Troops in Diyala Face A Skilled, Flexible Foe
Sophisticated Insurgent Tactics Raise U.S. Death Toll in Northeast Province
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.