HADITHA DAM, Iraq -- While their friends are enjoying the beaches alone the Caspian Sea, 150 young Azerbaijani men of Peacekeeping Battalion are spending their summer in stark contrast as they prepare to spend the next six months in Iraq.
The group is replacing a company-size force that has been working alongside 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment and their predecessor 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, since January.
The primary responsibility of the Azerbaijani Army is to keep the walls and water of Haditha Dam secure. Besides controlling the major entry points to the dam, the soldiers also man several observation posts overlooking the massive manmade lake, Lake Qadisiyah. The soldiers also patrol extensive tunnel networks that run for miles underneath the dam.
As part of their daily routine, the soldiers meticulously search the dam workers and their vehicles as they arrive to ensure that no explosives, weapons or communication devices are brought aboard. The Azerbaijanis also maintain accountability of work permits and identification tags which the dam workers must wear at all times.
These security measures are taken because Iraq’s infrastructures are a popular target for insurgents and the dam is no exception.
Although their central Asian counterparts do not go on combat missions outside the dam, their presence frees up the Marines to patrol the cities and main supply routes. In addition to manning entrance points and lookouts, their duties include remaining constantly vigilant at their posts to engage threats on the horizon. The soldiers have spotted dozens of points of origin of mortar attacks against the dam.
Insurgents and suicide vehicles have never infiltrated the perimeter of Haditha Dam during the time that the Azerbaijanis have been tasked with its protection; a feat that few compounds of similar size can claim. First Lieutenant Rashad Garayev believes that the constant presence of Azerbaijani guards around the dam workers acts as a deterrent for potential turncoats who may provide insurgents with information about the dam’s security.
“Really, I think they [the insurgents] are afraid of us,” grinned the native of Baku, Azerbaijan.
Like the Marines, the Azerbaijanis train extensively before deploying to Iraq. Soldiers train for three months in center of the capital city, Baku, to develop urban operation skills.
“During this training evolution, soldiers are taught everything from how to tactfully speak to locals to learning rules of engagement that they will follow in Iraq,” said Garayev. “This period is roughly equivalent to basic training for Marines, but with less emphasis on indoctrination and more concentration on practical knowledge that the new soldiers will need to be successful in Iraq,” said the 27-year-old officer.
Nine of the 11 global climate zones can be found in Azerbaijan, enabling its soldiers to train in virtually any environment, depending on the season. While the temperatures are not as extreme as those found in Western Iraq, an arid desert area 120 kilometers south of Baku serves as an ideal proving grounds for the troops. The soldiers spend their final three months of training in this desert, learning the basics of patrolling, vehicle searches and checkpoints.
Iraq-bound soldiers also learn about the layout of the dam and other features of the area long before arriving.
“Upon arrival in country, our men will conduct joint training with Marines, conducting security drills for the dam and practicing signaling,” explained the graduate of Baku Higher Combat Command Military School. There is a very formidable language barrier between the ranks, as no Marines speak Azeri, and only several Azerbaijanis speak English; making effective communication between the forces extremely vital.
Except for a liaison officer in Baghdad, the soldiers of Peacekeeping Company are the only Azerbaijani military personnel in Iraq. Azerbaijan also has platoon-size elements in Kosovo and Afghanistan in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
The Azerbaijani Army is rigidly divided between soldiers who have completed their educations and those who have not. “Graduated” soldiers have completed university and are usually at least 22 years old. They are required to serve only one year, compared to their non-graduated counterparts who serve eighteen months. Military service is mandatory for all able-bodied military aged males in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani universities hold commencement in July and August, thus bringing a second wave of “graduated” soldiers to join their brothers at Haditha Dam.
Led by Maj. Ramis Eyubov, the troops are already becoming accustomed to the dam life.
For the next six months, this fresh batch of allies will continue Azerbaijan’s important role in the war with their new Marine brothers-in-arms.
“I am proud to be a part of and be a witness to the renewal of my country’s commitment to creating a stable Iraq,” boasted Garayev.