The latest report on several hundred 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. Thatâ€™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 â€œthousandsâ€ of Americans in-country, although clearly they were not all at Balad.)
â€œThree planeloadsâ€ of these passengers were flown out of Balad on Thursday, but reportedly, some 400-500 were still at Balad on Thursday night.
At CNNâ€™s iReport website, a contractorâ€™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 hereâ€¦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.
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 donâ€™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 levelâ€¦ There also is a combat aviation brigade deployed to Kuwait, giving the force additional capability as neededâ€¦ The CAB currently in Kuwait is the 36th CAB, from the Texas National Guard.
â€œWe have multiple response capability within the ARCENT footprint,â€ [a spokesman] said. â€œWe can gin up a scalable force beyond the company thatâ€™s designated, which gives us a unique capability in our AOR.â€
The Army response force would be the obvious candidate for securing the Balad base to evacuate Americans through it. We donâ€™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 didnâ€™t know if they were going to receive help or not.
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 isnâ€™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 Bushâ€™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.
Itâ€™s important, again, not to jump to conclusions. Reporting on this is sketchy, and we havenâ€™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.