Troops Take Embattled Baqubah Bit by Bit, U.S. Commander Says

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers trying to take control of Baqubah have killed at least 49 people and captured dozens, U.S. officials say. Intelligence reports indicate that many insurgents scattered to nearby towns ahead of the offensive.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers trying to take control of Baqubah have killed at least 49 people and captured dozens, U.S. officials say. Intelligence reports indicate that many insurgents scattered to nearby towns ahead of the offensive. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

BAQUBAH, Iraq, June 25 -- U.S. and Iraqi troops have "seized control" of the western side of the embattled city of Baqubah, but 100 or more insurgents remain in the city and at least that many likely escaped, the American brigade commander here said Monday. "We're on our way to securing the population of Baqubah, which is what we came here to do," said U.S. Army Col. Steve Townsend, the commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

At the same time, Townsend warned of coming attacks as the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq assesses the vulnerabilities of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, one of several operations U.S. commanders have launched in areas ringing Baghdad.

The push launched June 19 by about 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers has uncovered a wide variety of explosives along roads and in booby-trapped houses. Despite initial skirmishes, the Americans have not encountered the type of deadly resistance that made Baqubah such a perilous place for U.S. soldiers in recent months. One U.S. soldier has died in the operation and 18 others have been wounded, with all but two returning to duty.

Col. David Sutherland, a brigade commander, formerly oversaw Baqubah, where al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have driven out many Shiites. Sutherland said the insurgent response was familiar. The group's fighters tended to avoid confrontations when he sent in forces in large numbers but would use guerrilla tactics to target more vulnerable patrols or outposts.

"Usually in about two weeks they start coming back," said Sutherland, who now directs his forces elsewhere in Diyala province, of which Baqubah is the capital.

Townsend agreed that the insurgents have "largely tried to melt away after putting up initial resistance. So yes, I expect the enemy will come back. The enemy's not gone forever."

But for now, commanders and soldiers on the ground say they have taken back a large portion of a violent city with a methodical operation that entails block-by-block foot patrols as they search for fighters and explosives in three western neighborhoods: Khatoon, Mufrek and Mujema.

In these neighborhoods, the city feels like a long-abandoned metropolis on a planet too close to the sun. A cow grazes in a patch of trash-strewn grass next to a fetid lake of sewage. Children peek out from the windows of their homes at armored behemoths driven by machine-gun wielding soldiers on scorched roads devoid of other vehicles. Sleep-deprived soldiers in sweat-stained clothes talk about heat rash and stomach sickness, and when they take their midday rest it looks like a pile of bodies that might not rise again.

Nerves wear thin. Inside a three-story concrete apartment building in Mujema, Staff Sgt. Valentin Vildosola, 27, spotted a young Iraqi man passing a pocketknife to a child when the Americans entered the room.

"Why the [expletive] were you hiding this from me?" Vildosola said to the man in the hallway. "I'm not [expletive] stupid. Do I look stupid to you? I [expletive] saw you put it behind your back and give it to that [expletive] kid. You are a [expletive] idiot. Do you want to get shot?"

The man wiped tears from both eyes. "I swear to God I'm not going to do it again," he said through an interpreter.

The Iraqi man was made to sit beside 11 other men on the floor in an unfurnished room as soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment checked their identification cards against lists of suspected insurgents. Some of the men had arrived at the apartment days earlier seeking refuge with relatives from Khatoon, which has experienced more violence.


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