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.
"For each real one, they had put three or four false IEDs. They had intentionally put in crushed wires, pressure plates, different IED techniques that we would recognize," said Capt. Ben Richards, a company commander with the Stryker unit. The decoys slowed down the patrols, and provided enough time for insurgents to launch coordinated attacks involving rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire.
"We found ourselves in three straight days of urban combat with some very skilled insurgents," Richards said. "Militarily, they were very well thought out. This wasn't a group of guys that just wanted to die. They had planned their defenses of the area very well."
These types of coordinated ambushes have become more frequent in Diyala: In March the U.S. military counted 27 complex attacks, in comparison with 14 in April 2006, 17 in July 2006, 26 in October 2006, and 14 in January of this year.
The makeup of the fighters in Diyala defies easy characterization, and Col. David W. Sutherland, the top U.S. military commander in the province, said any guesswork as to their numbers would be impossible.
The U.S. military cites the hard-line Islamic insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq as its primary enemy, but there is also an intricate and ever-changing taxonomy of rival tribes, insurgent organizations, criminal networks, Sunni and Shiite militias, and Islamic fighters from throughout the Middle East who have come to the province to join the fray.
The Baqubah area is home to many loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and military and intelligence officers who served in his government, who have supported insurgent groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Soldiers based near Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, say groups of Chechen rebels operate near their city and train insurgents, and many are convinced that al-Qaeda camps are hidden under the dense palm fronds.
"These guys are smart. The Iraqi insurgent as a whole has really adapted well to our tactics and have learned a lot," said 1st Lt. Anthony Von Plinsky, 28, a platoon leader near Muqdadiyah. "They know how to bury things without us seeing them, they know how to trigger it without us knowing."
"Every time we react to a contact, they take that and learn from it. I hate to give credit to somebody who has no rules, but they're pretty good."
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, operating under the banner of an umbrella group called the Islamic State of Iraq, has managed to drive out Shiites from many cities and villages in Diyala. Shiites in Baqubah, who once made up about 45 percent of the population, now account for about 20 percent, said Sutherland. In March, gunmen laid siege to the Shiite village of Towakel, northeast of Muqdadiyah, burning dozens of homes, slaughtering livestock and leaving a smoldering ghost town in their wake. On wall after wall they scrawled graffiti proclaiming the village the domain of the Islamic State of Iraq.
"They just stormed in one night and started on the southwest side and started burning their way all the way up this one road," said Von Plinsky. The Shiite villagers "had defenses built up . . . but they just got overpowered. They got decimated."
In November, al-Qaeda fighters overwhelmed and destroyed an Iraqi police station just south of Baqubah. The next month, the Iraqi army pulled out of the area.
At the same time, rifts have opened among insurgent groups that U.S. and Iraqi forces are hoping to exploit. In early April, U.S. military officers watched footage from surveillance drones of what they believed to be fighters from the 1920 Revolution Brigades -- a group formed in 2003 under a name that refers to Iraq's resistance to British colonialism -- engaged in street battles with al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Baqubah.
"They fought it out for like eight days, a knock-down, drag-out fight," Lt. Prisock said. "Towards the end, 1920s started running out of ammunition, [rocket-propelled grenades] and stuff like that."
Since these battles, U.S. troops say they have received more information from Iraqis about the whereabouts of roadside bombs and insurgent hide-outs. On the day of the Buhriz al-Barra operation, Col. Sutherland met with the leaders of the Bani Zaid, Al-Karkhiya, Al-Mujama and Shammar tribes to try to broker a peace agreement, using his troop presence in the village as a sign they were serious about fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In parts of Baqubah, something of an unspoken truce has emerged between the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the U.S. military, said Capt. Aaron Tiffany, 26, a platoon leader from St. Louis.
"It's like, 'Hey, we're not going to attack you if you help us get rid of al-Qaeda,' " he said.
But the information provided by insurgent leaders and others on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters often does not pan out. In one raid this month led by Tiffany, U.S. and Iraqi troops burst into a house in southern Baqubah, blindfolded and slapped plastic handcuffs on one man, and forced four others to kneel and face the wall with hands behind their heads.
"We don't like al-Qaeda in these parts," Staff Sgt. Justin Little, 26, said to an Iraqi man with a white blindfold over his eyes, as Little pushed him by the back of the neck toward a wall.
After questioning the man, Tiffany issued a warning through his interpreter. "Tell him if he won't give us enough information, we'll give him to the Iraqi army and let them deal with him," he said. "I don't have enough to detain him, but the Iraqi army doesn't need as much information as me."
Eventually, Tiffany released all the men when the original informant began to change his story, saying they might not actually have been involved in crimes.
The tip may have been a trap. A few minutes after leaving the house, the convoy of Strykers was attacked by a stream of AK-47 rifle fire, followed by a thunderous roadside bomb that exploded within feet of the vehicles. After firing back nearly 2,000 rounds, the soldiers made it back to their base unharmed.
On another recent night raid near Muqdadiyah -- based on a tip from the Iraqi police -- U.S. soldiers rolled out in six Humvees expecting to find a half-dozen al-Qaeda in Iraq members in a meeting.
Instead they found a crying mother and her terrified 13-year-old boy.
"Tell him, since he's the oldest one in the house, he's the man of the house, he needs to man-up and stop hiding behind his mother," 1st Lt. Christopher Nogle, 23, of Orlando, instructed his interpreter.
The boy covered his face and sobbed. It was 3 in the morning. He said he didn't know where his father had gone.
"Does he love his father?" Nogle asked. "Does he want to see him again?"
The small barefoot boy shook with fear and said nothing.
"Ask him where his father hides his weapons," Nogle demanded.
"I swear to God I don't know," the boy said.
"He is not a man, he is scared," said his mother, who was also wailing.
"He needs to quit crying. He's responsible for everybody in here right now since his father left; his father abandoned everybody else," Nogle told the boy through his interpreter. "Tell him when his father comes back later tonight or tomorrow that he needs to have a talk with his father, that his father is doing very bad things and it's getting the whole family in trouble."
Before the soldiers left, an Iraqi police officer brandished two large buck knives in front of the boy's face. Nobody was arrested.
During the daylong operation in Buhriz al-Barra, American soldiers killed one gunman and detained 12 people, including one man soldiers said was an al-Qaeda emir, Mehdi Salman Kabouri al-Sharafi. They found five small weapons caches, with artillery rounds, hand grenades and machine-gun ammunition. Commanders said the near-total exodus of men was typical.
"We've seen no military-aged males before. It's a trend," Col. Sutherland said.
There were few clues as to where the men of the village went or why they left. The soldiers found one hint written in rusty English on a piece of paper taped to a computer screen.
"We didn't runaway because we are terrorist," the note said. "We run away because we afrad of you."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.