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.
U.S. soldiers have set up at least seven combat outposts and patrol bases in and around Baqubah, while others are spread throughout the province. The stations, intentionally placed in some of the most dangerous areas to try to deter violence, are erected in homes, schools, police stations and government buildings.
They are guarded by tall concrete barriers, concertina wire, large bags reinforced with metal and filled with dirt, and machine-gun positions on rooftops and in windows. Usually an entire platoon of more than 30 soldiers is responsible for maintaining security while other soldiers come and go on foot and vehicle patrols in the neighborhoods.
That's what the soldiers of the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were doing in Sadah. Four weeks ago, U.S. soldiers battled insurgents from town to town, eventually clearing them out, Donnelly said. Then, they set up the patrol base in an old school.
"The purpose was not to allow the enemy to come back," Donnelly said. "Once we had this patrol base, we wanted to take the fight to the enemy, and to gain trust and confidence of the population. That's what it takes to win this counterinsurgency fight."
A U.S. military official in Iraq said a "T-wall" -- concrete barriers around the outposts -- was built "just a couple feet away" from the Sadah school building, which the official called a "giant" mistake. "Those [barriers] are really, really heavy. They crushed the building," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. Several soldiers' remains were found beneath the rubble, the official said, adding that the attack was "devastatingly effective" and "very well-coordinated."
The powerful bombs collapsed the second floor of the building, which caused most of the deaths, a military statement said.
Donnelly, though, said the base was properly fortified and secured. He said soldiers were firing at the trucks from the rooftop, while others were inside the school when the explosion took place. "Our forces were prepared. I don't think [the base] was vulnerable," he added. "When you are inside a population like this, when you have taken the ground from the enemy, you have to expect counterattacks from the enemy."
A visit earlier this month to Baqubah revealed how vulnerable U.S. troops are in an environment where the enemy is hard to identify and regularly shifts tactics and strategy.
In Baqubah, soldiers opened Combat Outpost Adam less than two months ago in an abandoned college building. Insurgents regularly fire at the building to try to pick off the soldiers. On the second floor, soldiers armed with M240 machine guns fire out of sandbagged windows at the insurgents.
"A round just hit the wall right next to me," said Cpl. William McGrath, 28, before returning machine-gun fire at insurgents. "There are terrorists all over the place."
Some soldiers said the outposts make it easier for residents to provide intelligence and allow for better cooperation with Iraqi forces. But others said the outposts make them more vulnerable to attack and require more to supply.
"It makes everybody have to do a little bit more and spread us a little bit thinner," said Sgt. Mike McCormick, 34, of Las Vegas, at a new patrol base near Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. "But I think in the long run it might be effective."
The prospect of a catastrophic attack on their outposts appeared far-fetched to some soldiers in Diyala earlier this month.
"The insurgents are smart enough to know that a frontal attack, you know, a full head-on attack, doesn't work for them; they have to stick to the guerrilla warfare, and they have to live to fight another day," said Staff Sgt. Charlous Craig, 37, from Bangor, Maine.
By Tuesday, neighborhood combat outposts across Baghdad had received orders to inspect their perimeter security, commanders said.
"We are always looking at ways to improve our defensive posture," said Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Infantry Division, who lives in a neighborhood outpost in western Baghdad.
"It is definitely a thinking, learning enemy," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman in Baghdad. "It's a tough fight. We are out there every day facing that. But we're also a very capable force as well. We also adapt to their tactics."
Military experts said Army commanders would further "harden" the outposts in response to the attacks.
Morelock, formerly of the Combat Studies Institute, predicted that U.S. soldiers will become more vulnerable in coming months as more troops arrive and are deployed in outposts and other security stations across Baghdad and outlying areas.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that a Marine was killed Monday during combat operations in Anbar, bringing the American death toll for the day to 11.
Ricks reported from Washington. Correspondent Joshua Partlow and staff writers Karin Brulliard and Ann Scott Tyson in Baghdad contributed to this report.