By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
ZAHMM, Iraq, Jan. 8 -- The U.S. military launched a major offensive early Tuesday against one of the largest known redoubts of al-Qaeda in Iraq, part of a new nationwide campaign to destroy remaining pockets of the Sunni insurgency.
The unusually large attack by 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops in volatile Diyala province reflects growing concern that success in rooting the group out of Baghdad and Anbar province to the west has driven its members to northern areas such as the Diyala River Valley and the city of Mosul.
U.S. officials said an estimated 200 fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq created a mini-state here in what Americans call the Bread Basket, a 50-square-mile, shoe-shaped region northeast of Baghdad that stretches from the northern Diyala River to a parallel canal to the east. Residents said the fighters, whom some described as foreigners, imposed curfews and strict interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law.
The U.S. troop buildup that began last year and success in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq elsewhere in the country have, for the first time in two years, freed up enough troops to wage a full-scale assault and establish a continued presence in this area, U.S. commanders said. They said the Iraqi military is sending up to a full battalion from Anbar in the coming days to help hold the territory.
The offensive was intended to surprise al-Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly Iraqi insurgent group that the U.S. military contends is led by foreigners, and to prevent its fighters from escaping by deploying troops to surround the area.
But Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, 45, of Anne Arundel County, who leads the squadron that first attacked the area, said initial reports from villagers indicated that many of the Sunni insurgents, fearing a U.S. offensive, had left more than a week ago. He estimated that 50 to 75 fighters remained.
"They created a sharia anti-state that terrorized the Iraqi citizens here," Coffey said in Zahmm, a village where he and his men spent the night in a crumbling, unoccupied house enclosed by a mud wall.
Coffey's unit, the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, entered the Bread Basket at 3 a.m. Tuesday, but other units had been laying the groundwork for weeks. Early Monday morning, Special Operations forces started moving in from the northwest as two battalions began to circle the area like a closing noose.
U.S. troops killed at least four suspected insurgents and detained three, officers said.
"I think the enemy's preferred course of action right now is to escape," said Col. Jon S. Lehr, commander of U.S. forces in Diyala.
But the insurgents left deadly hazards for the Americans. At least a dozen roadside and car bombs have been discovered. One exploded Tuesday near a Stryker, an eight-wheel combat vehicle, injuring three soldiers, Coffey said.
More casualties were likely avoided because of tips from villagers, who identified explosives left by the insurgents. One man helped U.S. soldiers find and detonate a car bomb in Zahmm, which filled the night sky with dark smoke for hours. The man was promised a $100 reward.
Villagers encountered on Tuesday told the Americans of mistreatment by the Sunni insurgents. In one town, locals said al-Qaeda in Iraq imposed curfews from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.
"Al-Qaeda said, 'You must all work for us now,' " Sgt. Patrick Martin of Saratoga, N.Y., recalled villagers telling him.
Maj. Shawn Garcia, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Diyala, said al-Qaeda in Iraq was organized into companies, squadrons and possibly a brigade.
"They used to have free sanctuary in the Bread Basket because we never had enough combat power to rout them out," he said.
Last June, the military launched a campaign against Sunni insurgents in Baqubah, the Diyala provincial capital. But the fighters apparently learned of the offensive and most evaded capture.
The new offensive, known as Operation Raider Harvest, is showing how difficult it is to discern whether someone is an insurgent.
One of the Iraqis wounded and then detained on Tuesday was shot because U.S. soldiers said he refused to listen to their commands. "He just did the wrong thing at the wrong time," one soldier told Coffey over his radio. "But I don't know if we can call him a detainee. I don't think he has anything incriminating against him."
American officials said the goal of the mission was to hold the area and help it develop economically. Garcia said U.S. soldiers and diplomats will work to revive the area, once known as Green Diyala.
"Before the surge we just didn't have enough combat power to hold what we've now held," he said.
Military commanders also said the support of the Iraqi army will be crucial. But they concede that the Iraqi security forces are still rife with problems -- and have not been fully briefed on the operation.
"We didn't tell them about it until the day of, knowing they were probably infiltrated by al-Qaeda," said Maj. Eddie Sedlock, an operations officer in Diyala.
Coffey and his men were planning to push Wednesday morning to a village where they believed the remaining al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters were clustered.
As he prepared to get a little rest just before midnight, Coffey said he wasn't sure whether his unit would encounter a bitter fight or an empty town.
"Our goal in this counterinsurgency isn't just to kill 20, 30, 40 people," he said. "It's holding the area and driving out bad guys. If we could just do that, then maybe these people can finally live in peace."