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'Ghost base' a diorama of Iraqi military life

By Kevin Sites

CNN's Kevin Sites
CNN's Kevin Sites

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

NORTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- This is the game for us each day -- to see how close we can get to Kirkuk. Today, despite being ordered back to Chamchamal by several angry Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] at the last checkpoint, we have taken a detour into an abandoned Iraqi military base in Karahanger.

Iraqi troops fled from here after coalition airstrikes forced them west toward their stronghold of Kirkuk. Now it's nothing more than a ghost town for a ghost army. Crumbling concrete buildings, rooms filled with moldy uniforms, old boots, empty packages of Royal cigarettes and broken gas masks.

The few Peshmerga at the base don't seem to mind having us around; one who lost a finger to a land mine years ago says they didn't find anything significant on the base. But for us it's a major anthropological discovery. A life-sized diorama of Iraqi military life -- which at least here seems to have bordered between the dangerous and the absurd.

In one of the many dank chambers on the base there is hand-painted Iraqi eagle on the wall along with silhouettes of tanks and choppers and paratroopers -- yet the whole war machine motif loses its bite with an evenly laid bordering of Snoopy wallpaper.

In another room there are rotting scallions on the floor waiting to be washed and cut for a dinner that never came. In one building we find the ubiquitous posters of Saddam Hussein and excerpts from his speeches painted on the walls and a laminated poster with dozens of bullet points of advice from the Iraqi president -- on how to live right.

In a room labeled the operations center there is a large 3-D map of the local terrain. Three steps can take you the 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Chamchamal to Kirkuk. It's a bit more difficult in real life -- and we wonder how many more weeks it will be before it falls.

Befriending the puppies

The Peshmerga are camped out next to a bridge the Iraqi forces blew up during their retreat. Some of the younger Peshmerga fighters do back-flips into the river below, where a half dozen, pie-shaped antitank mines lie visible, just beneath the surface. But now it's night and we're in our tents behind their bunker on this brand new front line.

It's difficult to sleep with the scream of full-throttle fighter jets and the drone of B-52 bombers. When the planes drop their payload, the sound is a low and convincing rumble of dozens of staggered detonations. They used to call it carpet-bombing. Now they call it tapestry bombing. For once, we are thankful for our distance from Kirkuk.

There are several puppies in the Peshmerga camp. They hang on the outskirts, skittish until we feed them a scrap of food or show them some kindness. Eventually, they move in close enough to shade themselves in the shadow of our trucks.

Our relationship is in some ways similar with the U.S. special forces teams operating here. When they first discovered we were here, they were skittish. But we gave them their space, didn't try to photograph them, eventually one (U.S. soldier) came over and talked to us. We asked our translator Ala to help him explain their intentions to our group of Peshmerga.

While embedded reporters in the south travel with troops into battle, we operate independently. Our view of this war is so different, sometimes more nuanced. We move forward in inches rather than miles. We've had to forge our relationships with the Peshmerga over cups of tea and endless discussions.

Now, after 17 days of war, we've had contact with American forces. It's clear that this is a relationship that will take more than a few scraps and acts of "kindness" before any real trust is established here. But we know, however, if there is a "road" to Kirkuk, they will be on it first.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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