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Along The Silk Road, Troops Find Hope
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HATRA, IRAQ --- Remains of the giant columns, temples and fortifications of the 2,600-year-old city of Hatra tower over the Iraqi desert.

This was a major city along the Silk Road. Hatra sent caravans of traders throughout the Middle East with spices, woodwork and gems. It was a tolerant center of diverse religions that twice repulsed Roman invaders.

Now the 1st Battalion of the 37th Field Artillery Regiment from Fort Lewis does daily combat patrols in the area, and religious tolerance is hard to come by. Just a month ago, a suicide car bomber killed several people in the neighboring settlement of al-Hatra.

But the U.S. soldiers draw inspiration from the beautiful ruins, hoping someday they can be a world-renowned center of tourism.

"It's remarkable that it's still standing in a place of pretty much chaos," said Capt. Alex Aquino, a 26-year-old who lived in Tacoma before the Stryker brigade deployed in July. "It's like there is some hope, if this thing can last after all the stuff that has happened in Iraq."

The places where Fort Lewis and other U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq are exceptionally rich in history. Cities might be garbage-strewn battle zones now, but this is still Mesopotamia, known as the cradle of civilization.

"It kind of makes you feel like you are not just in a counterinsurgency fight but something real, with some historic significance," said Lt. Col. Ken Kamper of DuPont, commander of the artillery unit.

The Mosul area, where most Fort Lewis soldiers in Iraq are stationed, was the capital of the powerful Assyrian empire 700 years before the birth of Christ. Jonah, the biblical figure fabled for being swallowed by a whale, is said to be entombed in a mosque in a dangerous part of Mosul. There's an abandoned Christian monastery dating from sometime before 595 A.D. on Forward Operating Base Marez, where Fort Lewis soldiers in Mosul live. The chaplain gives tours.

Academics say the Hatra site, 68 miles southwest of Mosul, is arguably the most spectacular archaeological site in Iraq. It is one of two places in this country to be designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. The other is the city of Ashur, the capital of ancient Assyria.

Hatra, mostly built of limestone and gypsum, blends Greek, Roman and Arab architecture. Remains of public baths, statues and defensive towers give a feel for its former grandeur.

It's not known how much more remains underground. About 70 percent of the ancient city's 750 acres have not yet been excavated.

Staff Sgt. Adam Armstrong, a 30-year-old who lives in Puyallup, had his re-enlistment ceremony at Hatra. The inscriptions within the ruins are mostly in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

"I'm a Christian and this is over 2,000 years old," Armstrong said. "Knowing Christ possibly could have walked on these grounds is phenomenal."

Hollywood took note of the ruins in the early 1970s. Hatra is featured in the opening scene of "The Exorcist" as the site where a priest discovers a relic foreshadowing that he will soon be facing evil.

The ruins also are a testament to Saddam Hussein's staggering ego. Saddam ordered that the bricks used in renovating the historic site in the 1990s had to be carved with his initials.

The new era of violence in Iraq has impacted the ruins. A U.N. archeological team investigated the site and found looters damaged two features after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The archeologists also complained the U.S. was threatening the stability of the buildings through the destruction of stockpiles from a nearby Iraqi ammo dump.

"These delicate and sensitive remains are vulnerable to permanent and irreparable damage owing to the detonation of recovered ordnance nearby," Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, wrote the U.S. government in 2004.

The blasts were reduced, and the U.S. and Iraqi forces now have secured relative calm in this area, although insurgents operate not far away.

Archaeologists still find Hatra too dangerous for excavations, and few visitors come to the site.

"If they fix it we can have tourists and stuff like the way we used to have," said Mahamed Hamed Al Ahmade, an Iraqi policeman who helps guard the Hatra Ruins. "Before the (Saddam) regime fell, people used to come from all over the world."

Local sheiks have asked the Fort Lewis soldiers to help protect the Hatra site. Kamper's artillery battalion does a lot of reconstruction work in this rural region because it is more stable than Mosul or Baghdad.

The Stryker brigade troops said they want to add Hatra protection to the list, although a bid for a security fence came in too high at $700,000. The unit is working on other ways to secure the site. Major attack on U.S. base foiled, say commanders

MOSUL, IRAQ -- Fort Lewis commanders here say U.S. and Iraqi forces foiled a major assault on the base last week.

On Thursday, the night of the attack, Fort Lewis officers reported they hunted down and killed two insurgents firing mortars at the base. They said then that Iraqi army and police also captured and detained several people.

But further information developed over recent days suggests it was an attempt at a bigger attack, Fort Lewis officials based in Mosul said.

"It seems to have been probably more complex and coordinated than we first thought," said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Regiment -- part of the Tacoma-based Stryker Brigade.

Huggins said he believes insurgents had planned to make it inside Forward Operating Base Marez, where the Fort Lewis soldiers live.

"In an attempt to do -- I'm not sure exactly what -- kidnap an American or just have a spectacular attack," Huggins said.

The base is surrounded with guard towers and concrete barriers, and Stryker leaders say such an attack would be suicide.

Commanders said a clearer picture of the incident is coming together through reports from Iraqi army and police, interrogations of detainees, and a deeper analysis of what happened that night.

The number of U.S. wounded also has changed since the night of the attack, when the Army reported only minor U.S. injuries from the mortars. Officials now say there were three severe injuries, although identities are not being released.

Fort Lewis officers said they believe insurgents planned to ambush U.S. forces as they came out of the base to respond to the mortar attacks, but the Iraqi army thwarted the ambush.

Iraqi army and police ended up detaining around 100 people on that and subsequent nights, according to the latest information from the Army.

Iraqi and U.S. forces also reported seizing major weapons caches, including rifles, mortar systems and rockets.

The scout platoon of 2-3 infantry, led by Lt. Blake Hall of Lakewood, rolled up on the insurgent mortar attackers when they were only a third of the way through with their rounds.

Hall and his men killed two insurgents, seized their mortar systems, and sent others fleeing into a house where they were captured by the Iraqi army.

Sean Cockerham
The News Tribune

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