U.S. seeks to block exits for Iraq insurgents
BAQUBA, Iraq: In more than four years in Iraq, American forces have been confounded by insurgents who have often slipped away only to fight another day. The war in Iraq has been likened to the arcade game of whack-a-mole, where as soon as you knock down one mole another pops up.
Taking the fight to insurgents from Al Qaeda did not so much destroy them in Anbar Province as dislodge them, prompting the fighters to build up their strength elsewhere, including Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province.
So the planners of this latest operation are attempting to plug the holes that have allowed the insurgents to escape in the past. The goal is not merely to reclaim western Baquba from insurgent control, but to capture or kill the estimated 300 fighters to 500 fighters who are believed to be based in that part of the city.
In the first hours of the American military assault, after midnight early Monday, helicopters flew two teams of American troops and a platoon of Iraqi scouts so they could block the southern escape routes from the city. Stryker armored vehicles moved along the western outskirts of Baquba and then down a main north-south route that cuts through the center of the city.
By the time dawn broke on Tuesday, the insurgent sanctuary in western Baquba had been cordoned off. Then, the American forces established footholds on the periphery of the section and slowly pressed in. "Rather than let the problem export to some other place and then have to fight them again, my goal is to isolate this thing and cordon it off," said Colonel Steve Townsend, the commander of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division.
It promises to be a methodical, steady squeeze against fighters from Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, who have fortified their positions and have shown no signs of giving in.
The problem of collaring the Qaeda fighters is challenging in several respects. Unlike Falluja, where most of the population fled in advance of the battle, thousands of civilians remain in the western section of the city.
American helicopters dropped leaflets last night urging the residents to stay in their homes. The hope was to keep civilians off the streets while American forces began to close in on the insurgents. The appeal appeared to have little effect, though, as large groups of civilians mingled on the streets Tuesday and some students even sought to go to the local university.
The presence of so many civilians on an urban battlefield affords the operatives from Al Qaeda another possible means to elude their American pursuers. If the insurgents do not manage to sneak out, some may hide their weapons and try to blend with the city's residents.
To frustrate such plans, the Americans intend to take fingerprints and other biometric data from every resident who seems to be a potential fighter after they and Iraqi forces have gained control of the western side of the city. The Americans will also test for the presence of explosive material on suspects' hands.
Officers are hoping that local residents and even former insurgents who have split with Al Qaeda may quietly help the American troops pick out insurgents. American troops have already begun to work with more than 100 Iraqis on the eastern side of the city — a group American soldiers have nicknamed the "Kit Carson scouts." To try to prevent insurgents from escaping, American commanders are also stepping up their reconnaissance efforts.
Since the battle for western Baquba began, Qaeda insurgents have carried out a delaying action, employing snipers and engaging American troops in several firefights. A small group of insurgents was seen via an army drone leaving a building on a mosque compound to lay a roadside bomb.
Backing the insurgents into a corner may mean that the Stryker units that are edging their way into the city — the Fifth Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment and the Third Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment — are in for much tougher fighting ahead.
An indication of what may be in store for those units came Tuesday when a Bradley fighting vehicle was upended by a large, buried bomb, which killed an American crew member. The insurgents have fortified their position by burying many such bombs and laying wires that can be triggered from safe houses. What made the loss of the Bradley particularly worrisome is that the explosion occurred in a heavily trafficked area that American forces had considered successfully cleared.
This American counterinsurgency operation has some of the firepower associated with conventional war. American forces have already fired more than 20 satellite-guided rockets into western Baquba. Apache helicopters have attacked enemy fighters.
Warplanes have also dropped satellite-guided bombs on suspected roadside bombs and a weapons cache, which produced spectacular secondary explosions after it was struck. M1 tanks have maneuvered through the narrow city lanes. The Americans have responded to insurgent attacks with mortar fire.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Stryker company tried to blaze a path through the road believed to be full of buried bombs by firing a line-charge, a cable festooned with explosions. The hope was that the explosion would cut the wires that the Qaeda fighters use to set off the blasts.
After a delay in getting the line-charge to detonate, the weapon went off. There was a resounding thud and the skies over Baquba were smeared by a spiraling mushroom cloud.