Resilient Sunni Stronghold Tests the Iraqi Army's Best

An elite team of Iraqi Army bomb sweepers works to clear Diyala, an area riddled with hidden roadside explosives and resilient Sunni extremists.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 18, 2008

SOUTH BUHRIZ, Iraq -- Two Iraqi soldiers stumbled out of the thick, black smoke, their faces bathed in blood that glistened in the sun. They clutched their heads, mumbling "Hamdullah" -- "Thanks to God." They had survived the explosion. A third Iraqi soldier was being carried on an olive-green stretcher. He was unconscious, curled like a baby.

From the haze, Capt. Adil Muhammed also appeared, holding his long yellow bomb detector. He had just swept this section of road. But then an American armored bulldozer had rolled over the patch, detonating the deeply buried bomb. As the smell of explosives wafted across the scene on a recent Saturday, American and Iraqi soldiers shouted to others to fall back, fearing a second blast. Muhammed stared, struggling for an explanation.

"I dug here, and I found nothing," he said aloud, to no one in particular.

The offensive unfolding here in Diyala province, one of the most resilient strongholds of Sunni extremists, is proving to be one of the Iraqi army's biggest challenges. Muhammed, the bomb sweeper, is at the front lines of the conflict. He and other soldiers of the 1st Division, 3rd Battalion are examples of the army that U.S. commanders hope will one day be able to stand on its own and allow American soldiers to leave Iraq. But these elite soldiers, among Iraq's best, believe that turning point is still many years away. And the crater in front of Muhammed helps explain why.

In this conflict, insurgents, mostly members of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, have fled villages but left behind large swaths of farmland and thoroughfares dotted with roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses. The road Muhammed stood on was among the deadliest. He'd learned quickly why local villagers dubbed it the Road of Hell. Before 10 a.m., he had unearthed and detonated 11 bombs.

After the blast, a few steps away, Sgt. Muhammed Abdullah, 28, glared at the American soldier seated inside the armored bulldozer, unharmed. Not even his window was cracked.

To Abdullah's left, the windshield of a tan Iraqi army truck was shattered. Abdullah, his forehead bloodied from flying shrapnel, was angry. "Usually the Americans are never injured," he said. "It's the Iraqis who get hurt." Minutes later, two Iraqi soldiers helped him into a Humvee for treatment.

'This Is a War of Cowards'

The road cuts across southern Diyala province, through areas long controlled by insurgents, and leads to the capital, Baghdad. The day before the blast, Muhammed had cleared more than a mile of it. Then the Americans told him to quit, he recalled, promising to use their better technology. But the bombs kept exploding, injuring four Iraqi soldiers and damaging three U.S. vehicles that day.

The Iraqi army brought back 42-year-old Muhammed, a sun-bronzed, charismatic former member of the Republican Guard, an elite force under Saddam Hussein. An explosives expert, he had retired in 1998 to run a taxi service, which paid better. After the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, many of his fellow officers and tribesmen joined the Sunni insurgency. But Muhammed did not, he said, because he hated Hussein as much as he disliked the American occupation.

In May 2004, he enlisted in the new Iraqi army, attracted by the salary and driven by a sense of patriotism. Sunni insurgents threatened to kill him. But he remained in the army and since then has defused hundreds of roadside bombs for the 1st Division, widely seen by U.S. military commanders as the most well trained and nonsectarian in the Iraqi military.

This year, the 1st Division took part in offensives in the southern cities of Basra and Amarah with Muhammed leading the way, clearing streets filled with bombs. The victories bolstered the soldiers' pride and spawned a new assertiveness.

"Everywhere in Iraq now, our war is against bombs," said Muhammed, whose wife is expecting their fifth daughter. "This is a war of cowards."

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