MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq — Just a short drive south of Baghdad, Highway 8 plunges into a 20-mile corridor of criminality.
There's Mahmoudiya, where charred cars dot the roadside, serving as grim reminders of dozens of killings, carjackings and kidnappings.
Off to the west is Yousifiya, where masked men staged public executions in the middle of town this fall, beheading people they accused of collaborating with U.S. forces.
Next are Latifiya and Iskandariya, where insurgents recently blew up the local police station and city council building, respectively.
Though closer to the capital than well-known insurgent strongholds such as Fallouja and Ramadi, this area of northern Babil province has been largely overlooked by U.S. forces in the last year. In the absence of any real authority, the area -- dubbed the Death Triangle by locals -- has become one of Iraq's murkiest, most dangerous and least understood hot zones.
"This area is in chaos," said Khalid Rasheed, a construction engineer who is among the few residents who remain in Yousifiya. Many fled when Marines moved into town this month, taking over the old police headquarters, which had been bombed by insurgents, and a grade school for their base. "There is no law."
The Marines, who are now trying to establish a stronger presence in the area, say that unlike insurgents elsewhere who are motivated by religious fundamentalism or anti-Americanism, the outlaws in this zone appear to have a much more basic incentive: money.
"I don't see the religious factor here as strong as some other areas," said Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which oversees northern Babil.
Johnson and other military leaders describe the fighters as a loose network of crime lords and "mini-bosses" who held privileged positions in Saddam Hussein's regime but turned to crime when it collapsed. Johnson's approach to crushing the insurgency borrows less from Rambo and more from the mob-busting book of Eliot Ness.
He and his unit have mapped the connections of local tribes and nearly 200 individuals on a seven-foot-long, color-coded diagram. "This is your Gambino crime family," Johnson said, pointing to the chart.
The criminal enterprises include kidnappings, weapons dealing, extortion of local businesses and carjackings, officials say. Recent attacks on fuel tankers appear to be linked to efforts by tribes to extort money from transportation firms in return for safe passage, one intelligence officer said.
Johnson and other commanders are concerned that the outlaws in this mixed Sunni and Shiite region are increasingly forging links with insurgents, foreign militants and Islamic fundamentalists in places like Fallouja. According to U.S. intelligence, insurgents from Fallouja take refuge in Yousifiya when the U.S. steps up bombing in the Sunni stronghold, and they have used Yousifiya as a smuggling route to bring weapons and foreign fighters into Fallouja.
"The pipe comes straight down from Fallouja," Johnson said.
U.S. officials also say there are signs that people in northern Babil -- particularly in Latifiya -- are connected to the wave of kidnappings plaguing Iraq.
Intelligence officials suspect that two abducted Italian aid workers were held in the area before they were freed, and there are reports that British hostage Ken Bigley's body was dumped somewhere in Latifiya. (It has not been found.) Two French journalists missing since August are believed to have been snatched on the road through town, as two Russian contractors were in May.
In mid-October, Iraqi police reported breaking up a small kidnapping ring whose leaders admitted they were planning to sell hostages to someone in Latifiya.
Amid reports of million-dollar ransoms being paid, Iraqi and U.S. officials worry that locals are working closely with foreign militants such as Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi to profit by trafficking in hostages.
"They're exploiting every opportunity they can find," said Col. Mohammed Essa Baher, regional commander of the Iraqi national guard in Mahmoudiya.
Last month, a joint force of 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces began sweeping through northern Babil, arresting more than 200 suspects and beefing up the U.S. presence. About two weeks ago, a U.S. raid in Yousifiya netted Mahmoud Janabi, brother of Abdullah Janabi, who is believed to be a top insurgent leader in Fallouja.
But military officials said they would need additional troops to take more aggressive action, such as invading a vast area of palm groves in the southwestern part of the province, known as Jafr Sakhr, where many tribal leaders are believed to be hiding. Past attempts to invade the area have met with heavy resistance.
"We don't have the bodies necessary to go in there," said Maj. Dan Whisnant, an intelligence officer in Mahmoudiya.
Military responsibility for northern Babil has bounced to various Army and Marine units during the last year, some of which stayed only a short while and were called away to fight elsewhere, such as Fallouja.