IBRAHIM BIN ALI, Iraq -- The mud sucked at the soldiers' boots as they crept across the wet pasture after dawn. To their right, Humvees and tanks tracked the soldiers' progress from a narrow dirt road. To their left and in front stood cinder-block huts, shaded by date palm trees, where they believed the enemy was hiding.
The only sound as they approached the insurgent stronghold was the lowing of piebald cows and the faint gobble of turkeys.
"I'll tell you right now there's a lot of bad guys watching," Sgt. Anthony Palkki said.
The security plan for Baghdad is a fight not only in the teeming streets of the capital but also in places like this, a Sunni-dominated village on the northern outskirts, where U.S. commanders say the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is terrorizing Shiite residents, planning attacks on Americans and funneling explosives into Baghdad along a network of country roads. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division pushed into Ibrahim bin Ali village Saturday morning for a two-day operation designed to take back the hamlet from insurgents and catalogue every fighting-age male in the village.
"This is a large part of the Baghdad security plan because this helps disrupt [al-Qaeda in Iraq] movement and foreign fighter movement into Baghdad," said Maj. Chad Shields, a company commander. "It's about getting to the level of detail where you understand the town that you're operating in, and you know the people you're operating among."
Gaining this understanding is one of the most difficult challenges facing U.S. soldiers operating here. Over two days, more than 350 U.S. troops involved in the operation searched 95 homes, discovered about a dozen roadside bombs -- including two that exploded under their tanks, causing no injuries -- and took scattered small-arms fire. But they failed to capture a single insurgent.
Although the security plan has been cast as an Iraqi-led mission, no Iraqi police operate around Ibrahim bin Ali. And Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, the battalion commander, said he could not persuade Iraqi army commandos to assist.
"They didn't return my calls," he said.
So the U.S. troops proceeded alone along muddy canals, over irrigation ditches, amid flocks of sheep. The supporting tanks and Humvees sealed off roads around the village. Soldiers swabbed some residents for traces of explosives, took digital photographs of every male adult and logged Global Positioning System readings to mark the location of each building. Commanders said the census was necessary to learn who might be out of place when they return. But even before the operation, officers warned that insurgents might flee such a large American onslaught, and finding them would be difficult.
"They know we're looking for bad guys, and they know we don't . . . know what the bad guys look like, so we've got to check everybody," Staff Sgt. Patrick O'Neil told other platoon leaders at the pre-mission briefing.
Once in the village, a platoon led by 1st Lt. Chris Larsen, 24, a West Point graduate, encountered several frustrations. Some residents blithely pronounced the area safe, even though guerrillas regularly attack U.S. patrols with roadside bombs, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Others complained about the lack of jobs, electricity and fuel, and said they cower in their homes at the sound of explosions and don't know who is responsible.
"I am not afraid of your visit or of you, the Americans, I'm mostly happy when you come over. I'm afraid of the interaction between you and the terrorists and then firing starts," said one villager, Onaid Merza Alwan. "Or when the terrorists see you in my house and they start to wonder why you are here, maybe I'm giving you information. It's very scary."
"So where are these terrorists that are watching right now?" Larsen asked him.
"If the Americans cannot see them, can I see them?"
"Yeah, he'll know who they are," Larsen told his interpreter. "I don't know who they are. They look exactly the same. The bad guys and the good guys look exactly the same."
Some residents took a more defiant stand when questioned by the platoon.
"Any individual on Earth values his country and refuses occupation. I am hoping this is not an occupation," Hassan Ali Hamid Hassan, 27, a recent graduate in Arabic literature from Baghdad University, told Larsen. "Jihad is a duty. Jihad was within our power since the beginning to protect our women, our property, our way of living. Jihad is cited in the Koran."
"I am not liking this guy right now," Larsen said. Hassan eventually told the soldiers he did not support violence.
On Dec. 30, the battalion uncovered large weapons caches in the area, including a warehouse that contained 3,000 pounds of explosives, car bombs, explosive belts and propane-tank weapons. But Larsen's platoon discovered no illicit weapons on this weekend hunt, or at least no new weapons. One villager kept a forearm-size shell from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s that he had converted into a flower vase. Behind another house, the soldiers examined 11 Russian ammunition boxes that held spare car parts.
Gunfire broke out once, when a U.S. soldier shot a snarling dog.
"Use rocks from now on, please. Rocks!" Larsen shouted at the soldier. "We're trying not to scare these . . . people. Tell them that we're sorry."
When the sun set, and the bats began to circle, the platoon moved into an Iraqi home, posted rooftop guards and spent the night on blankets on the concrete floor. Maintaining around-the-clock presence in trouble spots is key to the battalion's plan to disrupt the insurgents. For weeks the soldiers have lived in a series of abandoned houses in the village to send the message that their presence is not temporary. The Baghdad security plan encourages commanders to make such deployments, Pinkerton said.
The plan has "given them the authority, if you would, to go out there and occupy and sit full time," he said.
Without such heightened presence, he said, even armed residents are afraid to confront the insurgents. "I know they have AK-47 weapons in their house. What they'll always tell you is, 'until you're out here full time we can't' " respond, Pinkerton said.
To build a sense of trust, the soldiers in the operation tried to help the villagers. The platoon's medic, Pfc. Bruce Cardenas, 18, sterilized and bandaged one man's festering ankle wound. The soldiers spent part of the second day passing out truckloads of supplies -- rice, flour, blankets, kerosene heaters, stew, diapers -- to the residents. The handouts caused a mob scene, soldiers said.
After the Humvees rolled out Sunday afternoon, the commanders called the operation a success because it laid the groundwork for further counterinsurgency operations, familiarized them with the villagers and likely caused insurgents to flee, at least temporarily. Some of the soldiers on the ground were less sure.
"I think there will always be people who don't want us to be here," said Spec. Logan Gathman, 26, of Sacramento. "And whenever we show up the bad guys leave, anyway."
"I really thought there'd be more going on," Sgt. Josh York said.