The Dread Zone

With Tennessee troops in eastern Iraq, in the eye of new potential storms

 DIYALA PROVINCE, IRAQ—Flying east over Iraq from Saddam Hussein's birthplace, Tikrit, toward the Jabal Hamrin, a mountain range that bisects the country like a shoulder sash draped southeast from Turkey, the landscape changes dramatically. Tikrit's flat, green riversides—and the towering palaces Hussein built there—give way, first, to squat, smoky villages where women in full hijab and children in sweatshirts huddle behind earthen walls and packs of snarling dogs roam the muddy streets, then to geometric fields dotted with young men driving sheep. It's typical Sunni Iraq until the land begins to ripple and rise and shed its green, climbing and jutting into the Jabal Hamrin, then dropping and smoothing out just as quickly into parched orange desert.

This is eastern Diyala Province, a sandbox the size of Connecticut that's currently patrolled by Tennessee National Guard soldiers. They're boxed in by Kurds on the north, Shiites on the south, minefields and Iranian soldiers on the east, and mountains on the west.

In every direction, something is happening: The Sunni insurgency on the other side of the mountains claims a dozen lives every day, while Shiites in the south try to consolidate their hold on the new Iraqi government, autonomous Kurdistan plots and bides its time up north, and Iran flaunts its nuclear ambitions. But here, where barely half a million Iraqis—equal numbers of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, plus a dash of Turkomans—eke out their living making bricks, farming mud, and bootlegging gasoline, it's quiet. This is the other Iraq, a place mostly unmolested by insurgents and terrorists, all but untouched by occupation and foreign aid, and more or less at peace.

The 278th has its hands full in Iraq.
photo: David Axe
The 278th has its hands full in Iraq.

But the calm belies a subterranean rumbling. For this is a potential battleground between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups, and between the West and Iran. Here, more than anywhere else in Iraq, there is potential for war. Not just insurgency, and not just terrorism, but full-on, all-out, 1,000-dead-per-day war, like the one between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. That one turned this area into a dusty graveyard, killing or scaring off entire towns and littering the land with craters, mines, and unidentifiable wreckage.

Perhaps most terrifying is the prospect of an Iranian-style Shiite government in Iraq. Such a government might welcome Iranian meddling and might meet aggressive Kurdish moves with aggression of its own. In other words, civil war. If it happens, it will happen here, in eastern Diyala Province, the desolate desert that could shape Iraq's future.

A chopper swoops down in a blast of dust and lands in the gravel fringe of the U.S. Army's Forward Operating Base Caldwell, near the town of Mandali, population 25,000 (120,000 before the Iran-Iraq War). Out hop a handful of soldiers and a reporter.

The base—or "fob," as soldiers call it—is bustling. There are soldiers in Kevlar helmets and body armor carrying tricked-out rifles, walking to chow or gathering for briefings. Rows of Humvees bristle with radio antennae and machine guns. There are helicopters, a few tanks, artillery pieces. And there's a small army of Halliburton contractors—Bangladeshis and Iraqis, mostly—who cook, clean, and build everything. From Caldwell, just 3,500 soldiers of the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol the sandy wastes of eastern Diyala—fewer than one soldier per square mile.

Actually, only about half of the troops here patrol anything. They're a grab bag of old-school National Guard types—white, male, middle-aged, and Southern, like Sergeant First Class William Rader, 44, of Tennessee—with some tough-as-nails active-duty soldiers like Californian second lieutenant Rick Ferrell, 33, thrown in to bring the unit up to full strength. The rest of the soldiers at Caldwell are what the combat types call "fobbits."

"If they take one step further off the fob, it's the furthest they've ever gone," Ferrell says. For fobbits, deployment is a lot like life in the States, only they wear uniforms and occasionally carry weapons—and the food, courtesy of Halliburton, is actually better.

But even for the combat types, duty in eastern Diyala is long on driving and short on actual fighting. Just across the mountains, active-duty soldiers of the First Infantry Division endure daily firefights and roadside bombings and die at a rate of a dozen per month. But here, bombings are rare and gunfights even rarer, and not a single 278th soldier has died. Some of the Tennessee guardsmen estimate that, for them, being on deployment is actually safer than being at home. Statistically speaking, they may be right.

That's not to say there's no action. On February 6, soldiers from the 278th's Deacon Battery—Rader and Ferrell's unit—arrest three men in the town of As Shuriya after the men lobbed three mortar rounds at a local government building, where the battery keeps a contingent of soldiers and a three-legged guard dog named Tripod. Bombers have targeted the same building. Parked outside is a mangled Iraqi police cruiser—evidence of a recent attack that wounded three local cops.

On February 10, Deacon passes out pencils and candy in As Shuriya to make amends for the arrests—"hearts and minds" stuff. The tension in the town is palpable, and the mother of two of the suspects hobbles out to curse at the soldiers.

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