With the GIs in Diyala
"It's going to be a long fucking day," a soldier from New Hampshire says as we walk down a dirt road surrounded by date orchards. Members of the Third Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, accompanied by Iraqi police and army units, are searching every house in the village of Kharnabat, part of a three-village sweep in response to a guerrilla attack on a nearby police station the night before. The Iraqi troops, many of them now among relatives, have given up on the house searches and are taking tea. "Usually they're better than this," one of the 3ID guys says. "But it's hot."
Most of the residents in the town are friendly and stand at their doors to invite the troops in. A few are less enthusiastic but try to accommodate, scrambling to unlock doors before troops knock them down or cut the locks. We have been walking through the town for more than six hours. By noon the temperature has reached 80 degrees, and the troops are grumbling under the weight of their sixty- to eighty-pound packs. Some of them appear ready to drop.
The mission often takes on a schizophrenic air--the unit's medics try to help the residents wherever they can, offering care for a boy with a badly burned foot and a young child who's head has been split open in a fall. Meanwhile, out on the street, a much-harassed soldier is threatening to arrest a local man who keeps asking the troops to return the assault rifle they have just confiscated from his home. The man says he is a doctor and needs the gun to protect his family. He was under the impression (many Iraqis are) that it is legal for him to have a gun in his house.
"You think I'm kidding?" the soldier shouts as he looks around for a pair of plastic handcuffs. "You think I'm kidding, motherfucker?"
The man relents upon seeing the cuffs. "See? 'Motherfucker' is a universal word."
Back at the town's main intersection, where Humvees have been posted along with Iraqi troops, the US soldiers are ringed by townspeople, who have come out to watch the operation after the troops arrested a man who was wounded in the previous night's firefight. (Two others test positive for explosives.)
"At least they're not throwing rocks," says a soldier from Texas as he half clowns with the kids, half threatens them in an attempt to keep them back. "These people want us here, but the longer we stay..." the soldier from New Hampshire mutters.
Most of the troops on the mission are stationed at Camp Warhorse, a few miles south of Kharnabat and a couple miles east of Baquba, a city of about 300,000 that continues to be an area of guerrilla activity. Baquba is the capital of Diyala province, the 3ID's area of operations. Two years ago the division led the charge from Kuwait to Baghdad. "We would have been in Baghdad even faster than we were if our supply lines could have kept up," says Tarrol Peterson, who participated in the invasion as a scout and is now stationed at Warhorse as a first sergeant.
That was Operation Iraqi Freedom One. This deployment is referred to as Operation Iraqi Freedom Three. The fight, of course, has changed. "Now you don't know who's shooting at you," Peterson says. "The guy's a shopkeeper during the day and he's planting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at night."
"A lot of us didn't want to come back here, but I raised my hand, and it's my job," Peterson says. Soldiers say they were buoyed by the unexpectedly high voter turnout in January's national elections but wonder if they will be back again after this deployment ends, scheduled for next January or February. The enemy has proven highly adaptable, and the military is still, in many ways, forced to respond to it rather than going on the offensive. Guys who launched thousands of rounds of artillery during the invasion now find themselves pulling twelve-hour guard shifts outside municipal buildings in places like Baquba.
"We have access to a lot of stuff we didn't have before--stuff that will keep a soldier up," says Specialist Willie Jones, 22, from California. His one-year wedding anniversary is in April. "She understands," he says. "It's part of my job to put food on the table." The soldier standing next to him, a guy from the Bronx, has just re-enlisted until 2008.
Col. Steven Salazar commands the 3rd Brigade Combat Team and its more than 4,000 soldiers, which took over from the First Infantry Division shortly after the January elections. The 3BCT was deployed after receiving updated Iraq training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, complete with a model Iraqi town and some 1,500 role players, including 300 Arabic speakers, recreating "the worst day you could have in Baghdad." They have also received training in Arab culture.
Diyala, which has a mixed Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish population, did not see as solid a boycott at the polls by Sunnis as in other provinces (total turnout in Diyala was 34 percent, compared with 2 percent in Anbar and 29 percent in Salah al-Din, both heavily Sunni). Of the forty-one representatives elected to the provincial council, fourteen are Sunni; this is not proportional to the province's Sunni population, about 50 percent, but it's a better showing than in other areas. Sunni clerics in Baquba did not issue fatwas against voting, as did clerics in many other parts of the country, fearing underrepresentation in the local government.