By Joshua Partlow and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 22, 2007
PATROL BASE MURRAY, Iraq, June 21 -- More than 1,200 American soldiers are pushing south along the Tigris River through a Sunni insurgent haven known as Arab Jubour, a formidable operation that is part of an overall U.S. strategy to take control of the terrain encircling the capital.
In Baqubah, north of Baghdad, Americans are fighting in city streets to detain insurgents and destroy their bomb-making facilities. In Arab Jubour, south of the capital, they are moving amid dense palm groves and along dusty canal roads in a grinding door-to-door search that began Saturday.
The operations, involving thousands of additional U.S. troops, came as the military announced the deaths of 14 soldiers and Marines in five attacks since Tuesday, bringing the total for that period to 15. Nine of the soldiers were killed by two large roadside bombs in Baghdad. Two died near Arab Jubour when explosives buried under a dirt road destroyed their Bradley Fighting Vehicle on Tuesday.
In the first week of the southern offensive, known as Marne Torch, five suspected insurgents have been killed and more than 60 others detained. Another U.S. soldier involved in the operation was killed Monday.
"The enemy is very talented out here. There is no doubt he has his game on," said Lt. Col. Kenneth Adgie, commander of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose soldiers are leading the ground effort here. "It's going to be a long summer." More than 2,000 American troops overall are taking part in the operation, along with about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers.
In past large-scale assaults, U.S. soldiers frequently descended on suspected enemy hideouts only to find that many of the male adults had fled. This time, attack aircraft have dropped thunderous explosives on roads to cut off escape routes. They have destroyed at least 17 boats on the Tigris that soldiers suspected were being used to ferry munitions north to Baghdad. Two other brigades operating on the eastern and western flanks of the Marne Torch operation are trying to keep fighters from leaving the area.
"The key is, we've got to prevent him from moving, and prevent him from the ability to move into Baghdad to create these spectacular attacks," said Col. Terry Ferrell, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, the last of the five new combat brigades to arrive as part of President Bush's troop increase. "We've got to deny him the ability to go somewhere else."
Arab Jubour, almost exclusively Sunni, was home to many prominent members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. For the past year, U.S. soldiers have rarely spent more than a couple of days in the area, commanders said, so insurgents were able to rig a lethal defense of roadside bombs throughout the area.
As in other parts of the country, the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq has conducted a repressive campaign of killing and kidnapping among the roughly 3,000 residents of Arab Jubour. Many people have told commanders they fear cooperating with Americans only to be left to the mercy of al-Qaeda in Iraq when the Americans leave. "They truly are scared to death," Adgie said.
"No one has ever stayed," Ferrell said. "We're going in. We're going to kill, capture and defeat that threat. But we're not leaving."
Throughout the operation, B-1 bombers, F-16 fighter jets and other aircraft have bombed roads and suspected weapons storage sites. Eight 2,000-pound bombs were dropped the first night, said Capt. Kevin Carrigan, the brigade's air liaison officer. Screaming jets are flying low across the area in what he called a show of force to intimidate the enemy.
"We took away two weapons caches and we took away their movement," he said. "We're now really surging to try to get things in control here, but it's going to be difficult."
On the ground, the soldiers are moving methodically on foot, searching every house for weapons and attempting to catalogue the local population. So far they have destroyed 17 weapons caches, commanders said.
The American troops established their headquarters, known as Patrol Base Murray, inside a sprawling riverside estate with polished granite floors, orchards out front and an empty swimming pool in the back. While insurgents have sent mortar fire toward the base without causing injuries, a close call occurred at 7:45 p.m. Thursday when a rocket-propelled grenade crashed down on a dirt berm about 75 yards from the house.
At the sound of the bang, soldiers sprinted inside and slung on their helmets and flak jackets. Gunners on the roof saw a plume rising from amid the palm trees north of the estate. First Sgt. Robert Tetu jumped on the radio.
"Why aren't we shooting at that damn area if we see a smoke trail?" he barked. "This shouldn't take so long."
The guns roared. Up on the roof, Sgt. Lauren Hoeppner, 28, fired off six armor-piercing incendiary rounds into the foliage. Another gunner shot more than 60 bullets from his M240 machine gun.
"We're getting attacked!" someone shouted downstairs.
The grenade landed near a pumping station next to the outpost, where two children were playing. Within minutes, a boy, about 3 years old, was carried to the entrance of the base with a head wound caused by shrapnel. The girl, about 5, was brought in with more serious wounds to her left leg. The soldiers treated the children, who returned home late Thursday night.
"These guys have been doing that ever since we got out here," Hoeppner said of the attackers.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the deadliest strike against U.S. forces occurred Thursday in northeast Baghdad. Five soldiers, three civilians and an Iraqi interpreter were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near the soldiers' vehicle during combat operations, the U.S. military said in a statement. In northern Baghdad, a soldier was killed and three others were injured about 12:30 p.m. Thursday when their vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. On Wednesday, four U.S. soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb hit their convoy in western Baghdad, and two Marines were killed during combat operations in Anbar province, west of the capital.
In the northern operation, called Arrowhead Ripper, in which a U.S. soldier's death Tuesday was announced earlier, the U.S. military reported that 11 people were wounded Wednesday when a U.S. plane mistakenly bombed the wrong target in the Khatoon area of Baqubah. The incident, first reported Thursday in The Washington Post, occurred when soldiers clearing a house discovered it was booby-trapped and called in an airstrike that hit the wrong house. A helicopter later destroyed the correct target with a Hellfire missile.
The Associated Press reported that the house bombed mistakenly was the headquarters of a Sunni insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which is cooperating with U.S. forces and helping them to identify al-Qaeda in Iraq members and facilities in Baqubah. A spokesman for the group told the AP that the bomb killed two of its members and wounded four.
In an unrelated development, 15 people were killed and 72 were injured when a suicide truck bomber crashed an oil tanker into a municipal headquarters in the small Sunni-Turkmen town of Sulaiman Bek, about 60 miles south of the northern city of Kirkuk, and detonated it, local police and hospital officials said. The explosion demolished the offices of the mayor, town council and police, according to regional police Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin. Two policemen were killed, and 20 police officers and two council members were wounded, hospital officials said.
Meanwhile, as many as nine mortar shells slammed into Baghdad's Green Zone on Thursday morning, including one that reportedly landed in the parking lot used by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. There were no reports of injuries.
The heavily fortified Green Zone -- a walled compound of about five square miles on the banks of the Tigris that is headquarters for the Iraqi government and U.S. forces -- has come under increasing attack this year. A U.N. report earlier this month said that more than 86 mortar and rocket attacks had hit the Green Zone from the beginning of March through May 22 and that at least 26 people had been killed in attacks since mid-February.
Anderson reported from Baghdad. Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.