A Sunni tribal sheikh was on the phone. Sixty Al Qaeda fighters had returned to a nearby village Friday. Could the Iraqi Army commander in western Diyala Province please send help?
The militants had been chased out just 10 days ago by Iraqi forces, who were backed by American air cover. At the same time, the US-led operation "Arrowhead Ripper" was under way to reclaim the nearby provincial capital of Baquba.
But Col. Ali Mahmoud's 750 soldiers were tied up, struggling to secure one of the country's main north-south highways (at night, militants plant roadside bombs; in the morning, soldiers clear them). He told the sheikh he didn't have the manpower or equipment to return to the village.
Colonel Mahmoud's dilemma is one of the key challenges facing US and Iraqi forces in Diyala. Without more men, weapons, and vehicles, Iraqi forces are a long way from holding the areas cleared so far, such as the western section of Baquba where Al Qaeda had been entrenched, says everyone from Gen. Mick Bednarek, commander of the Diyala operation involving 10,000 US troops, to the average US soldier.
To even get back to the village of Sufayet, where the sheikh says some 60 fighters believed to be part of the Islamic State in Iraq – an Al Qaeda-linked umbrella group – are now hunkered down, his men would have to wait for US mine-clearing vehicles and tanks to lead the way as the roads to the village have been rigged with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). His US advisers tell him that's impossible now since US forces and equipment are tied up elsewhere in the province.
US and Iraqi officials, analysts, and even figures close to the insurgency all say that well before the start of the high-profile US operation, many leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq fled to the tiny settlements and villages that dot this province.
Further evidence of their ongoing presence came Saturday when a truck bomb struck a busy market in the mostly Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli, about 30 miles northwest of Udhaim, killing up to 150 people. It bore all the hallmarks of previous bloody attacks blamed on Al Qaeda.
In the past three weeks, at least 60 suspected Al Qaeda fighters have been killed and 153 detained, according to the US military.
"Since the kick-off in Baquba, we started getting phone calls the first day: 'Hey, 15 armed men just came through here,' " says Maj. Tim Hoch, of Greenville, S.C., who heads the small team of US Army advisers working with the Iraqi Army unit based in Udhaim.
But a combination of factors appear to be working in favor of the militants, and even helping them thrive in this province, which served as the last haven of Al Qaeda's former leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before he was killed in a US airstrike more than a year ago.
The militants hold a superior knowledge of the terrain, an abundant supply of cash and ammunition believed to be coming from Iraq's neighbors including Iran and some Gulf Arab states, and a determination to exploit to their advantage the Sunni-Shiite struggle tearing apart the province known as "mini-Iraq" because of its sectarian and ethnic mix.
Some units of the Diyala-based Iraqi Army's 5th Division are themselves enmeshed in the sectarian conflict. A few officers are even suspected of facilitating arms shipments to Sunni fighters linked to Al Qaeda and Shiite militias, says one US military officer.
The Iraqi police are either absent from most villages or in many instances cooperate with Shiite militias.
"That has been our most difficult task [in dealing with] the Iraqi security forces. As we stand up and grow and sustain them for the long-term, can they, in fact, take over the security of this country? It's going to be a long road ahead and we are clearly not there yet," says General Bednarek, a native of Alexandria, Va.
Bednarek says while the focus now is on restoring law and order in Baquba, a city of about 300,000, the operation will spread to other parts of the province in coming weeks in pursuit of Al Qaeda militants.
'An endless cycle'
But for many Iraqi and American soldiers there is a sense of déjà vu in this operation since many parts of Diyala, such as Sufayet, had been cleared of insurgents before only to fall back in their sway.
"It's an endless cycle, we keep searching. There aren't enough soldiers to cover the areas," says Sgt. Stephen Hayes from Greenville, Ohio, who is part of one of the surge brigades sent to Diyala.
Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi of the pro-insurgency Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars sums it up this way: "The resistance will not settle down and defend a piece of land. It's all hit and run."
Although small elements of the homegrown nationalist insurgency are present in Diyala, the Al Qaeda-linked fighters are the dominant force, say US and Iraqi officials. This has meant that opportunities for the US Army to exploit the rifts that have emerged between Al Qaeda and other insurgency groups, most notably in the western Anbar Province, are limited here.
The US military says some Sunni militias joined it in the fight against Al Qaeda in Baquba's Tahrir sector and nearby Buhriz. This was swiftly denied in a purported Internet posting from the group last month.
"Al Qaeda is the strongest in Diyala," says Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Its biggest strength is that it's well financed with grass-roots money from the Gulf, Syria, and even Europe."
The US Army's Bednarek talks about an "endless pit of dollars" at the disposal of Al Qaeda in the province.
Iraqi soldiers' missing equipment
On Thursday, two of Colonel Mahmoud's men were killed by a roadside bomb north of the base. Eight of the battalion's 12 Humvees have been destroyed in such attacks over the past year and they have yet to be repaired or replaced.
The base is getting mortared all the time now since the start of operations in Baquba, but they have no way to respond since they have no mortars or artillery fire of their own.
"It's incredibly frustrating," says the US Army's Major Hoch.
Some US officers blame the poor equipment conditions on weak organizational and logistical skills by the Ministry of Defense. Others say it's downright mismanagement of funds and corruption.
"How can you expect us to fight Al Qaeda terrorists under these conditions," says one Iraqi soldier from the Udhaim battalion adding that things have gotten so bad that soldiers sometimes have to share body armor and helmets.