For Some U.S. Troops, Duty in Iraq is Just Beginning
NEAR SAFWAN, Iraq (AP) _ On a windswept hilltop, U.S. Army Capt. Stan Skeldon has just begun filling sandbags, building new shower stalls and swatting scorpions that crawl into the tents at night.
The last U.S. units are preparing this week to leave southern Iraq and its eye-stinging sandstorms. But Skeldon is setting up camp on a small, barren mountain where he has just started his tour as a United Nations peacekeeper.
″Some of the guys thought I was crazy,″ said Skeldon, who volunteered for U.N. service. ″But I’m fond of this place already. We have the best view in the whole DMZ (demilitarized zone).″
Many of his 3rd Army colleagues, deployed from Fort McPherson in Atlanta, flew home several days ago. Skeldon, who has been in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait since January, could have been among them.
Instead, he expects to spend the next six months in the desert.
″I enjoy being out in the field,″ said Skeldon, 30, of Buffalo, N.Y.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 1,440 people from 36 nations, is expected to be fully deployed along the Iraq-Kuwait border by Monday, according to the head of the operation, Maj. Gen. Gunther Greindl of Austria.
A day or two later, the last remaining American troops in southern Iraq - about 5,000 soldiers from the 3rd Armored Division - are expected to depart the border town of Safwan. The Americans have been feeding and protecting more than 11,000 Iraqi refugees now being flown to a new camp in Saudi Arabia.
The Americans have contributed 20 military observers to the U.N. contingent, which for the first time includes soldiers from the five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union and the United States.
U.N. soldiers from the allied coalition now find themselves in the strange position of neutral peacekeepers monitoring territory they were fighting for three months ago.
″It’s definitely a change,″ said Skeldon, who was a security operations officer based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the war.
Now his camouflage fatigues sport the blue-and-white U.N. patch on his left arm to go with the American flag patch on his right.
Skeldon established one of the three initial U.N. observation posts on April 24, and shares a tent with two majors, Yves LeNormand of France and Jawad ul-Islam of Bangladesh.
Rank doesn’t count for much when there’s no one else around.
″We all pitch in,″ said Skeldon. ″The toughest part is just keeping the tent standing.″
Winds gusting at 30 mph are standard on the 500-foot hill, the only visible rise in the endlessly flat desert.
The three are still filling sandbags to keep supplies weighted down. They recently joined forces to pummel a scorpion spotted over LeNormand’s cot.
When the sandstorms die down, Skeldon can take his binoculars up to the U.N. flag flapping on the peak of Jabel Sanam, or Camel’s Hump Mountain, and see the Persian Gulf waters, more than 20 miles to the east.
The hill, two miles inside Iraq, is littered with dozens of abandoned Iraqi bunkers, unexploded ordnance and two burned-out tanks.
Skeldon and other military observers are unarmed. Their duty is limited to monitoring the buffer zone that extends six miles into Iraq, three miles into Kuwait, and runs the entire length of their 120-mile border.
The peacekeepers will rotate to different posts. Skeldon expects to remain part of the U.N. mission until the Security Council reviews the status of the operation after six months.
The three hilltop peacekeepers live off packaged meals. They play cards, listen to the radio and discuss each other’s armies to pass the time.
Despite the panoramic view, Skeldon hopes there won’t be much to see.
Now, he can watch the Americans fly the remaining refugees to Saudi Arabia from the airstrip outside Safwan, several miles to the east. On a recent day, two nomadic Bedouins brought 60 camels to the base of the mountain to graze.
But mostly there is just shifting sand all the way to the horizon.
″We want nothing to happen,″ Skeldon said. ″If nothing happens, that’s good.″