With the GIs in Diyala
The peace doesn't last long. Later that evening, I watch from Warhorse's tactical operations center (TOC) as events unfold to the north of Baquba, where guerrillas have attacked a police station, first with a car bomb and then with rocket and small-arms fire. Two police are killed and nineteen injured. An Iraqi Army unit and then 3ID Humvees arrive to help and the guerrillas flee, but not before killing two Iraqi troops and wounding about twenty, including two US soldiers.
As the sun comes up the next morning, a thousand or so US troops, along with about 500 members of the Iraqi Army, mass for the aforementioned sweep of the three villages closest to where the attack occurred. "Even if we don't find anything, it's important after an attack like that to show that we're not weak," Salazar says as he plans the mission. There is a bit of excitement that the guerrillas might be adopting a new tactic--coming out in large numbers to attack.
"At least then we know who's shooting at us," someone says as the mission is being planned in the TOC. "Let 'em come at us. The Iraqi soldiers can shoot them in the knees. We'll work on their aim later."
For the moment, though, most of the engagements US troops have with militants is via roadside bombs. In Baquba, car bombings occur at a rate of about one per week. The city remains under a 10 PM curfew, but Salazar is optimistic. He had even been planning to suspend raids before a car bomb on March 16 killed four Iraqi soldiers outside a nearby US base and forced a delay.
The military is making a concerted effort to turn over civil duties to the police. "Soon I want to turn over all of my detainees to the Iraqi police," Salazar says. "I'm in the capturing and killing business." The Iraqi Army and police are in a position to fight--not with the same superiority as US forces, but the best brigades can hold their own, a huge improvement from a year ago, when the army hardly existed. The police chief of Baquba is eager to take on missions without US support. Iraqi explosive ordnance teams have also received some training and conduct their own operations, and the Iraqi security forces take the lead in virtually all operations, Major House tells me. "If the insurgency stays at this level, I expect to free up combat power before the end of our deployment," Salazar says. He says he is preparing to turn one of his bases in the area over to an Iraqi brigade once he can find a place to send the US troops now stationed there.
Sgt. Dallas Bryan leads a platoon of combat engineers with the 467th Reserve Company of the 42nd National Guard (Guard soldiers now make up about 40 percent of US forces deployed in Iraq). The troops in Baquba are finding about half of the roadside bombs that are planted. Back at the base, destruction of unexploded ordnance goes on around the clock. Groups like Bryan's patrol as many as twenty hours a day, moving slowly along the area's roads with a mine clearance vehicle called a Buffalo, which is fitted with an arm that can dig up roadsides.
The gunner atop Bryan's Humvee occasionally tosses a Power Bar toward Iraqi kids who have come out to wave at the passing patrol. "Where's my little girl?" the gunner asks as we approach a house. "Hey, there she is." A pair of barefoot kids run to the side of the road, one a girl of about 5 wearing a bright purple dress. They wave eagerly. The gunner tosses a couple of chocolate Power Bars out the window. (On the helicopter ride to Warhorse, one soldier told me bags of soccer balls are occasionally dropped as the choppers fly over.)
Fields pass by through the window as we drive. Bryan lights a cigarette and searches through his binoculars for anything suspicious. The roadside bombs are getting "bigger and more complex," he says. Attacks have been followed by small-arms fire, and often the bombs are planted in pairs. Behind us, the Buffalo "sporks" a dead cow on the side of the road, sticking it and turning it over with the forklike end of the arm. All clear. As we proceed back toward Warhorse, the Humvee rolls over another huge pothole, jarring the gunner on top. "If they actually did start filling those in, we'd probably just dig them up again," Bryan tells me.
That might be as good a metaphor as any for the US military's Catch-22. Though US officials paint the guerrillas as being desperate, armed resistance to the occupation does not seem likely to subside anytime soon. American military planners do not expect to end the insurgency themselves but for the Iraqi military and police to take over. The British, as occupiers decades ago, managed elections, but are largely remembered in Iraq for building a bridge in Baghdad and for leaving a war cemetery. One can't help but wonder if history will judge the American-led occupation in a similar light.