MARY JANIGAN August 29 1988


MARY JANIGAN August 29 1988




The giant C-5 Galaxy transport plane, taller than a three-storey building, landed and thundered along the tarmac at Baghdad airport last week. On board, Canadian Pte. Larry LeClair, 22, awoke from a fitful sleep, dazed from the 12-hour flight from Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont., across the icy Atlantic and southern Europe to war-ravaged Iraq. LeClair had dreamed that he was participating in a training exercise near the Iran-Iraq border. “There was gas,” he recounted, “but I could not get my mask on in time. I woke up holding my breath. My nose and throat felt raw.” Then, LeClair picked up his kit, including the gas mask dangling from a pouch on his left hip, donned his flak jacket and marched off the aircraft into the stifling heat of Baghdad—and into one of the. most hazardous United Nations operations in the international organization’s 43-year history.

War: LeClair was among the first of 498 Canadian soldiers who began to stream into Iran and Iraq last week in preparation for the Aug. 20 ceasefire. More than one million people have died since the brutal Persian Gulf war began in August, 1980—including thousands who perished when Iraq lobbed poison gas at Iranian troops and civilians and at Kurdish rebels fighting to obtain independence from Iraq. Even last week, before the ceasefire, there were unconfirmed reports that Iraq had employed poison gas against the Kurds on Aug. 15. That underlined the fragility of the peace. And the Canadian contingent—which constitutes the bulk of the 24-nation, 850member UN observer mission—embarked, knowingly, on a hazardous operation to observe that peace in the centre of the war zone.

At home, that multimillion-dollar commitment—Canada has not yet tabulated the full cost of the forcegenerated intense debate: should Canada change its long-standing policy of participation in UN observer missions and peacekeeping forces (page 14)? But the official answer, for now, took Canadian forces into the dusty, sweltering confusion of Baghdad and Tehran—and into the volatile zone along the 1,200-km Iran-

Iraq border. Sgt. Jeff Von Hollen, 29, from Maple Creek, B.C., told Maclean's as he arrived in Iraq: “There are all kinds of things just laying on the battlefield, from burned-out tanks to unexploded artillery shells. And no one can convince me that the Kurdish people have forgotten their reason for fighting. The threat is still there.”

Despite that caution, Canadian sol-

diers appeared to be optimistic as they began to disperse throughout Iran and Iraq last week, clutching their blue UN helmets and berets—the traditional marks of the peacekeeper. But as the official ceasefire took effect on Aug. 20, the operation was not yet fully functional. Only half of the Canadian troops were actually in the Persian Gulf region. The airlift of men and supplies by the U.S. air force C-5s, with Canadian C-130 Hercules transports taking over in the ceasefire zone, was scheduled to continue throughout this week (page 17).

That time lag, in turn, ensured that

full squads of Canadian communications experts, a vital link in the UN observer mission, were not at the border for the ceasefire deadline. In Iraq, many Canadian observers left Baghdad for the border on Aug. 18 in freshly painted white Toyota land cruisers provided by the Iraqi army. Iraqi men tossed showers of candy and women chanted a welcome in eerie rhythms as the vehicles pulled out of the sprawling, trafficclogged city. But few communications experts managed to join them before the ceasefire took effect.

Weapons: In Iran, the Canadian communications experts endured further delays when officials insisted that the soldiers enter the country without their rifles. The Iranians also demanded Canadian passports, instead of the traditional UN identification. Canadian soldiers produced the passports—and refused to surrender their weapons. Finally, after protracted negotiations, armed Canadian soldiers began to trickle from Turkey into Tehran and Bakhtaran in western Iran late last week. Maj. Romas Blekaitis, the Canadian who was responsible for assigning the international observer squads to their posts in Iraq, told Maclean's that the UN observers would patrol the g border—even if they lacked § the communications staff to relay ceasefire violations. “The important thing is to get a few blue berets out there,” he said. “We can work things out later.”

Indeed, the ceasefire proved to be a fragile one. Iran, which stalled for a year before it accepted the UN ceasefire resolution, hailed the truce but cautioned that it did not mean an end to the war. As Radio Tehran announced, “Today is no doubt a special day—but implementation of the

ceasefire will not close the file on the war.” Iraq promptly tested the ceasefire by sailing two merchant tankers into the Gulf, the first Iraqi ships in that region since the early years of the conflict. Then, only three hours after the ceasefire took effect, Iraq accused Iran of killing one of its soldiers and harassing one of its ships.

Ceasefire: It was only on Aug. 8 that UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar announced that Iran and Iraq had agreed to an Aug. 20 ceasefire— and to start talks on a permanent peace settlement in Geneva five days later. Within 24 hours, the UN Security Council approved the creation of a 24-nation contingent to monitor that ceasefire, the United Nations IranIraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG). At the same time, Canada contributed 15 men to the 350-person group of unarmed observers in blue berets who will patrol the border between the two nations. Other contributors included Argentina, Italy, Kenya, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Zambia.

Canada, with its long experience as a peacekeeper, volunteered other valuable components to the team: 113

support personnel and a 370-man communications unit. That team must set up the complex radio and code system that the observers will use to communicate with each other, with UN posts in Baghdad and Tehran and with UN headquarters in New York City. Explained Lt.-Col. Alex Morrison, counsellor at Canada’s permanent mission to the United Nations: “We are one of the few countries in the world that has such specialized people in peacekeeping and available on such short notice.”

Landing: The Canadian team needed all its skills to cope with the confusion and bureaucracy in Tehran last week. Six Canadian officers, including the Canadian team’s commander, Col. John Annand—also third-in-command of the whole UN force and the military assistant to the chief military adviser, Yugoslav Maj.-Gen. Slavko Jovic—arrived in Tehran on Aug. 11. But the opera-

tion lost several crucial days during the negotiations over Iran’s refusal to admit 50 Canadian communications experts, their vehicles and their sophisticated equipment as long as they were carrying rifles into the country.

Finally, on Aug. 17, Canada and Iran devised a compromise: the soldiers could take their C-7 semiautomatic rifles into Iran as long as they listed the serial numbers upon entry and kept the weapons out of sight in their vehicles. The next day, the 50 Canadian signallers finally flew into Tehran in a Canadian Hercules from a U.S. base at Incirlik in southeast Turkey—the first of 225 Canadian troops assigned to Iran. Senior UNIIMOG officials in Baghdad last week told Maclean ’s that the delay was apparently created by factions within the Iranian army that “do not want peace.”

Signallers: Meanwhile, in Baghdad, on the banks of the muddy river Tigris, the Canadians grappled with such basics as where the observers and communications staff would work— and live—on the Iraqi side of the border. Blekaitis, 33, assigned most UN observers to the south, near Basra and the Faw Peninsula, the scene of the Gulf war’s heaviest fighting and the greatest concentration of troops. Following Blekaitis’s initial plan, four detachments of observers with their accompanying signallers were assigned to that battle-scarred region.

Two detachments of observers and signallers were assigned to the northern sector of the border, where the Kurdish population is concentrated. Another two detachments were allotted to the central sector. A further two detachments of observers, including Blekaitis, remained temporarily at central headquarters in Baghdad.

Blekaitis emphasized that his plans were sketchy—and that the observers themselves and their radio operators

would decide where they wanted to live and work when they reached the field. He told Maclean’s bluntly: “We can work things out later. We are trying to model this on the UN operation in the Golan Heights, but God only knows. That assumption could be totally off base.”

Safety: One of the observer team’s most difficult problems is establishing the whereabouts of the dividing line between the two forces—and where they should be placing themselves to watch that line in safety. Blekaitis calculated that UN observers would use common sense to find

troop emplacements. “Our job is simply to pick up a pair of binoculars and look around,” he said.

Canadian headquarters personnel faced an array of less momentous, but annoying, problems. The UN set up temporary headquarters in a rambling, two-storey tile-and-stucco building behind an iron fence near the airport. The Iraqis provided steel and wooden desks and installed telephones. Although Blekaitis praised the Iraqis’ efficiency, he noted, “We are still short of supplies—even the menial things like pens and paper.”

Expense: Meanwhile, the first challenge faced by newly arrived soldiers was the fact that life in Baghdad is

expensive. At the official rate of exchange last week, an ordinary lunch cost approximately $20—and the price of hotel rooms was on the same inflated scale. The per diem expense allowance for UN troops is $211. To save money, Canadian observers shared rooms at the Hotel AI Rasheed at $158 per night. Blekaitis said that, eventually, most Canadians at radio detachments and at headquarters would probably rent local houses. Canada has also provided eating facilities in informal mess halls in each of the areas where Canadian forces are stationed.

The logistics to bring those soldiers

to the Gulf were demanding—and influenced by the complications of international politics. Twenty U.S. C-5 Galaxy transport planes last week began a scheduled 24 airlifts from Trenton to Baghdad or Incirlik. Canadian Hercules transports are making the same flight. Because of longstanding animosity between Iran and the United States, the U.S. aircraft will not—and cannot—fly into Iran. As a result, the U.S. transports are ferrying all Canadian equipment and troops destined for Iran to Turkey, where 10 Canadian Hercules aircraft shuttle that cargo into Iran. U.S. officials are loath to leave the Galaxy transports on the tarmac overnight

in Iraq. As a result, a team of U.S. servicemen unload each flight to send the plane home within two hours.

Relations between Canada and Iran have somewhat improved since 1980, when Canadian Ambassador Kenneth Taylor helped to engineer the daring escape of six U.S. Embassy personnel. Canada has announced that it will reestablish diplomatic ties with Iran as early as this fall. The first departure of the main force on Aug. 16 was perhaps the most dramatic. Inside Hangar 2 at CFB Trenton, 15 soldiers in green combat fatigues squatted beside their individual gear: a backpack, a black C-7 rifle and a newly painted pale-blue helmet. Outside, a Galaxy sat on the tarmac, bearing seven Canadian trucks and trailers and five loads of supplies—more than 120,000 lb. of cargo. At 3:45 p.m. the troops boarded.

Warrant Officer Edward Davidson, 45, of Kingston, Ont., kissed his wife, Peggy, as she fought back tears, hugged his sister, Andrea, and slung his rifle over his shoulder. “I miss my wife like everyone else,” he said, “but she understands this is part of military life.” Sgt. Von Hollen, 29, had already parted with his wife, Patricia, at CFB Petawawa,

Ont., that morning. “She took it pretty hard,” he said. “She has our two boys to look after—and another one due in January.”

Poison gas: At 4:30 p.m., the aircraft began the 7,900-mile flight to Iraq. As the Galaxy arched over Labrador, two U.S. tanker aircraft drew ahead, transferring 80,000 lb. of fuel to the transport plane. Over Spain, a massive KC-10 tanker provided another 140,000 lb. of fuel from a long hose trailing from its belly.

On board, the troops kicked off their new lightweight boots—and dozed. Master Cpl.

Fred Meadus, 27, a radio operator from St. John’s, Nfld., wrote to his girlfriend. He ended the letter with a timeless lament: “I miss you, Babe.” The soldiers also discussed their concern about the poison gas employed by the Iraqis. During training prior to their departure, they

had shuffled through chambers clouded by noxious gas, donning their chemicalprotection suits and their gas masks. They had even practised swallowing water with the mask up—then replacing the mask while exhaling to clear out the gas. Davidson confided that those onceroutine drills had assumed vital impor-


The United Nations peacekeeping mission to Iran and Iraq is a drama of troop airlifts and desert deployments. As in any military exercise, much of the expense has little to do with drama. Some of the more unlikely items in the $93-million six-month budget prepared by the office of UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar:

Rental of premises (including office space): $307,500

Office furniture and equipment (including desks,

chairs, paper shredders, desk lamps and fans): $615,000

Utilities (water, electricity and gas—all sites): $123,000

Sanitation and cleaning materials (detergents, dis-

infectants, polish, insecticides, soaps): $30,750

Vehicle insurance (third-party liability): $73,800

Film developing and printing, bank charges, pass-

port expenses, advertising, sundry general repairs: $73,800

General stores (including sleeping bags, flags, United

Nations medals, garbage bags, mosquito netting): $221,400

Official hospitality: $12,300

Newspapers, periodicals, publications: $36,900

Six forklift trucks: $169,700

Vehicle workshop equipment (including drill presses, industrial shelving, jacks and spray painters): $553,500

tance. “This time, people are paying attention,” he said.

When the aircraft finally touched down in Baghdad 12 hours after departure, the aircrew announced that the weather was “clear and 109 degrees” (43°C). That was mild: the average temperature at 3 p.m. is 48°C. The troops glumly noted that their radio equipment gives off heat. Davidson said that the Canadian trucks, loaded with radios and Teletype and cryptographic gear, would resemble “a heated telephone booth.” Then, in deference to the fact that most Iraqis are Moslems, he and Sgt. Von Hollen confiscated the troops’ skin magazines: thumbed copies of Hustler and Penthouse.

Adventure: For the Canadians, it was the start of at least six months of adventure, discomfort—and danger. In New York City, Lt.-Col. Morrison, the counsellor at Canada’s mission, was calm about the Canadians’ risks. “Every so often, you hear the sounds of war,” he said, “but that is all a part of keeping the peace.” Half a world away, in Baghdad, Davidson was equally unperturbed by the danger. “Let’s face it,” he said. “This is as close as we will ever get to actually doing what we were trained to do.” It may require all those skills to ensure that the Iraqis and the Iranians share the elusive goal of peace.