The Dread Zone

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

On a February 9 nighttime patrol, Deacon stops and searches several cars and trucks. One soldier holds an Iraqi trucker at gunpoint while another sniffs the metal drums he's hauling. "Gasoline!" the soldier reports.

"The question is whether he's bootlegging," Ferrell says. "But how can you tell?"

The gasoline black market is a major source of income for many in Diyala, where a handful of brick factories passes as "industry."

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

Ferrell lets the Iraqi go, and says later, "I don't care about some guy trying to make a buck. I'm looking for anything dangerous."

"Dangerous" means illegal weapons or bomb components. But Ferrell admits that his unit's real mission isn't catching insurgents, gunrunners, or bootleggers—it's keeping the Kurds and the Iranians from moving in.

"Without us, the Kurds would have their own country by now," Rick Ferrell says, making him one of only a handful of U.S. Army officers to acknowledge the Kurds' true aim: independence.

At two high-level briefings in January, officers at a base in Tikrit cited Iraqi Kurds' desire for increased autonomy as one challenge facing the new Iraq. But the Kurds have been autonomous—with their own army, police, media, and elected government—since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. That was when the U.S. began a decade of round-the-clock fighter jet patrols from Turkey aimed at keeping Saddam's army out of northern Iraq, which became known (unofficially) as Kurdistan.

So strong is Kurdistan's autonomy that no American troops in eastern Diyala are allowed north of an unofficial line that bisects the area—the Kurdish Green Line, which 278th spokesman Captain Alan Mingledorff calls an "ethnic fault line." North of the line, non-Kurds are viewed with suspicion. And even one American stepping over it would be akin to an invasion.

Sergeant Rader puts it simply: "Kurds don't like anybody else."

And for good reason. Under Saddam, until after the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds were oppressed, displaced, killed. Now, with the rest of the country in the hands of the U.S., its former protector, Kurdistan is vying for true independence from Iraq—the first step toward a pan-Kurdish nation that would include Kurdish-dominated regions of both Turkey and Iran. That, says Mingledorff, is not going to happen—at least not while the U.S. Army has any say in the matter.

But it's already happening. In the 1980s, Saddam forced thousands of Kurds from their homes in Diyala, sent them north at gunpoint, and then resettled loyal Sunni Arabs in their places. Now the Kurds are coming back to reclaim their land—often by force. Nationally, the two major Kurdish political parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—backed a single slate of candidates for the new National Assembly, in a move to win as much official power as possible for all Kurds. Meanwhile, local governments in eastern Diyala have begun stacking Iraqi Border Patrol units with Kurdish officers in order to control the flow of goods—both legal and illegal—across the Iran border, and to levy fees on them, cash from which winds up in Kurdish coffers.

On a February 10 visit to a Border Patrol castle overlooking the mine-strewn valley between Iraq and Iran—through which winds a road that's older than the Bible—one Kurdish officer, Major Rashid Abid Kareem, says there is no smuggling across the valley.

Ferrell grimaces, because he knows it's a lie—and he knows that the Kurds have been collecting illegal taxes on illegal goods and exercising increasing control over a region they once claimed as their own, and may again someday soon.

And that's not his only worry. Just minutes later, as he gazes across the minefields at an Iranian castle where Iranian officers are undoubtedly gazing right back, a rumble echoes off the valley walls. "Ira-nian artillery," Ferrell says. "Just acknowledging our presence."

Ferrell, Rader, and a reporter are taking a break from a February 9 nighttime patrol to gaze at a velvety starry sky when silent explosions ignite the eastern horizon over Iran. Ferrell is pensive: "The Iranians like to do maneuvers to remind us that they're out there."

As if anyone could forget. In the heady days following Iraq's first multi-party elections in nearly 50 years, during which Diyala's Kurds and Shiites literally danced in the streets, the American press's attention turned to Iran and its nuclear ambitions—as if to say, "We're done with Iraq. Who's next?"

But Ferrell laughs at the prospect of an American invasion of Iran for any reason—and Mingledorff cracks jokes about it. Especially hilarious is any talk of the 278th taking part in such an invasion. Normally equipped with hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles and specializing in "breeching," or breaking through enemy defenses, the 278th these days has traded in most of its big weapons for extra Humvees, which are more suitable for long—and relatively peaceful—patrols on desolate roads. "We couldn't conduct a breech if we wanted to," Mingledorff says.

The fact is that the 278th has its hands full in Iraq—and so does the rest of the U.S. military. Islamic Iran has long been a painful thorn in secular Iraq's strategic side—and now Iran's smugglers and extremists sneak across the border, paying off Kurdish patrols, exporting their lawlessness and terrorism to a developing Iraqi market that has plenty of other problems, the Kurdish issue being just one.

Of course, a full-fledged civil war would be something else altogether.

David Axe is a freelance reporter from South Carolina who is embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq.

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