Troops in Diyala Face A Skilled, Flexible Foe

So­phis­ti­cated In­sur­gent Tac­tics Raise U.S. Death Toll in North­east Prov­ince

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page -

BAQUBAH, Iraq — The pale blue light inside the Chi­nook he­li­copter cast a faint glow on the young sol­diers, shoul­der to shoul­der, tensed for bat­tle. They crossed them­selves and bowed their heads.

The bat­tal­ion was fly­ing in the mid­dle of the night to­ward an Iraqi vil­lage, one un­ex­plored by Amer­i­can troops and be­lieved to be dom­i­nated by Sunni in­sur­gents. The troops had heard the sto­ries — mil­i­tant camps hid­den in palm groves, un­der­ground tor­ture pris­ons, sniper teams on rooftops — and were ready for a fight. As a lone sol­dier had roared on the tar­mac amid the thud­ding ro­tors: “Bat­tle hard!”

But when the 600 sol­diers de­scended on Buhriz al Barra with ma­chine guns and night-vi­sion lenses early Mon­day, they found the vil­lage largely de­void of men. Sol­diers fanned out from the rocky field where they had landed, comb­ing river­banks, palm groves and hun­dreds of con­crete and cin­der-block homes, only to find many aban­doned and oth­ers in­hab­ited only by ner­vous women and chil­dren.

“The big­gest dry hole ever,” said 1st Lt. James Bran­don Prisock, 28, a pla­toon leader on the op­er­a­tion, af­ter sev­eral hours in the vil­lage. “Th­ese guys all took off. They knew we were com­ing.”

In Diyala prov­ince north­east of Bagh­dad, the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary is en­gaged in an in­tractable guer­rilla fight against an elu­sive and so­phis­ti­cated en­emy more deadly than many bat­tle-hard­ened sol­diers have ever en­coun­tered in Iraq. The at­tacks on U.S. and Iraqi sol­diers here have risen sharply in re­cent months, a prob­lem com­pounded by an in­flux of fight­ers in search of safer havens out­side Bagh­dad. Many of the in­sur­gents are well-trained, highly mo­bile fight­ers who refuse to get dragged into open con­fronta­tions in which Amer­i­can forces can

de­ploy their over­pow­er­ing weaponry.

The in­sur­gents “fight in small num­bers, they try and hit you through sub­terfuge, they like us­ing snipers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ben­jamin Han­ner, 35, of Red­ding, Calif., part of an ar­mored unit of Stryker com­bat ve­hi­cles that took part in the Buhriz al Barra as­sault. “Th­ese guys know what they’re do­ing. They’re con­trolled, their plan­ning is good, their hu­man in­tel net­work and early-warn­ing net­works are ef­fec­tive.”

Th­ese tech­niques have be­come in­creas­ingly dev­as­tat­ing to the Amer­i­cans in this prov­ince. Since Novem­ber, when the 5,000-mem­ber 3rd Brigade Com­bat Team of the 1st Cavalry Di­vi­sion de­ployed to Diyala, at least 46 Amer­i­can sol­diers have died in the fight­ing, of­fi­cers said. Eleven U.S. sol­diers were killed in the prov­ince from Oc­to­ber 2005 to Oc­to­ber 2006, ac­cord­ing to aWash­ing­ton Post data­base. Diyala was the eighth-dead­li­est prov­ince for Amer­i­cans in 2006 but has risen to third this year, af­ter Bagh­dad and An­bar prov­inces.

The U.S. mil­i­tary is now com­mit­ting more than 2,000 ad­di­tional sol­diers to Diyala to fend off this grow­ing in­sur­gency.

“There are se­ri­ous prob­lems here, much big­ger than I think any­one wanted to ad­mit,” Prisock said.

The sol­diers fight­ing in Diyala have faced in­sur­gents who com­mu­ni­cate with ra­dios and some­times watch the Amer­i­cans with nightvi­sion gog­gles. Marks­men bore holes in the para­pets of rooftops, stand back a few feet and fire through the open­ings to dis­guise the muz­zle blast. Some shoot with tracer rounds to guide their bul­lets. When Amer­i­cans come un­der at­tack, they of­ten find them­selves tak­ing fire from sev­eral di­rec­tions.

“I’ve been all over this coun­try,” Han­ner said. “This is by far the worst place I’ve ever been in my life. This is what you think war is go­ing to be.”

In March, the day af­ter re­in­force­ments from a Stryker bat­tal­ion ar­rived in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Baqubah, the unit en­coun­tered what ap­peared to be 27 road­side bombs, known as IEDs, in a one­mile stretch of road that runs in front of the Buhriz gov­ern­ment cen­ter, on the south­ern edge of the city.

“For each real one, they had put three or four false IEDs. They had in­ten­tion­ally put in crushed wires, pres­sure plates, dif­fer­ent IED tech­niques that we would rec­og­nize,” said Capt. Ben Richards, a com­pany com­man­der with the Stryker unit. The de­coys slowed down the pa­trols, and pro­vided enough time for in­sur­gents to launch co­or­di­nated at­tacks in­volv­ing rocket-pro­pelled grenades, mor­tars and ma­chine­gun fire.

“We found our­selves in three straight days of ur­ban com­bat with some very skilled in­sur­gents,” Richards said. “Mil­i­tar­ily, they were very well thought out. This wasn’t a group of guys that just wanted to die. They had planned their de­fenses of the area very well.”

Th­ese types of co­or­di­nated am­bushes have be­come more fre­quent in Diyala: In March the U.S. mil­i­tary counted 27 com­plex at­tacks, in com­par­i­son with 14 in April 2006, 17 in July 2006, 26 in Oc­to­ber 2006, and 14 in Jan­uary of this year.

The makeup of the fight­ers in Diyala de­fies easy char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, and Col. David W. Suther­land, the top U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­der in the prov­ince, said any guess­work as to their num­bers would be im­pos­si­ble.

The U.S. mil­i­tary cites the hard­line Is­lamic in­sur­gent group al-Qaeda in Iraq as its pri­mary en­emy, but there is also an in­tri­cate and ev­er­chang­ing tax­on­omy of ri­val tribes, in­sur­gent or­ga­ni­za­tions, crim­i­nal net­works, Sunni and Shi­ite mili­tias, and Is­lamic fight­ers from through­out the Mid­dle East who have come to the prov­ince to join the fray.

The Baqubah area is home to many loy­al­ists of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Baath Party and mil­i­tary and intelligence of­fi­cers who served in his gov­ern­ment, who have sup­ported in­sur­gent groups such as the 1920 Revo­lu­tion Brigades. Sol­diers based near Muq­dadiyah, about 60 miles north of Bagh­dad, say groups of Chechen rebels op­er­ate near their city and train in­sur­gents, and many are con­vinced that al-Qaeda camps are hid­den un­der the dense palm fronds.

“Th­ese guys are smart. The Iraqi in­sur­gent as a whole has re­ally adapted well to our tac­tics and have learned a lot,” said 1st Lt. An­thony Von Plin­sky, 28, a pla­toon leader near Muq­dadiyah. “They know how to bury things with­out us see­ing them, they know how to trig­ger it with­out us know­ing.”

“Ev­ery time we re­act to a con­tact, they take that and learn from it. I hate to give credit to some­body who has no rules, but they’re pretty good.”

Al-Qaeda in Iraq, op­er­at­ing un­der the ban­ner of an um­brella group called the Is­lamic State of Iraq, has man­aged to drive out Shi­ites from many cities and vil­lages in Diyala. Shi­ites in Baqubah, who once made up about 45 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, now ac­count for about 20 per­cent, said Suther­land. In March, gun­men laid siege to the Shi­ite vil­lage of Towakel, north­east of Muq­dadiyah, burn­ing dozens of homes, slaugh­ter­ing live­stock and leav­ing a smol­der­ing ghost town in their wake. On wall af­ter wall they scrawled graf­fiti pro­claim­ing the vil­lage the do­main of the Is­lamic State of Iraq.

“They just stormed in one night and started on the south­west side and started burn­ing their way all the way up this one road,” said Von Plin­sky. The Shi­ite vil­lagers “had de­fenses built up . . . but they just got over­pow­ered. They got dec­i­mated.”

In Novem­ber, al-Qaeda fight­ers over­whelmed and de­stroyed an Iraqi po­lice sta­tion just south of Baqubah. The next month, the Iraqi army pulled out of the area.

At the same time, rifts have opened among in­sur­gent groups that U.S. and Iraqi forces are hop­ing to ex­ploit. In early April, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cers watched footage from sur­veil­lance drones of what they be­lieved to be fight­ers from the 1920 Revo­lu­tion Brigades — a group formed in 2003 un­der a name


A unit of 600 sol­diers from the 1st Cavalry Di­vi­sion’s 3rd Brigade Com­bat Team de­scended on the vil­lage of Buhriz al Barra, only to find it largely de­void of men. “They knew we were com­ing,” one Amer­i­can sol­dier said.

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