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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: U.S. MISSION IN BAQUBAH; NEW
OFFENSIVE AGAINST INSURGENTS

Slow house-by-house search for insurgents in Baqubah

June 20, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAQUBAH, IRAQ — Under a starlit sky, soldiers poured out of Stryker armored vehicles and crept silently along a weed-choked canal. Attack helicopters circled overhead as tanks stood by.

At the first house they reached, the troops startled a man in a traditional white dishdasha robe out of his sleep. The man warned them the road ahead was riddled with bombs. At the next house, bullets smacked against a wall the soldiers were using for cover.

The troops were part of a massive push to clear an insurgent outpost in the heart of this city of 300,000, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Throughout the day, soldiers carrying food, water, weapons and ammunition on their backs heaved themselves over walls and darted across streets in a slow, deliberate house-by-house search for arms and fighters.

By late morning, as the temperature soared above 100 degrees, members of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, paused in a small, stuffy house. An airstrike had been called in to destroy a suspected car bomb in their path. The home's residents waited anxiously under U.S. guard.

A thunderous explosion rocked the house.

"That was the VBIED," said Spc. Chris Martin, 23, using the military abbreviation for a car bomb -- a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

"Are you sure?" came a chorus from his fellow soldiers in the next room. "Yes," he said, as another enormous blast shook the building. The soldiers decided to wait a little longer before pushing on to the next house.

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Al Qaeda's choice city

Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, has long been a center of insurgent violence. Last year, Al Qaeda declared the city the capital of its self-styled Islamic caliphate. Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Iraq chapter's former leader, died in a U.S. airstrike just outside the city a year ago.

Since the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, rolled into Baqubah in armored Stryker vehicles in March, U.S. forces have been going after insurgents neighborhood by neighborhood, said Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, the unit's commander. They began in the eastern part of the city and have largely succeeded in bringing calm to those areas, he said. The lull has allowed U.S. forces to start focusing on infrastructure improvements -- electricity, water and sewage treatment.

But many of the insurgents had dropped their weapons and fled to fight another day in western Baqubah, he said.

Until Tuesday, U.S. and Iraqi security forces had rarely ventured into that part of the city. Residents said masked gunmen had been operating openly for months, driving through neighborhoods with guns poking out the windows of their car and imposing their fundamentalist brand of Islam. Smoking was banned and women were required to wear the enveloping black robe known as an abaya.

At one house, a geography teacher who gave his name only as Mohammed brought a 2-year-old boy to the Americans, hoping they could repair damage from a piece of shrapnel that had flown into the child's eye during a recent car bombing.

Mohammed said he had tried to seek treatment for the child at a U.S. base but that insurgents had warned him against approaching the Americans. Desperate, he had asked his uncle to go to the base, but gunmen had shot and killed the man, he said.

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Threats and extortion

Mohammed, who is a Sunni Arab married to a Shiite, said gunmen had warned him to stop speaking to Shiites and had threatened to kill family members if his wife did not wear an abaya, rather than her usual modest blouse and long skirt with a scarf covering her hair. The gunmen had twice tried to evict Mohammed's family, he said, and demanded a monthly payment to remain -- 75,000 dinars, or about one-third of an average monthly wage.

He was happy to see the U.S. troops, who promised to have one of their doctors look at the child's eye and asked Mohammed to help them with information about suspicious activity in the neighborhood.

"We were so worried about our lives, but now I feel better," he said.

Antonia said U.S. troops were expecting a fight as they pressed deeper into the city.

"I think they see what we are doing on the east side and they don't want us to do the same on the west side, so they have been putting in defenses," he said, referring to insurgent groups. "I think there will be a lot of IEDs, and I think there will be a lot of weapons pointed at us."

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zavis@latimes.com

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