US-Iraqi troops sweep Al Qaeda village haven

Soldiers find major weapons caches, a bunker, and an insurgent expense report in Diyala Province.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Hunting for militants: Spc. Nicholas Woodard of Sylva, N.C. stands guard near a destroyed Shiite house in Hussein al-Hamadi, Iraq.
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    Iraqi and US Army soldiers investigate a car and Iraqi expense ledger as part of Operation Phantom Phoenix, aimed at insurgents who have been pushed out of Baghdad by the 2007 surge of US troops.
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The first sign of the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) looms out of the frozen darkness on the edge of this remote village. A white car is found hidden under a canopy of trees. It's not rigged to explode, but it was used by the insurgents. Inside, they've left behind a list of expenses on a yellow notepad.

For the month of November, the ledger notes that AQI paid snipers 273,000 Iraqi dinars ($230). Roadside bombers got twice that amount. The largest single expense: $3,000 paid to "martyrs" and their families.

The document is topped with an obscure name for the militant cell, and signed simply: "The Management."

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Inserted overnight by helicopter earlier this week, US Army soldiers (from Troop A, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment) and an Iraqi Army platoon, crept into this village along the Diyala River, 20 miles northeast of Baghdad, hunting for insurgents – and for local villagers willing to take them on. This patrol is part of a broader US-Iraqi military effort in the Diyala Province, the heart of the insurgency in recent months.

The detailed expenses – and the fear on the Iraqi residents' faces in this Al Qaeda stronghold – speak to the insurgents' continued influence here. Yet the hit-and-miss nature of gleaning information and detaining suspects, who often claim ignorance to avert suspicion, makes the mission difficult.

"Everyone is so scared. They don't want to do or say anything," says Capt. Joe Byerly of Savannah, Ga. American troops swept through here last October, and in that three-day operation killed five militants and freed a severely beaten hostage. US officers understand why the locals are hesitant to cooperate.

"They know we will leave, and those people they are scared [that Al Qaeda] will just come right back," says the troop commander, Capt. Dustin Heumphreus, from Austin, Texas.

To prevent AQI's return and allay the villagers' fears, the US and Iraqi troops are trying to create a US-funded band of armed locals, called Concerned Local Citizens, or CLCs, to guard newly erected checkpoints in the area. It's a strategy that has helped quell violence in other parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad.

Later, a Predator drone is called in to destroy the white car with Hellfire missiles – so it won't be used again by the insurgents. They also take out another car without license plates that had excited the US Army's explosives-sniffing dog. Other sites yield more lists, including one with some names crossed out – perhaps individuals already assassinated, or militants killed.

"There are many bad guys here," says the senior Iraqi Army officer, 1st Lt. Ahmad Ashab Ahmad, as his 25 soldiers lead the search, going door to door with the Americans and working from two lists of potential suspects. "The US 'Most Wanted,' the first, second, third, fourth and fifth on the lists, they are all here."

The village of Hussein al-Hamadi is largely cut off from US or Iraqi military support by roads seeded with bombs, and masked men of Al Qaeda in Iraq often transit the village, using the overgrown areas between the village and the river as a haven.

Once half Sunni and half Shiite, the village a year ago witnessed Sunni militants systematically "cleanse" the area of all Shiites, blowing up their houses to discourage any from returning. The dramatic results are mounds of rubble similar to villages ethnically cleansed in the 1990s throughout the Balkans.

"Up until yesterday, Al Qaeda were here," says one fearful man, as his children raced to gather documents from the family truck to prove ownership. "Then they heard that coalition forces were coming, and they left."

US soldiers asked him to call if he sees anything suspicious, but he refuses, initially, to accept the phone numbers of a help line. Others in the village refuse point blank, saying that Al Qaeda in Iraq had swept through in the past, checking every mobile phone for known coalition numbers.

"If you be our eyes, we will be your guns," Captain Heumphreus tells the farmer.

This man finally relents, agreeing to help. But he is shaking with fear. His family has been whisked into a back room so as not to hear the exchange. "Before coalition forces came, I was too afraid to speak," he explains in hushed tones. "But now I will talk."

"It's dangerous," warns another older man standing at his metal gate, his family out of sight. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't know anything about Al Qaeda. They come here with covered faces, and they go."

The rubble from Shiite houses is not the only thing left behind by Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, who villagers say frequently come from the east side of the river.

Over three days, US forces come across several weapons caches, take gun and mortar fire from across the river, and call in airstrikes to destroy a bunker with a grass-covered trapdoor and bedrolls in it. Neither the weapons caches nor the bunker are rigged to blow, suggesting the militants never expected these sites between the village and the river to be found.

As troops move through the reeds and the pomegranate and citrus groves along the banks of the river, they find rich pickings. Caches include rockets, antitank mines, 15 hand-held radios, 3,000 feet of detonation cord, 25 remote-fire initiation devices, bulk explosives, and a video camcorder with three tapes. "We could have spent a month out there, searching and finding stuff. There is so much," says Staff Sgt. Chris Jackson, a US Air Force explosives expert from Albuquerque, N.M. "To find a cache like that in this day and age is a big deal, because [AQI] are so much better at running and hiding."

The Americans detain one man who pops up on one of their watch lists, provided by a local sheikh. Another man is taken in after several rolls of copper wire (often used in making roadside bombs) are found in his house. At one point during the sweep, a man is handcuffed and his eyes covered with a band of cloth after telling several conflicting stories about the flatbed truck in his driveway.

"I swear by God I am not Al Qaeda!" the man pleads with the senior Iraqi officer. At first he claims masked men dropped off the vehicle, hid the license plates, and then disappeared. He says "the terrorists" also took his identity card.

But then an identity card appears. It's for the Diyala Province health authority, valid throughout 2008. And as the arrest is made, the man tries to throw off his jacket. Inside the pocket are the keys for the truck. "A friend gave it to me!" the man insists. The Iraqi and US troops laugh at the changing story. A woman and group of children wail as the man is led away.

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