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.
"The airplanes have been shooting all the houses and people are getting scared, so they ran away," said Amer Hussein Jasm, 28.
"My neighbor, he is innocent, and they shot his house anyway," another man said.
First Lt. Andy Moffit, 28, appealed to the men.
"Our planes can blow up this whole city. They have that capability," he said. "If we didn't care about you guys, we wouldn't place ourselves in danger walking around trying to separate the bad guys from the good guys. When you guys tell us where the bad guys are, you keep innocent people from being hurt.
"They don't care about you guys," he went on, referring to the insurgents. "They like to take your children and put bombs around them and have them blow up Americans. They do horrible things to the women. You don't have to like us. That's not important to me. The important thing is that you care about your city and you come together. If you do that, then the job is done and we can go home."
The men stared for a while, then had questions.
"When are you guys going to finish clearing and let us go back home?" said Abdullah Alwan, 55. "We are tired. Someone could shoot me right now."
"I'm tired with you," Moffit said.
"We don't have any water," Alwan said. "We don't have any food."
While the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers continue to search houses, they have also distributed water and food such as rice and flour to the sealed-off neighborhoods.
Soldiers are also building concrete walls around the western neighborhoods using a strategy similar to one employed in Baghdad. The tactic was controversial in the capital because some Iraqis thought the walls were intended to keep Sunnis and Shiites apart, reinforcing the divides that have spawned such violence.
In Baqubah, the walls are two-thirds complete, said Townsend, the colonel.
"Eventually we will build a wall around those three neighborhoods. We will have access points. And the purpose is not to keep anybody out except the bad guys. It's not to keep anybody in," Townsend said. "It's to build safe neighborhoods."
This large operation had its genesis earlier this year, after Townsend sent a battalion of his Stryker combat vehicles in March to assist Sutherland with what had become an increasingly lethal insurgency. Both men endured devastating losses. In what he called the "worst day of my life," Sutherland helped pull his troops from the rubble of a combat outpost April 23 after a bombing that killed nine American soldiers. After a Stryker was destroyed May 6 in an attack that killed six U.S. soldiers and a Russian photojournalist, the brigade commanders talked in earnest.
"I came to memorial service after memorial service here in Baqubah, and I watched this with a growing sense of frustration because my assessment was they needed another brigade here," Townsend said. He and Sutherland "agreed that if that came about, I would work in the city and he would work in the province."
Both men said they wished senior commanders had sent additional forces to Baqubah sooner.
"I would have preferred to have been here earlier," Townsend said. "But we're here now."
American and Iraqi forces during the operation have killed at least 49 people and perhaps as many as 100, officials said. The forces have captured at least 65 people, found more than 48 improvised explosive devices, plus a bomb factory on Monday that had 127 pipe-bomb canisters.
The troops found at least 45 water heaters stocked with homemade explosives and 21 houses rigged to explode. U.S. military officials also say they have uncovered al-Qaeda in Iraq torture chambers, a courthouse where they believe insurgents passed down their version of Islamic justice and a grave containing five corpses.
Several soldiers expressed frustration that senior commanders spoke publicly about their intention to move troops to Diyala and that there was not greater secrecy about the mission.
They suspect many insurgents left in advance of the troops. Intelligence reports indicate that the insurgents have scattered to towns such as Samarra, Khalis and Khan Bani Saad, Townsend said.
"Many people advocated that this was potentially going to be a place where they might stand and fight. We didn't really see that materialize," said Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of Townsend's Stryker brigade. "But the actual definition of 'clear' means that the enemy's no longer capable of conducting operations.
"So whether you kill him or capture him or he departs, you've accomplished something."