Airlift for Paratroops a Million-Pound Daily Deal

By Steve Vogel

BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq, March 30 -- The first Air Force C-17 Globemaster III of the night could be heard but not seen, until its silhouette finally appeared against a ridgeline as it touched down. Marshals on the taxiway waved orange glow sticks like conductors, and a forklift whose driver wore night-vision goggles closed in on the aircraft.

The plane's ramp dropped, revealing an interior bathed in soft red light. Pallets of equipment, two Humvees, two five-ton trucks and two dozen infantry soldiers carrying M-4 rifles came off the aircraft. Two more C-17s that landed minutes behind the first were unloaded at the same time.

In 24 minutes, all three planes were back in the air, replaced on the ground within five minutes by two more C-17s.

More than a million pounds of equipment has been flown into the Bashur airfield every day since 1,000 paratroops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into northern Iraq Wednesday. The number of troops here has more than doubled since. The light infantry brigade is building power, allowing it to launch operations that could include a move southwest in the direction of Iraqi forces.

U.S. airstrikes against Iraqi positions along the dividing line with the Kurdish autonomous zone have been increasing in intensity in recent nights, according to officers here. Orange flashes have been visible at night over the mountains to the southwest.

"We're here to stabilize the region," said Lt. Col. Randy George, executive officer for the brigade. "If we have to conduct offensive operations, we will."

In the coming days, Air Force security forces will begin manning checkpoints around the airfield now operated by Army soldiers. "We will assume that role so they can concentrate on their main mission -- move out and make contact with the enemy," said Col. Steven Weart, commander of the 86th Contingency Response Group, the Air Force unit overseeing unloading operations here.

The unit was created four years ago because of the U.S. military's experience in the Balkans. Logistical hang-ups convinced Air Force leaders of the need to create a force under a single commander whose mission would be to open airfields for expeditionary forces.

"Our job is to get the ground-pounders their equipment so they can get out and do their mission," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Braune, 26, a forklift operator from Three Rivers, Tex.

The massive airlift is taking place at a primitive strip that is changing rapidly. A fleet of bulldozers and dump trucks, operated by Kurds and U.S. soldiers, pushed dirt and laid gravel in a field adjacent to the runway, creating staging areas for the vehicles and equipment still being flown in. Tents are springing up all around the airfield, along with satellite dishes, generators and a forest of antennas.

"We're spreading our wings a little bit," said George.

A brigade officer has flown in with $500,000 in cash to buy supplies from the Kurds -- from vehicles to gravel to a freezer to store blood for the surgical team. "We have money to spend," said Lt. Col. David Coburn, the brigade comptroller.