Outpost Attack Highlights Troop Vulnerabilities

Pvt. Dan Gomez, 21, of Raymondville, Tex., guards one of the new security outposts, established in central Baghdad.
Pvt. Dan Gomez, 21, of Raymondville, Tex., guards one of the new security outposts, established in central Baghdad. (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 24 -- As U.S. soldiers fired a hail of bullets, the first suicide bomber sped toward their patrol base. Reaching the checkpoint, the truck exploded, blasting open a path for the second bomber to barrel through and ram his truck into the concrete barrier about 90 feet from the base. The second explosion crumbled walls and parts of a school building, killing nine American troops and injuring 20.

Mourning his fallen comrades Tuesday, Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly took comfort in a single detail: The bombers did not detonate their payloads inside the base, located in Sadah, a village 40 miles northeast of Baghdad near Baqubah, the Diyala provincial capital.

"It certainly could have been worse," said Donnelly, a U.S. military spokesman, describing Monday's bombing, one of the deadliest ground attacks against U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

U.S. forces are increasingly exposed to danger and death as they step up their presence in Baghdad and volatile areas such as Anbar and Diyala provinces. Once housed in vast, highly secured bases, many now live in hostile neighborhoods inside isolated combat outposts, the linchpin of a counterinsurgency plan designed to wrest control of the capital and other hot spots from Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

Military tactical experts say such combat outposts, where soldiers are expected to interact with area residents and gather intelligence about potential enemies, are the most effective way of preventing car bombings and other attacks in the long term. Paradoxically, this approach is making U.S. soldiers more vulnerable as they rely more than ever on the Iraqi police and army -- and the support of the local population -- for their safety.

Insurgents are starting to take advantage of this exposed presence, staging daring frontal attacks designed to cause heavy casualties, a departure from their trademark hit-and-run and roadside bomb attacks. In a similar coordinated assault Feb. 19, insurgents attacked a U.S. outpost in Tarmiyah about 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing two American soldiers and wounding 17.

"I would refer to them as probing actions to determine vulnerabilities," said retired Col. Andrew R. Berdy, a former battalion commander in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, referring to the two attacks.

"I think that al-Qaeda insurgents are going after any target that looks soft or promising, wherever those may be," agreed Col. Jerry Morelock, a former director of the Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella Sunni insurgent organization said to have been created by al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the attack in Sadah. In a statement, the group said it had sent "two knights" to bomb the "Crusader American base."

Diyala, a major flash point of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish tensions, has become the third-deadliest area in Iraq for U.S. forces this year, after Baghdad and Anbar provinces. Since the beginning of the 10-week-old security offensive in Baghdad, fighters have largely lain low in the capital and instead have engaged U.S. and Iraqi forces in such areas as Diyala, where the U.S. military is sending more than 2,000 reinforcements to combat the growing insurgency there. At least 56 U.S. soldiers have died in Diyala since November.

"There is a lot of work still to be done in Diyala province," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview before the attack in Sadah.

"What you are trying to do is to improve security in neighborhoods. That means you have to get into the neighborhoods," he added.

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