Troops in Diyala Face A Skilled, Flexible Foe

A unit of 600 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team descended on the village of Buhriz al Barra, only to find it largely devoid of adult males.
A unit of 600 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team descended on the village of Buhriz al Barra, only to find it largely devoid of adult males. "They knew we were coming," one American soldier said. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 22, 2007

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- The pale blue light inside the Chinook helicopter cast a faint glow on the young soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, tensed for battle. They crossed themselves and bowed their heads.

The battalion was flying in the middle of the night toward an Iraqi village, one unexplored by American troops and believed to be dominated by Sunni insurgents. The troops had heard the stories -- militant camps hidden in palm groves, underground torture prisons, sniper teams on rooftops -- and were ready for a fight. As a lone soldier had roared on the tarmac amid the thudding rotors: "Battle hard!"

But when the 600 soldiers descended on Buhriz al-Barra with machine guns and night-vision lenses early Monday, they found the village largely devoid of men. Soldiers fanned out from the rocky field where they had landed, combing riverbanks, palm groves and hundreds of concrete and cinder-block homes, only to find many abandoned and others inhabited only by nervous women and children.

"The biggest dry hole ever," said 1st Lt. James Brandon Prisock, 28, a platoon leader on the operation, after several hours in the village. "These guys all took off. They knew we were coming."

In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the American military is engaged in an intractable guerrilla fight against an elusive and sophisticated enemy more deadly than many battle-hardened soldiers have ever encountered in Iraq. The attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers here have risen sharply in recent months, a problem compounded by an influx of fighters in search of safer havens outside Baghdad. Many of the insurgents are well-trained, highly mobile fighters who refuse to get dragged into open confrontations in which American forces can deploy their overpowering weaponry.

The insurgents "fight in small numbers, they try and hit you through subterfuge, they like using snipers," said Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hanner, 35, of Redding, Calif., part of an armored unit of Stryker combat vehicles that took part in the Buhriz al-Barra assault. "These guys know what they're doing. They're controlled, their planning is good, their human intel network and early-warning networks are effective."

These techniques have become increasingly devastating to the Americans in this province. Since November, when the 5,000-member 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Diyala, at least 46 American soldiers have died in the fighting, officers said. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in the province from October 2005 to October 2006, according to a Washington Post database. Diyala was the eighth-deadliest province for Americans in 2006 but has risen to third this year, after Baghdad and Anbar provinces.

The U.S. military is now committing more than 2,000 additional soldiers to Diyala to fend off this growing insurgency.

"There are serious problems here, much bigger than I think anyone wanted to admit," Prisock said.

The soldiers fighting in Diyala have faced insurgents who communicate with radios and sometimes watch the Americans with night-vision goggles. Marksmen bore holes in the parapets of rooftops, stand back a few feet and fire through the openings to disguise the muzzle blast. Some shoot with tracer rounds to guide their bullets. When Americans come under attack, they often find themselves taking fire from several directions.

"I've been all over this country," Hanner said. "This is by far the worst place I've ever been in my life. This is what you think war is going to be."

In March, the day after reinforcements from a Stryker battalion arrived in the provincial capital of Baqubah, the unit encountered what appeared to be 27 roadside bombs, known as IEDs, in a one-mile stretch of road that runs in front of the Buhriz government center, on the southern edge of the city.

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