QABR ABD, Iraq -- In the numbingly cold hours before dawn, dozens of Iraqi men raised their hands and pressed them against the wall of a low building in this village, under the watch of American troops. The only sounds were the buzz of attack helicopters and howls of dogs. Silhouetted by the headlights of a hulking U.S. Army assault vehicle, the men cast shadows against a scrawl of graffiti. "Support the Islamic Movement. There is no party but God," it read.
"Thumbs down," a voice crackled over an Army radio after one man, tousled and confused, stood in the headlights. His picture had been snapped moments earlier by a young sergeant, and his name checked against a laminated list held by another soldier. An Iraqi informant inside the armored vehicle, too afraid even to appear masked in the dark streets, had linked the man to Iraq's elusive insurgency.
Over the next four hours last Tuesday, more than 200 men endured the same procedure, as U.S. troops compiled a book of mug shots that included almost every man of military age in this village of mud-walled houses on the Tigris River. Thirty-four were linked to the insurgency by at least one of two informants, who later reviewed the men's pictures at an Army post in Mosul, 10 miles north of here.
"I don't care about their hearts and minds, because in a place like this we know where their hearts lay," said Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey as he watched the suspects, some frightened, others nonchalant, all shivering. "I'm more interested in what they know."
The search for information about Iraq's insurgency has become the most crucial task facing battlefield commanders as they struggle to subdue violent regions like this one before the scheduled Jan. 30 elections. But intelligence-gathering by the front-line forces that need to know the most is proving difficult in a region increasingly gripped by fear.
Enlisting the help of Iraqis against the militants who live among them has never been easy, but the effort has suffered further setbacks here. Obstacles include the murderous insurgent campaign against Iraqis working with U.S. forces in the region, a troop rotation that left no time for a proper orientation and sharply deteriorating security conditions. Army intelligence officers are pursuing Iraqi sources not on foot but from the inside of intimidating armored assault vehicles.
McCaffrey and his counterparts, the leading edge of the 138,000 U.S. troops here, say good intelligence leads to precise military operations, which in turn produce good intelligence about key players in the insurgency operating in sympathetic villages such as this one.
But U.S. forces are finding themselves stretched thin and increasingly isolated from Iraqis cowed by insurgent reprisals against anyone who cooperates with the Americans. The hidden informants who helped U.S. forces in their pre-dawn raid here were the exception.
More than 160 bodies, many of them the mutilated remains of U.S.-trained members of the Iraqi National Guard, have been discovered in and around Mosul in the past month. The killings have coincided with a surge in rebel activity in Mosul, the commercial heart of northern Iraq, that drove off more than three-quarters of the city's U.S.-trained police force. The Iraqi National Guard battalion stationed in the town of Hammam al-Alil, two miles from this village, also dissolved in the face of a Nov. 10 attack, leaving its U.S.-funded base to looters who stripped it even of its window frames.
McCaffrey's unit of roughly 850 soldiers -- the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade -- is responsible for securing the web of hilltop villages and nameless roads south of Mosul that form a supply line for the insurgency. The unit is part of the 8,000-member Task Force Olympia, which assumed responsibility for northern Iraq from the 101st Airborne Division, a force of about 32,000 troops, when the region appeared to be more stable last year.
For information, McCaffrey and his men are relying on the mass arrests that frequently antagonize the population, hit-and-miss traffic stops and the few frightened Iraqis who help U.S. forces, often to avenge the murder of a family member by the insurgents.
The troops use soccer balls and school supplies, candy and small talk to win over Iraqis -- and the blunt instrument of midnight raids to round up men profiled as potential fighters. It is frustrating work, judging by two days spent with the battalion.
"The idea is to convince them to say to themselves, 'Maybe Iraq will be a better place if I don't cooperate with the insurgents,' " said Maj. Omar Jones, the battalion's operations officer. "I don't know. Maybe that's optimistic."
The Tigris River valley south of Mosul is a vast stretch of craggy sandstone and tilled farmland, now being planted with wheat, barley and vegetables during seasonal rains. From a military perspective, it appears daunting, given its ribbons of rural roads, population of migrant farm workers and villages that one young sergeant described as "run-to-after-you-pull-the-trigger places."