By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
YUSUFIYAH, Iraq, Oct. 24 -- When U.S. troops effortlessly occupied an enormous power plant that had been used by insurgents, they found blankets littering the steel risers, one room with the air conditioning running and a pot of tea ready to pour, and machine-gun cartridge cases strewn about. They saw cages -- one containing a pair of shoes and what appeared to be human feces -- on the bottom floor, what U.S. commanders said they believe is an indication that prisoners had been held there and possibly tortured.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers on Tuesday began fortifying their position inside the plant in this Euphrates River town as part of a concerted effort to deny insurgents a safe haven scarcely 10 miles from Baghdad's southern edge.
The power plant is a half-finished relic. Though it never came close to being operational, it was a major target for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, because of its long-standing use as a transient base for insurgent fighters. Its smokestack juts high above the horizon, and its beautiful vistas of the lush Euphrates River valley belie the sometimes chaotic battlefield below.
The move to take the plant comes amid an aggressive operation to push the insurgents out of a haven that has existed for years. U.S. officials said that the area's string of small rural Sunni towns has played host to leaders such as the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that teams of insurgents continue to intimidate the local populace while launching complex and coordinated attacks on U.S. patrol bases.
Soldiers at the bases, which in the past three weeks have been plunked down right on the edge of the most hostile areas, are now charged with rooting out the insurgents and winning over the local people, a task they acknowledge is not going to be easy.
"We're fighting somebody very smart, a group of people who have been fighting all their lives," said 1st Sgt. David Schumacher, 37, of Watertown, N.Y., who helped lead A Company of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, into the power plant this week. "Even with everything we have, we find them and destroy them but we can't find everyone."
The insurgents have found ways to blend in easily with the surrounding communities, in part because the Sunni villagers say they are distrustful of the fledgling Iraqi army units in the area and fear the insurgents and their threats. On Thursday, a group of 20 black-clad insurgents made a run on U.S. positions near the power plant, using machine guns and mortars to attack in a very organized fashion, said Capt. Brendan Hobbs, 30, of Tampa.
On Sunday, a similar group used heavy machine guns, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars to attack a U.S. base in Rushdi Mullah, a small farming village that represents the front line for U.S. troops. One U.S. soldier was killed in that attack.
But Capt. Chris Vitale, 29, of Washington, Pa., said his B Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, is working to connect with residents who live yards away to convince them that the insurgents are their enemy, too. Vitale said that last week the residents came to his unit when a little girl accidentally drank diesel fuel and needed immediate medical attention. After soldiers helped save her, people in the streets openly thanked them.
"They're not afraid to come and talk to us now, and they say they just want to live their lives," Vitale said, adding that men in the neighborhood have recently waved the soldiers down to point out suspicious activity. "Insurgents are coming in and smacking the locals around, going on their roofs, and they don't like it. I think it's a matter of days before we start getting really good intelligence from them."
Attacks, including several powerful roadside bombs and attempted car bombings, have increased in recent days because U.S. troops have been pushing forward and trying to squeeze out the insurgents, said Col. Michael Kershaw, the 2-10 Mountain's commander.
"We've got them up against the river now, and they don't have many options," Kershaw said. He surveyed the region Tuesday from atop the power plant and visited his forward patrol bases. Special Operations Forces also were in the area Tuesday going after insurgents, using helicopters to attack a home in the late afternoon, sending up plumes of smoke visible miles away.
In the most contested region under the 2-10's responsibility, the Iraqi army battalion is still performing at a low level and is probably many months from being able to operate on its own, according to U.S. soldiers. While the Iraqi soldiers said in a brief interview Tuesday at the power plant that they are committed to the fight, the difficulty comes in winning over the local populace.
Juad Kazim, a resident in Mulla Fayyad, a tiny Sunni town a few miles from the power plant, said residents fear leaving their town because of Shiite militias. People are afraid to send their children to school because they have been told the schoolhouses will be targeted, and they fear the Iraqi army, unless they are escorted by U.S. troops, because the units are mostly Shiite.
"All we want is security and safety, that's it," Kazim said through an interpreter.