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Iraq's waning insurgency scrambles for new sanctuary

As violence falls in Baghdad, Al Qaeda in Iraq is taking its fight to desert outposts and rural villages.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2009

Partnership: US Army Lt. Drew Vanderhoff discussed security issues with an Iraqi Army soldier in Diyala Province.

tom A. Peter

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Baquba, Iraq

Looking across a canal at Umm al-Gatan, a village of about 20 houses, US Army Lt. Drew Vanderhoff is nagged by one of the classic frustrations of counterinsurgency warfare.

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"We know for a fact that there is AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] in that village," he says. Although he has the names and even biometric data of everyone in the village, 25 miles outside of Baghdad, he's still not sure exactly who's working with the home-grown Sunni insurgent group and who's not.

On his side of the canal, it's a different story though. One soldier from Lieutenant Vanderhoff's platoon notices some new farming projects, a sign that displaced people may be returning as security improves here despite the lingering AQI presence.

Ongoing violence in outlying provinces such as Diyala and Nineveh indicates that although violence has fallen and some normalcy is returning to Baghdad, the fringes of Iraq – the rural towns, farming villages, and desert outposts – have become the new fronts in the fight against the insurgent threat as extremists have fled cities and are hiding in the country's remote corners.

During a joint US-Iraqi patrol, the shadow of an active insurgency loomed large. Searching a dried-up canal, members of Vanderhoff's platoon discovered "spider holes" and tunnels dug into the sides of the empty waterway. Insurgents use these tunnel systems to hide from passing helicopters and stash everything from weapons to motorcycles.

"Everywhere we go people tell us they're here and they're around, so you know they're here," says Staff Sgt. Patrick Wixon. His platoon member, Spc. Chris Calhoun adds, "And in the wintertime they're also not that active," so the present lull in activity may be deceptive.

Still, while fighting insurgents outside major cities has often proved something of a "whack-a-mole" scenario, US forces here say they're finally beginning to make progress thanks in large part to increasingly capable Iraqi security forces and an emboldened local population.

"The trajectory is quite favorable right now, but the question is will [it] be sustained if the US starts to draw down?" asks Austin Long, a counterinsurgency expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington. Around Baghdad there was a "massive US presence with the surge [that helped enable success], which you just didn't have in places like Diyala."