BAQUBAH, IRAQ — U.S. soldiers on patrol here recently watched a man walk into the street with a bomb and begin to dig. They killed him before he finished. Out stepped another man to finish the job, so they shot him too -- then another, and another and another.
In all, five people tried to place the makeshift bundle of munitions in the same hole within an hour.
"You see what we're up against," said Adam Jacobs, a 26-year-old Army captain, after recounting the astonishing story.
Despite a major push by U.S. forces this year to retake deadly Diyala province by focusing on insurgent outposts in Baqubah, huge sections of the city have no meaningful American or Iraqi security presence.
The roads are riddled with explosives powerful enough to kill soldiers inside every vehicle at their disposal. Al Qaeda in Iraq caravans career through the streets with men openly carrying machine guns.
Many of the militants arrived in Diyala after being pressured out of portions of Baghdad by the U.S. troop buildup there. Even more were pushed out of Al Anbar province, the desert hinterland west of Baghdad, when tribal sheiks who had harbored them decided to form an alliance to expel them.
Diyala is now the primary sanctuary for the militant group, and some American officers worry that the insurgents will spread out into the country at an increasing rate. The future, they worry, will be marked by an increasingly sophisticated armed resistance to U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and the imposition of a stringent fundamentalist vision of Islam on the people within the fighters' grip.
On a per-capita basis, Diyala has proved to be the deadliest place in Iraq for American troops, although its total casualties trail those in Baghdad.
The violence here also contributed to the high toll in April and May, the deadliest two-month period for Americans in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The situation is so desperate that U.S. forces over the last month decided to seek uncomfortable alliances with some of the groups that have killed Americans but now say they hate the group Al Qaeda in Iraq even more, and are willing to fight it.
Members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a Sunni resistance group that is dedicated to the expulsion of U.S. forces and takes its name from the revolt that pushed out the British occupation, are among those newly granted the right to patrol with U.S.-supplied uniforms and be exempt from AK-47 weapons seizures, said Lt. Col. James D. George, the acting American commander in the province.
Just a year ago, this region appeared to be nearly pacified. Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed just outside Baqubah, and U.S. commanders decided the province was ripe for the transfer of primary responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.
Instead, Al Qaeda quickly regained a sanctuary in the province and imposed its extremist interpretation of Islam. U.S. and Iraqi security forces scarcely venture into west Baqubah, where smoking is prohibited, as is the sale of women's clothing by men. Even placing a cucumber next to a tomato in the markets is forbidden because they have been gendered male and female.
Violators have been arrested and confined to outdoor mats in makeshift prison camps. U.S. soldiers found and freed 41 people last month in such a camp, including a 13-year-old boy who said he had been caught smoking.
As Al Qaeda assumes some of the trappings of government, the elected local government faded from view for long stretches of the last year.
The provincial governing council did not hold a single meeting for six months ending in April and spent only 2% of its $165-million budget for basic services and reconstruction projects last year.
George said things were slowly improving after a sustained effort to retake Baqubah since his brigade's arrival in October. A $228-million budget was recently sent by the provincial governing council to Baghdad for approval, and government salaries are once again flowing.
The commander credits the tenuous gains to the block-by-block effort to take back the city, beginning with a police station in the southeast section where Al Qaeda operatives had lowered the Iraqi flag and raised a black one.
"We said OK, fine, we're taking it back," George said.
But even with the recovery of the station, he acknowledged that security in the surrounding area remains poor, and the effort to add more U.S. military outposts has not reached the western half of the city.
"Obviously, we had hoped to be farther along by now. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote," George said.
A significant hindrance to the effort has been the Iraqi security forces, he said. The Iraqi army and police proved to be ineffective and abusive, targeting Sunni Arabs for detention and holding them for 10 months or more without any access to the courts, George said.