'In the Land of the Blood Feuds'

American soldiers guard a Sunni cemetery in Khidr, Iraq, on a mission to find unidentified men spotted burying weapons there. (By Sudarsan Raghavan -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 10, 2007

KHIDR, Iraq -- In the pre-dawn gloom, through weary villages shaded in gray, the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, searched for the enemy. An aerial drone had spotted men burying weapons in a nearby Sunni cemetery.

The soldiers walked along a thin ribbon of sandy road, flanked by tall reeds and palm trees, until they reached this forlorn place covered with crumbling gravestones. Silence mocked the unit, for the men had vanished. Soldiers pried open graves searching for the cache and 15 minutes later found four guns and some ammunition. Lt. Thomas Murphy, 32, wondered who the men had been. Members of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Loyalists of the former government? Tribesmen?

"Here we have so many different enemies," he said.

On the unruly outer fringes of the Sunni area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death, American soldiers navigate more than a dozen battle zones straddling the fault lines of sect and tribe. Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- identified by President Bush and his generals as the main U.S. enemy -- is just one of myriad armed groups competing here for influence and authority. This arid region nourished by the Euphrates River is a microcosm of the many often-overlapping conflicts that have erupted across the new Iraq.

"We're fighting in multiple directions," said Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) of the 25th Infantry Division.

In Garrett's office at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, near the Triangle's southern edge, a large map of his brigade's theater of operations hangs on the wall. South of Kalsu, the land stretches toward the Shiite cities of Musayyib and Karbala. To the northwest, across the farmlands of Jurf al-Sakhr and Khidr, Sunnis are in control. And to the north is Iskandariyah, a volatile mixed-sect town of factories and low-slung buildings.

"We are in the middle of it," Garrett said, indicating the center of his area of operations, which is the size of Rhode Island. "I'm not fighting one sect or the other. I'm fighting both. And not only am I fighting both, but at certain points I have to put my forces in between the Sunni and Shia groups to protect the populace."

Earlier in the day, a roadside bomb had exploded near a convoy of Humvees close to Kalsu. Shiite militias control one side of the road, Sunni insurgents the other. To determine the enemy's identity, Garrett wanted to know what type of bomb it was.

He learned it was an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a powerful device that the U.S. military says is used mainly by Shiite militias.

"Shiites don't like to shoot. . . . They just EFP you," said Maj. Craig Whiteside of Silver Spring, Md. "The Sunnis use snipers, RPGs, mortars -- they'll attack you in every possible way," he added, using the abbreviation for rocket-propelled grenades.

Or they'll attack each other. Intra-tribal, intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni clashes play out against a backdrop of byzantine allegiances and arcane codes of conduct.

"We are in the land of the blood feuds," said Maj. Rick Williams, a liaison to tribes in the area. "It's very difficult to tell a tribal fight from a sectarian fight because interests are pretty mixed. You can't just put up a fence."

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