A View from Inside the Troop Escalation

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Minnesota National Guardsmen recently had their tour in Iraq extended by as much as four months. NPR correspondent John McChesney is embedded with a company of the Guard at the Anaconda Base, north of Baghdad. Jacki Lyden talks with McChesney about the mood of the troops and their duties at the Anaconda installation.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott is on assignment.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of five more Americans in Iraq today. Two were killed when their helicopter crashed near the holy Shiite city of Najaf. Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces have been fighting intense battles in the area with armed groups, both Sunni and Shiite.

NPR will bring you more details of that fighting as they become known.

U.S. forces in Iraq rely on a huge logistics and supply base north of Baghdad known as Anaconda. It's now home to a company of the Minnesota National Guard. This month, the 2,600 Minnesota guards in Iraq got word that their deployment had been extended by as much as four months. And because of a bureaucratic mix-up, the service members got the news from the media or family, who'd been alerted before the actual Guard troops themselves.

We'll be speaking about the extension of their tour in a few moments with the governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, but first, NPR's John McChesney is embedded with the Minnesota Guard at the Anaconda Base and joins me now. Hi, John.


LYDEN: Knowing you've just arrived, tell us about the mood about the extension. As much as you've been able to ascertain.

MCCHESNEY: Well, I've only been here embedded with a company of Minnesota National Guardsmen for about a day, and I've only talked to a few of them about that issue, so I want to be a little cautious. But the mood I've encountered has ranged from a kind of stoical acceptance to some anger, and in one case, one lieutenant I talked to, is actually happy about it because he thinks he's doing really good work here. So the mood ranges.

I think we're a week away from when they first learned about this, and so when you're in the military, you really don't have a choice. I mean, you can contain your attitude in your head, but basically you're not going anywhere. The commander in chief has said that you're staying and you're staying, so you have to kind of adjust and say, I've got a job to do here. It's a dangerous job and I can't focus on my distress about being extended.

LYDEN: John, give us a picture, please, right now of Anaconda. It's been such a pivotal base. It's so huge. And remind us of the role that it's playing for U.S. troops in Iraq.

MCCHESNEY: Well, it's a major supply base. Supplies roll up here all the way from the Kuwaiti border in huge convoys, and then from Anaconda itself they roll out to central and northern Iraq.

I don't know how many acres it covers, but there's a bus system to get around this base, it is so large. There is a full size magnificent movie theater that was built by Saddam, which I saw a movie in the other night. And there's an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And the food's very good here, I have to say. As assignments in Iraq go, these guys will tell you, this is one of the best places to be.

LYDEN: Yet the Minnesota Guard has undertaken some dangerous jobs. What's their role at Anaconda and in Iraq?

MCCHESNEY: Their role at Anaconda - I can't speak of their role at large in Iraq - but their role at Anaconda is security. They're responsible for a whole section of the perimeter of the base. They man the towers that look down over the countryside in case anybody tries to attack the base.

They also screen the Iraqi employees who come in here. There are hundreds of Iraqi employees who come in here every day to work, and they go through a screening process the likes of which I have never seen. It involves full body X-rays. It involves wanding. It involves fingerprinting. It involves everything you can imagine. By the time these guys get through here, it's pretty incredible.

They also do combat patrols out into nearby villages. These guys go out and they try to maintain relations with local sheikhs, and they also try to figure out who's mortaring this base. This place is nicknamed Mortaritaville. It takes occasional rounds of mortars coming in.

And the last thing they do is they escort these convoys that I was talking about, and that's very dangerous business.

LYDEN: So you will be going out with them in the coming days?

MCCHESNEY: I will be. I'm going out tomorrow on a combat patrol with them to some nearby villages. They haven't come under hostile fire out there and I don't expect that to happen tomorrow.

LYDEN: We'll hope it stays that way. NPR's John McChesney at the Anaconda Base in Iraq. Thanks very much for speaking with us, John.

MCCHESNEY: Thank you, Jacki. My pleasure.

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