we got it open, we had fifteen interpreters that worked for us. In Iraq normally there are two types of Muslims, there’s the Shiite and then there’s the Sunni. Well, these Muslims were not either one of those. They were from an area in northern Iraq, by Talifar and they were known as Zaidiyyas.

So, there were a different type and they distrusted and didn’t want anything to do with any Sunni or Shiite. When they worked with us out on the port of entry, they completely covered their face and tried to be totally undetectable. There was a lot of fear among them. Now they would come and work with us for twenty-two straight days and then they would go back home for eight and then come back and work for twenty-two straight days…

When we got there in 2008, one of the focus’ of General Petreaus was, he wanted to start shoring up and securing the borders. That is how we would up out on the, as far as away as you could possibly be. It was definitely an experience I will never forget, especially not having any food.

We had to scrounge and put together, because the closest FOB was four hours away. We had three MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle) with us and a trailer.

We also needed mail and that was the closest place, so we would, every ten days or two weeks we would convoy to FOB Sykes, and it was four hours. That was the only place where they had a chow hall and we would get a hot meal, once every two weeks.

Then we would get some food there and I managed to get charcoal and some frozen foods and the Turkish people would bring a semi-tracker trailer truck and they would park it there and it had a refrigerator on it. We could store some of our frozen foods inside this tractor-trailer.

We would cook at night. Use a big bonfire. We built some grates and we put the food on top of the grates over the fire. We used old pallets and we would chop them up with axes and that’s how we used our wood so we could eat…

When we first started we just, like I was saying, we gradually started out just doing the HIDE, then we started gradually going up to where we were searching everything that they had, including phones. We had more sophisticated intelligence. We had people in the BFSB that were located in key position around the port of entry looking for illegal activity.

We had vehicles that were, searched every truck that went in there and had x-ray machines on them that were called backscatter vans, ZBVs, they were a little over a million dollars apiece. We got those when we first got there and they x-rays every truck that came through there. Then we also worked with, we had the Special Forces there, but they were not called Special Forces, they were called ODAs (operational detachments augmentees). Then we also worked with CIA. A little bit of all of us there…

The ODA lived in a barn like ours, but not with us. They were separate; they kind of liked to do their own things. The CIA we never knew where they were at. They would just show up.

[What was your most difficult challenge?]

Oh, working with the Iraqis. They had a lot of distrust. The way that I learned to work with them was, we would sit down, and they liked to drink what known as chai. It is hot tea with a little sugar in it. So you would come over and we would drink chai and we would build, relationship building.

At first I did not realize quite how to do it and I got much better at it, but my counterpart, his names was Major Daya, and he was the S4 of the team. He was a farmer that lived near Mosul and had a family of five children and so, every day when we would start out our discussions and drink the chai, I would always ask him how his family was. How he is doing?

Then he would always ask him how my family was, but I had my family in Hawaii – my wife and daughter and son. He would always ask me, “How are they in Hawaii? How is everything going?” Then once we establishing and building a rapport and trust, then it got easier to work together and for me to help him…

It took several months. The previous team before me did not have quite such a good trust.

Matter of fact the port of entry had been closed for quite some time before we got there because a Muslim male, around the middle of March, inside the biometrics house, blew himself up and killed fourteen people.

Did not kill and Soldiers, but injured several. The port was shut down for many months until we got there, so it was not a good situation and we had to kind of build it up from that devastating bombing that day…

I had an interpreter with me, the Zaidiyyas, my interpreter his name was Bearcat. Bearcat was kind of different. He lived in a town close to Talifar and he had six or seven children, but a lot of time it was very difficult for me to tell if he was telling him exactly what I wanted him to say.

Sometimes I felt that Bearcat was telling him what he wanted him to say, instead of what I wanted. I felt that was a huge barrier.

[Do you think that happened with a lot of interpreters?]

Oh, yeah. Now they were all hired and worked for a company that paid them about $900.00 per month, because the gentleman who ran the company would come from the nearest FOB, four hours away in Talifar.

Once a month he would pay them in cash, $900.00, in U. S. cash. They had to apply and pass a background check before they could come and work for this company.

We fired a couple of them. One of them, we found out, was taking money from people that were trying to come onto the port. He would stamp their passports for a fee and let them come through and we found out and caught him and he was fired. That was another case of the distrust and some of the illegal activity going on…

Again, it is a very difficult job to do when you are just there to advise and assist. The enforcement part, we could not really enforce too much, because it was their country. Again, only there to advise and assist.

Very easy to do it for them and they would go out of their way to let you do it for them if you wanted to. They would just sit back and relax all day. It was so hard and frustrating, because their culture is completely and totally different than ours.

They like to take a lot of breaks. Every afternoon at 1:00 that is it, they do not work. They all go lay down and take naps. During Ramadan, oh my God, you could never get any other them to do anything. You could just forget about it. They are not going to do nothing. They go, “No, no, it’s Ramadan. I cannot do anything today, Major Nicklas. No, no.”

It was frustrating. I had to learn their days compared to ours. Their days off is on Friday. Their Friday is our Sunday. So, we had to adjust and work to fit they Muslim lifestyle and culture.

[Were you concerned for your personal safety?]

Yes, definitely, every day. We had full gear, everything on. Radio, I had an M4 and I had a 9 mm, both loaded. You would never walk out and go into the port of entry without you radio, without letting someone know inside of our TOC (tactical operations center) that we were going onto the port.

When you went onto the port, we had Marines there with us and Marines were in the guard towers and we would tell them when we were going on and how many were with us.

We had complete, all of the force protection measures with us. Also, let the other Soldiers with the BFSB know that we were on the port, so they were all looking around. They also had listening devices that were scattered and cameras all over the port of entry. I am not sure if I can say this, but they had listening devices that could convert from Arabic into English around the port…

The last thing is we finally got what is known as a MKT (mobile kitchen trailer) and that brought four Army cooks. When I left, they had an MKT and they were feeding us…

If we did not supply generators, we would have been in big trouble. Now, we also had them put portable heaters and air conditioners in our room, we had KBR come in when they wired and they put them in, so they helped us. Then they also brought us shower trailers. I guess the toilet trailer, I don’t know what you want to call it. Anyway, when I started we were outside, no water, well, we had bottled water, but they were on pallets. It was, we were I would call it an austere environment…

I had all that done in a year. It was good. I worked really hard with my counterpart to build trust. They had received all new uniforms. They had a lot of ammunition and weapons, but they never fired any ammunition.

We could not get them to practice firing. The reason why is because they hold on to this ammunition because it is a sign of power and if they go out and fire, they wanted us to provide the ammo for them to go and fire their AK-47s…

We did a lot of key leader engagement training and worked on how to talk to them. A lot of their cultures, values, what they respect, and we tried to not do or say anything that would be offensive to them.

They did not like us coming in, it was really offensive to them if I would come in with the M4. They really did not like the M4. I had to put it down and then underneath, I would always sit on the couch where Major Daya’s office was, my counterpart, and I would have to slide my M4 underneath the couch. I still remember that to this day. I had my 9 mm right here with me, but the M4 was offensive to them.