The latest report on several hundred American military contractors, trapped and sometimes under fire since Wednesday at the Balad air base north of Baghdad, is that at least some of them have been evacuated to safety by Iraqi forces. That’s the good news.
Multiple sources indicate that several hundred contractors and U.S. government personnel were at the Balad base preparing for a delivery of F-16s to Iraq. (The Fox story alludes to quotes from Jen Psaki of the State Department that there could be “thousands” of Americans in-country, although clearly they were not all at Balad.)
“Three planeloads” of these passengers were flown out of Balad on Thursday, but reportedly, some 400-500 were still at Balad on Thursday night.
At CNN’s iReport website, a contractor’s urgent message from inside the Balad base was posted early on Friday:
I am writing from ballad Iraq as a employee of sallyport, ksillc..there are approx 500 US citizens on balad air base north of Baghdad trapped..we are part of a little known F16 iraq support mission here…The company has reportedly for the last 3 days to fly us out, we are now all herded into a central location on base..and being told nothing..The clint lockheed martin, DoS and most women have already been evacuated days ago but we are all still here. I hope this message is received by someone that can break this as headline news to bring attention to the situation for us..we are all worried and in dire straight as last security Intel reports Isis elements around us..
According to the WND report, the remaining contractors had come under fire:
The surrounded Americans said they were under ISIS fire from small arms, AK47s, and rocket propelled grenades, or RPGs.
The contractors had been able to hold the base, but those on the scene reported it was only a matter of time before the ISIS terrorists succeeded in breaking through the perimeter. The sources confirmed the contractors were still under siege, despite an Associated Press report Thursday, citing U.S. officials, that three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from Balad.
Balad Air Force Base has been under attack since Wednesday, when ISIS rebels seized the nearby town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
The attacking ISIS forces approached the base in trucks Wednesday and called through loudspeakers for all private security forces and Iraqi special military to leave immediately or die.
The U.S. private contractors in touch with WND reported that after hearing the broadcast, the private security forces and the Iraqi military defending the base dropped their weapons and ran.
The American contractors collected the weapons left behind and were able to hold off further immediate advances.
The posture of the U.S. Air Force in theater was described thus by the contractors on site:
WND learned from sources that the jihadists closed down escape routes, and the U.S. Air Force was in a stand-down position. U.S. forces were not assisting even with air cover so a private extradition flight could land for a rescue, the sources said.
(Note: the term “extradition” is used inaccurately in this last sentence. Evacuation or extraction would be more correct.)
Privately scheduled exit flights had fallen through, sources said, as several private pilots originally scheduled to make the flights quit.
The sources contended the U.S. military could provide the necessary air cover to protect C-130s or other air transport craft sufficient to make the evacuation, but [so] far officials had refused to get involved.
At this point, reporting is sketchy, and we don’t know what posture was ordered by the CENTCOM Commander or Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. On-scene reports in the heat of the crisis should be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, there is no reason to doubt the basic facts that (a) American contractors have been trapped on the Iraqi base, which has been surrounded by guerrilla terrorists, since Wednesday; and (b) there has been no response by U.S. forces to secure the base (i.e., long enough to get our people out) or provide evacuation services directly.
What U.S. forces would we have to do this with? Interestingly, a theater response force intended to be used for such purposes was designated in 2013, sourced from the 15,000 Army troops stationed in Kuwait for regional contingency responses. Army units rotate through Kuwait to keep the force at its prescribed troop level. The basic quick-response force is a company-size unit with the following resources:
ARCENT [U.S. Army Command, Central Region] can scale any contingency response up to the brigade level… There also is a combat aviation brigade deployed to Kuwait, giving the force additional capability as needed… The CAB currently in Kuwait is the 36th CAB, from the Texas National Guard.
“We have multiple response capability within the ARCENT footprint,” [a spokesman] said. “We can gin up a scalable force beyond the company that’s designated, which gives us a unique capability in our AOR.”
The Army response force would be the obvious candidate for securing the Balad base to evacuate Americans through it. We don’t know if it was put on alert, or if it was decided, in the last 48 hours, that deploying it would be unnecessary. On the face of it, I would want any decision one way or the other looked into, given that Americans were trapped at Balad under fire and didn’t know if they were going to receive help or not.
The Air Force, meanwhile, has a variety of assets at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, including F-15s and F-16s, which can provide air support, and C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft. Refueling tankers and reconnaissance aircraft are also based at Al Udeid. The distance from Al Udeid to Balad is about 800 statute miles (1290km/700 nautical miles). (From Camps Buehring and Arifjan in Kuwait to Balad is between 400 and 500 miles, or 640-800km/350-430 NM.)
There is no Navy-Marine Corps amphibious ready group (ARG) in the CENTCOM theater right now. The USS Bataan (LHD-5) ARG and 22 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are in the Europe/Africa theater at the moment. ARG/MEUs are specially trained to conduct and support evacuations like the one needed by the Americans in Iraq, but the force isn’t in theater and able to respond. The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and embarked air wing (Carrier Air Wing 8) have been outside the Persian Gulf in the Arabian Sea, although reporting in the last couple of days has indicated that moving them into the Gulf is under discussion. The Bush’s air wing would be able to provide air support. Navy reconnaissance and transport assets based in Bahrain could also be used in some roles to support an evacuation of Americans from Iraq.
It’s important, again, not to jump to conclusions. Reporting on this is sketchy, and we haven’t heard a response from U.S. officials on the report that Americans have been under fire at Balad, and have had to be evacuated by the Iraqis.
Here is the full exchange on the topic of Americans at Balad from the Friday, 13 June State Department briefing:
QUESTION: Okay. And could you just – are you in a position to be able to give us some more details about the evacuation of the airbase yesterday?
MS. [MARIE] HARF [State Department spokeswoman]: A little bit.
QUESTION: Several hundred contractors, American citizens working with American companies who are contracted to the American Government.
MS. HARF: Yes. So we confirmed yesterday that U.S. citizens under contract to the Iraqi Government in support of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program in Iraq are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area. This is the folks that are at Balad. The status of the staffing at the Embassy and consulates has not changed. Of course, we continue to evaluate our security posture. I’m not going to get into details about where they were evacuated or anything of that sort. And obviously they’re private companies, can also – if they want to provide details, can.
QUESTION: And how many were there? Jo mentioned several hundred.
MS. HARF: I don’t have more specifics for you than that.
But this is certainly worth following up on. We had to see this coming, by Tuesday at the latest. We knew then that there were hundreds of Americans at Balad, and that guerrilla jihadists were rolling south along the Tigris toward Tikrit and Balad from Mosul, essentially unopposed. We know the horrific nature of the punishment these guerrillas inflict on their victims, and we know that ISIS issued a special warning to America earlier this year (and that U.S. officials were aware of that warning by at least 5 February 2014).
Given that we also knew the Iraqi forces in Mosul had abandoned their posts and their weapons under the ISIS attack over the weekend, it would seem to be no more than prudent to ensure a U.S. military evacuation of the remaining Americans in ISIS’s path toward Baghdad. With a force like ISIS, you don’t sit around waiting to see if they’re going to start shooting at your people. You go in in force and make them keep their heads down until you’ve gotten everyone out.
That, at least, is what another U.S. administration would do. We can pray for the remaining contractors at Balad — by the count of the personnel evacuated earlier today, it seems to be about 100 of them — along with any other Americans still in Iraq. We can hope everyone gets out safely. The mind boggles at the possibility that we failed, again, to plan for and proactively deal with a foreseeable threat. Maybe worse, the heart sinks.
Update (Saturday A.M., 14 June): I’m not highlighting this update in the headline, because there’s nothing definitive in it. However, I wanted to ensure that the comments I posted in response to reader Xavier were featured for others who may not go through all the comments.
I haven’t been able to get any updates on the situation this morning, about 12 hours later, although a number of (mainly conservative) websites have picked up the story from yesterday.
One of the contractors, Sallyport, has a notice on its main page now that all its employees are in safe places in Iraq. Can’t tell when the notice posted, but it seems to have been overnight.
But Sallyport is just one of the contractors with personnel at Balad. We still don’t know what happened to the 100-200 who remained there after the evacuation reported by WND on Friday.
There’s potential good news for Balad, in that the Iraqi national forces are mustering in Samarra for an assault to retake Tikrit. Samarra is basically between Balad Air Base and Tikrit, and the influx of Iraqi forces may drive whatever ISIS guerrillas are roaming the countryside back into Tikrit, or at least away from Balad. (Assuming the Iraqis had a significant order of battle at Balad when this all broke out, they presumably want to secure the air base anyway, and are probably in the process of doing so. We just don’t have the eyes on the ground to send reports back, and the sketchy news flow from the remaining contractors appears to have dried up.)
*UPDATE 2* Saturday P.M. 14 June: Although there is no word on the status of the contractors who were left in Balad on Friday, this update contains a couple of pieces of slightly more actionable information.
First, the Twitter hashtag under which updates are (very occasionally) being posted is #Balad600. There is very little there since the 13th, but at least it’s a way to stay plugged in.
Second, ABC7 Los Angeles had a report on one of the contractors who had been trying to get out of Iraq. He was able to get from Balad to Baghdad — apparently in the group that was flown out by the Iraqis on Friday — and told his brother, who lives in California, that the reason we’re not hearing anything on social media from Baghdad is that the Iraqi government has clamped down on Facebook and Twitter there. When he left Balad (apparently, again, on Friday), the contractors there still had some access to social media. When he reached Baghdad, there was no access to them for the public.
It may be that the contractors in Balad have lost access to social media as well. We can hope, meanwhile, that they have all gotten as far as Baghdad by now. Reportedly, the contractor featured in the ABC7 story was on his way to Dubai at reporting time.