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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 / January 18, 2008

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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Hussein Al-Hamadi, Iraq

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.

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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."

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."

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