“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.
A convoy of three Humvees drives fast from Warhorse to downtown Baquba–on and off the shoulder, into the median, cutting brilliantly between cars and traffic jams at checkpoints with inches to spare. The window to my left, a couple inches thick, has spiderwebs in it from guerrilla gunshots. The gunner on top of the Humvee hasn’t come up with anything better for clearing traffic than shouting “Get the hell out the way!” and waving his nontrigger hand wildly, but most of the locals seem to know the drill by now and move as quickly as they can for fear of being shot as a suspected car bomber.
I am dropped off at the Civil Military-Operations Center, where about 200 3BCT soldiers are stationed in a renovated compound that formerly belonged to the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police. At the CMOC, Iraqis can make claims for compensation from the US military. It is also the nerve center for reconstruction projects in the province overseen by the Third Division, currently valued at $212 million.
“It only costs $25,000 to rebuild a bridge, and that makes people happy as hell,” Salazar says. “A lot of money’s being spent on reconstruction.” But, he adds, “it hasn’t been well spent and it hasn’t been spent fast enough.” The difficulty, says Maj. Ed House, 3BCT’s brigade operations officer, is “literally finding enough Iraqi contractors to do the job.” Another project is supplying equipment for the Iraqi police and the military. Salazar says it was only a few months ago that the central government began paying police officers from Interior Ministry coffers. The problem is an indicator of how far the central government has to go and how inconsistent reconstruction efforts have been across the country. In Baquba the First Infantry Division outfitted the Diyala police with computers and a high-tech control room similar to the military’s own tactical operations center. At the Interior Ministry most offices still don’t even have a computer.
The CMOC is 200 yards from the city’s former Baath Party headquarters, where the provincial government now meets, but the troops make the trip from the CMOC in armored Humvees, weapons ready. At the government building a meeting of local leaders is taking place with the outgoing governor of the province, Abdullah Rashid al-Jabouri. The sheiks stand up one by one to address their problems. Baquba residents say the most pressing complaint is that most recruits of the new Iraqi Army in Diyala are drawn from the Dawa Party and the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. (Dawa and SCIRI are the two most powerful Shiite parties in the country.) “They harass Sunnis,” one man complains.
Jabouri addresses their concerns, but for the US military, he is a bit of a concern himself. After filing late to run in the provincial election, he was disqualified, but it is unclear whether he will step down. Before a meeting between Jabouri and the incoming provincial council on March 20, Salazar sits down with the governor. He emerges a half-hour later and the transfer of power takes place.
“I think he knew it was up,” Salazar says. “I just encouraged him to start preparing for the December elections.” At a lunch with Salazar at Warhorse the previous week, more than 200 local tribal sheiks delivered a letter warning of violence if Jabouri was forced to step down. Eight of the outgoing council’s members were assassinated. All were Shiites–members of either Dawa or SCIRI. The military is concerned that Jabouri, a formerly exiled Sunni, might incite violence against the incoming government if he is not part of it. (There is also ethnic tension in the northern part of the province resulting from Kurdish resettlement of areas they were evicted from by Saddam in the 1980s.)
“I have been more involved [in politics] than I would like to be,” Salazar says. “I have made no decisions for them, but I have helped coach them against making bad decisions that could lead to more violence. This might be the first peaceful transfer of government anywhere in the country.” Salazar is exaggerating to some extent; by that point, several other provincial councils had been turned over, though in all of them the incumbent governor had kept his seat.
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.