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Diyala offensive gets caked in mud

U.S. and Iraqi troops on the hunt for insurgents hit adverse conditions.

January 09, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

30 TAMUZ, IRAQ — A five-day offensive into the troubled rural region east of Baghdad bogged down in the mud Monday after U.S. forces bombarded a warren of tunnels and canals where Sunni Arab insurgents were believed to be holed up.

An icy downpour turned dirt roads into muck that stuck to boots and wheels like cement and stopped American armored vehicles.

U.S. commanders poised for what they described as a final push against Al Qaeda in Iraq militants fired phosphorous shells to burn dead weeds and sent foot patrols to search fields and farm buildings. Despite the adverse conditions, American military officials remained optimistic about the offensive in Diyala province.

"Time is on our side," said Capt. Stephen Dobbins, a troop commander in the Army's 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "If the enemy is there in the canals, they're running out of food, and we have just bombed the hell out of them."

Monday night, an American soldier was wounded by friendly fire when an airstrike was called in against insurgents near U.S. positions, authorities said. A later strike later hit the insurgents, but there was no word on casualties.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have swept through sprawling farmland, combing hamlets for fighters, weapons and information. Troops have found numerous arms caches in the mostly Sunni village of 30 Tamuz. One man led soldiers to a canal at the back of his house and pulled an AK-47 assault rifle from the murky depths.

Most men in the village have left, with or without the women and children. U.S. planes dropped leaflets last week indicating that troops were on the way. Villagers told U.S. and Iraqi forces that the men raced off on motorcycles ahead of the offensive and were hiding in canals.

U.S. troops faced fierce resistance when they pressed through the region in November after large stashes of weapons were spotted during reconnaissance flights.

In the new offensive, about 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are on the move, backed by air support. On Sunday, the U.S. military said, 21 armed men were killed, and a stash containing 1,169 Katyusha rockets, arms and ammunition was found.

Before dawn Monday, U.S. aircraft unleashed strikes in the region that continued into midmorning, sending fireballs into the sky. Throughout the day, troops saw small groups of men maneuvering through nearby canals.

Shortly before 4 p.m., word came over a crackling Humvee radio that a U.S. bulldozer had hit an antitank mine, injuring the driver. A casualty of a different kind, an explosives-sniffing dog, was evacuated with a scratched nose, officers said.

Insurgents have riddled the main roads to their hide-outs with antitank mines. After U.S. and Iraqi forces rolled through, insurgents were seen planting more mines for the return trip.

The improvised explosive devices "are bad, the mud is worse," Spc. Richard Cooper said after spending more than an hour trying to maneuver a Humvee down a muddy road.

As vehicles skidded and sank, Staff Sgt. Allen Brown, the squadron supply officer, rolled up in a Humvee to deliver diesel fuel to a mortar truck stranded in the muck. As a soldier tossed fuel cans to the other side of the canal, Brown popped his head out of the gun turret and yelled, "Welcome to hell!"

"Any chance for some gloves?" shouted back Staff Sgt. Steve Robert Lynn, whose hands were red and raw from the cold. "I fell in the mud; my gloves are useless now."

"Sure," Brown replied with a grin. "I got plenty back at Base Caldwell. Drop by any time."

Lynn spent much of the day extracting his truck and a trailer full of mortar tubes and other equipment after they slipped down an incline into a field. "It's not mud, it's slush," he said.

A farmer finally came to his aid, providing a tractor to haul out Lynn's trailer and a number of other vehicles.

As the temperature dropped to the low 30s and it started to rain, troops kept themselves warm any way they could. An American gunner wrapped himself in a plastic sheet inside his turret, and Iraqi soldiers huddled in the mud underneath an open-top personnel carrier.

As darkness fell, soldiers pulled out sleeping bags and settled down in their trucks for a few hours of rest.


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