ZUWAD KHALAF, Iraq – U.S. soldiers in the northern Iraqi desert dug up more than 1,000 aging rockets and missiles wrapped in plastic, some of which were buried as recently as two weeks ago, Army officials said Tuesday.
Commanders in the 101st Airborne Division said an Iraqi tipped them off to the buried weapons, perhaps an indication that residents in this largely Sunni Arab region about 150 miles north of Baghdad are beginning to warm up to coalition forces.
"The tide is turning," said 2nd Lt. Patrick Vardaro, 23, of Norwood, Mass., a platoon leader in the division's 187th Infantry Regiment. "It's better to work with Americans than against us."
As the sun set, soldiers from the 101st continued to uncover more, following zigzagging tire tracks across the desert floor and using metal detectors to locate weapons including mines, mortars and machine gun rounds.
"This is the mother lode, right here," Sgt. Jeremy Galusha, 25, of Dallas, Ore., said, leaning on a shovel after finding more than 20 Soviet missiles.
The weapons are of primary concern for soldiers in Iraq, where bombs made with loose ordnance by insurgents are the preferred method to target coalition forces.
"In our eyes, every one of these rockets represents one less" bomb, Vardaro said.
Vardaro would not comment on whether there were signs the caches had been used recently to make bombs. But service records accompanying the missiles dated to 1984, suggesting they were buried by the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein.
Still, the plastic around some of the rockets — of Soviet, German and French origins — appeared to be fresh and had not deteriorated as it had on some of the older munitions.
A U.S. Air Force explosive ordnance team planned to begin destroying them as early as Wednesday morning.