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.
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.
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.”
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.