RUMAYLAH, IRAQ — I’ve just set foot in Iraq for the first time and visited the last two burning oil fires in the south (as well as one successfully extinguished). Considering Saddam torched something like 1,000 oil wells on his way out of Kuwait a dozen years ago, it is remarkable that only a few were set on fire, and only two remain alight.
We crossed the checkpoint — manned by a lone British outpost whose guard was ecstatic when given a cold Coke — into the barely noticeable DMZ (zigzag obstacle course through a sand berm), and then, somewhat anticlimactically, we found ourselves in Iraq. The only sign of the country is a cardboard sign hammered to a stake in the ground, handwritten: “WELCOME TO IRAQ. 4th MARINE DIVISION.”
A few short feet later, two signs (also cardboard and handwritten, withering in the desert sun): “Wheels” and “Tracks” (with arrows pointing each way; not quite like the “Richmond/Baltimore” choice you see on the Capital Beltway) mark the dirt-road drive north. There is no palpable sense that this is either a war zone or “Saddam Territory.”
The term “godforsaken country” comes to mind. For miles, not a living being is visible, but for the occasional camel or stray dog. There is neither sight nor sound of war. The peaceful, barren sand is dotted with tiny green clusters of vegetation. It is hard to believe that death, destruction, and fierce battles have been seen only 50 miles away in recent days, in Basra.
President Bush would be right at home here, as the landscape resembles nothing so much as Midland/Odessa, in West Texas. When we get near the oil wells, we even see pickup trucks with Texas license plates and mud flaps! Boots and Coots (no kidding) is the Houston-based civilian outfit hired to fix the wells.
The two fires, separated by just a few miles, are visible from many miles away over the flat desert horizon. These manmade towering flames (one black, one orange) conjure up all the biblical and literary imagery one can imagine (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gehenna, Dante’s Inferno, etc.). As we get closer, the temperature inside the vehicle rises considerably. When we walk toward the fire, the heat is so intense that we have to hide behind small metal buildings several hundred yards away to stand the heat, yet Kuwait heavy-machinery operators do their business far closer than we dare stand. They warned us not to veer off the “cleared” (mine-free) path.
On the drive through the countryside, we saw just two Bedouin tribesmen and camel herdsmen who gave very friendly waves. They are apparently indifferent to the flames raging around them. Obviously, this is far from enough contact with locals to draw any conclusions about support for the Coalition.
Having stuck my big toe in Panmunjom, North Korea, last August, I’ve now been in (albeit barely) two-thirds of the “Axis of Evil.” Such ordinary land under the thumb of extraordinary tyrants.
— Major Gregory C. McCarthy is stationed with CENTCOM in Kuwait.