Sporadic Raids South Of Baghdad Yield Little

Sgt. Tad Myers, left, of Jersey Shore, Pa., carries out a dawn patrol in Baghdad. The capital has a heavy concentration of U.S. forces, but volatile areas to the south, havens for Sunni and Shiite extremists, often have no U.S. presence.
Sgt. Tad Myers, left, of Jersey Shore, Pa., carries out a dawn patrol in Baghdad. The capital has a heavy concentration of U.S. forces, but volatile areas to the south, havens for Sunni and Shiite extremists, often have no U.S. presence. (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)

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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- The man had just finished explaining to U.S. soldiers that he had no connection to insurgents when his cellphone rang. An Army interpreter picked up, pretending to be the phone's owner.

"Are the Americans still there?" the man on the other end asked breathlessly. Yes, the interpreter replied.

"Good thing we got all the Jaish al-Mahdi stuff out of there," the man said, according to the interpreter's recounting of the conversation, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army, Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia. "We've got it all here."

The man under interrogation had been caught during a U.S. raid near Suwayrah, southeast of Baghdad in Wasit province, that provided a glimpse into the limitations of the U.S. military's current staffing levels in Iraq. Six months after President Bush began sending nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq and two weeks before a key progress report is due, some volatile areas of the country remain havens for Shiite and Sunni extremists because there are not enough American and Iraqi troops to conduct regular patrols.

In Wasit and other parts of Iraq, U.S. commanders rely on quick air assaults to drive out insurgents. Though commanders said they are confident of the strategy, recent "disruption operations" southeast of the capital have yielded only modest results. All too often, suspected insurgents and their weapons have disappeared by the time Americans alight from their helicopters for a three- or four-hour assault.

The cellphone exchange came toward the end of a raid before dawn on Sunday morning that netted only the man whose phone rang at the wrong moment, plus a neighbor who was found hoarding cash and three AK-47 assault rifles in his home.

Commanders of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, called the mission a success because they gathered basic information about the geography and population of an area near Suwayrah where few troops had set foot in more than two years, and captured the two men. Yet officers acknowledged that they had hoped for the discovery of a significant weapons cache or a safe house, or the arrest of an insurgent leader.

Disruption operations have always been part of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, and they have led to some successes, particularly in parts of Anbar province, which has seen a dramatic decrease in violence in the past several months. But spending only a short time on the ground decreases the chances that troops will accomplish their objectives, especially if insurgents detect an upcoming raid and flee. Because there is no sustained military presence in the Suwayrah area, commanders acknowledged they have no way of keeping insurgents out.

"We can't prevent them from coming back," said Lt. Col. Robert Wilson, executive officer for the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, which is leading the operation that included Sunday's raid. "But hopefully we can keep them on their toes and disrupt their pattern of living."

Sunday's raid, dubbed Falcon Fury III, was the third air assault of Operation Marne Husky, a 30-day effort to capture insurgent leaders and weapons southeast of Baghdad. During the three assaults, troops have seized a handful of weapons, blown up one house suspected of being booby-trapped and taken hold of seven people, five of whom were questioned and released.

Commanders say wresting control of the area south of Baghdad is critical to the future of Iraqi security as a whole. To the southwest lies the area known as the "Triangle of Death," where the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is dominant. Southeast of the capital, neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army lie adjacent to those held by Sunni insurgents. Both areas sit along major thoroughfares leading to Baghdad and are believed to be the source of many weapons that flow into the capital.

"You guys have got everything down here," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. commander south of Baghdad, said during a visit near Wehda, a short distance from Suwayrah, a week before Falcon Fury III. "This is the most active and dangerous area we've seen."

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