101st Bringing Trains Back on Track in Iraq

Army News Service and The Cross-Tie

MOSUL, Iraq – With a bit of Iraqi industriousness and some help from the 101st Airborne Division, the trains are again rolling northern Iraq.

The first train, from Syria, rolled into Iraq July 30. Despite a slight delay, residents of Rabiyah, an Iraqi border town of 25,000 residents, were delighted with the service.

“It brings us to the future, this train,” Mohsin al Naif, a leader of the Schamar tribe that has strong ties with Rabiyah, told The Associated Press. “We are bound by blood on both sides of the border.”

Only days before, there were no trains running, the station was trashed and the division had to keep a heavy presence to prevent further looting. Akhmed was originally reluctant to step outside the restraints of the previous regime – or he may not have known how to, said Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, 101st assistant division commander of operations.

At Mosul’s primary train station on April 28, Freakley held the third of a series of meetings with the station’s manager, Akram Akhmed.

“We started these meetings with a desire to restore train services to Mosul … so the full restoration of passenger service, cargo service and fuel service can be made,” Freakley said on April 28.

“He said he could not open up because he had no authority,” Freakley said. “I asked him, ‘do you have the authority to hire workers?’ He said yes, and I said, ‘you have all the authority you need.’”

Akhmed only asked the division to provide security while his own men made the necessary repairs, so on Sunday, soldiers of 2nd Brigade, 101st division, provided security on the trains as they made their runs to ensure the tracks and trains are stable.

Train security is not something they’ve done before, but they were “fired up” and learned quickly, Freakley said.

“We’re providing security to ensure there’s no criminal acts or vandalism,” he said. “The (2nd Brigade) proved they’re fairly adaptable to being a security force on the trains.”

Freakley said the soldiers would only be riding the rails until the railway workers feel it is safe to operate away from the shelter of U.S. forces.

“I don’t sense the 101st has a long-term security commitment here,” he said. “As (the locals) gain confidence we’ll be able to say 10 soldiers today, five soldiers tomorrow, one soldier the next day and none the week after that.”

The trains need to become operational in order to help stimulate the economy and bring in necessary humanitarian supplies such as food, medicine and fuel, Freakley said. The demand for propane, which citizens use for cooking, has gotten so bad that people have begun to protest, Freakley said.

“He (Akhmed) has thirty 35-foot propane tanks,” Freakley said. “He could alleviate that (demand) by getting the train running. If the rail lines are good and if the main production line is open, he will move propane in.”

As the trains start moving, national commerce will begin to flow again and people will be able to travel from town to town on the rails for the first time without needing a permit from the government. Also, the 101st will also be able to give the local economy a shot in the arm by contracting the trains to bring supplies from Baghdad to Mosul and truckers to transport the supplies to the division’s camps, Freakley said.

“It takes the wear and tear off of our equipment and it fuels the economy,” he said.

Freakley said he had observed a strong will in the Iraqi people to get things done. Though it was dampened by the rules of the Ba’ath Party regime, the people only need a little encouragement to take in hand what is theirs and make it work.

“There’s a guy who opened a cafe inside the train station and he sells soda and chips," he said. “He came to me and asked me if he could open the cafe, and I said, ‘you have to talk to the manager.’ The manager asked me what to do, and I said, ‘Tell him it’s okay.’”

Freakley, who praised Akhmed’s leadership and desire, said Akhmed now plans to travel to Baghdad and use his experience gained from working with the 101st and restore the trains there.

It’s not clear yet how soon the trains will be able to bring relief to Mosul.

“All the lines seem okay, and the trains seem okay,” Akhmed said. “But we can’t start now because the station itself is not ready.”

Akhmed said many of the station’s workers, who stopped working when the regime fell, have not returned yet.

“We need to make the workers come back as soon as we can,” he said.

Working side by side with Akhmed and the other locals and providing a safe environment for rebuilding, the division hopes it can help people’s confidence in the post-Saddam city structure, Freakley said.

“All this is about the restoration of faith and confidence,” Freakley said. “The 101st is all about restoration.”

PFC James Matise of the Army News Service contributed to this report.