AREA OF OPERATIONS RAKKASANS, IRAQThe dust storm took only seconds to whip into a fury. The dust-laden air had bathed the new operating base of the 101st Airborne Division in an eerie orange light. A moment later, all the light was gone. The sand obscured the ground at soldiers' feet. Trucks 10 feet away disappeared into the swirling dust. Then came the lightnning, a thunderstorm in the desert. Within moments, it was raining mud.
Inside the Tactical Operations Center, the wind and sand shook the sides of the tent, the rain pattered on the roof, and the generator died, killing the lights and the computers tied to the radar systems. Only the red screens of the top-secret intelligence computers bathed the room in light. "I've never seen anything like this," one of the division's battle captains said into the phone. The freakish weather has forced the Third Brigade to alter its attack plans. "We are waiting for the weather to clear so we can continue our attack to the north," said Col. Michael Linnington, the commander of the Third Brigade. "When the 101st cannot fly, we cannot move troops, we cannot move supplies, and we cannot use our attack helicopters."
War planners craft timelines, but missions in the Iraqi spring, which is plagued by fierce dust storms, are subject to the whim of Mother Nature. Planners have learned that they must frequently adjust their timing. Linnington called the delays a "tactical pause," but he said the fight would quickly resume. "When the whether clears you will see a move to the north," he said.
Dust storms over the past two days have forced helicopters flying to the 101st's new base to turn around and head back. One Black Hawk helicopter flying to the base was unable to land because the dust obscured the ground. It turned around to head to another location but ran out of fuel, forcing soldiers from the Third Brigade to leave the convoy they were defending and find the chopper. "Just trying to find a helicopter in the dark is a problem," said Lt. Phillip Varner, who led the team that secured the craft.
The 101st has moved about 60 percent of its combat power forward into Iraq, Linnington said. That means all the division is waiting for is a break in the dust storms. The weather is expected to continue to be bad through Wednesday, and soldiers of the 101st are using the time to build up their camp and its defenses. Though well defended, the base, known as Area of Rakkasans, is very primitive, bare of everything but the most vital necessities. And even some of those are missing. Like shelter. Most soldiers here are sleeping in the open, digging pits at the foot of earthen berms and setting up their cots in the foxholes. "This is the worst place I have ever been in my life," said Sgt. Michael Muņoz, a recent arrival. "There is no place to sleep. I cannot breathe out here. I feel sick the entire time. You cannot stay clean no matter what you do. You are constantly dirty."