U.S., Iraqi Forces Target Diyala Insurgents
Sunni insurgents are moving into Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, to escape a U.S. operation that has become increasingly violent. Now U.S. and Iraqi troops are conducting operations aimed at denying the insurgents access to a region that has been an insurgent stronghold.
The road to the village of Shakarat is pocked with craters from roadside bombs. Cars approaching a U.S. military convoy teeter precariously to the left side of the road, almost falling into the pungent ditch. Shakarat and most of Diyala province are home to Iraq's most fertile land. Towns are squeezed between dense clusters of palm groves and snaking canals.
Capt. Eric Philips, from the 293rd MP Company, says it's also the terrain of bomb-making Sunni insurgents; improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat.
"I think we see about one a day on this road, in this little stretch," Philips says. "We either find it or get hit by it. I've had several trucks have the doors blown up and had to go get replaced on this road."
The road is drenched in sewage and garbage. Locals stare as the U.S. convoy goes past. The spray-painted graffiti on the cinder block walls is all about support for the insurgent groups, with messages like: "Long live the mujahedeen," "Long live the Islamic state of Iraq," and "death to Maliki," referring to Iraq's prime minister.
On March 14, U.S. and Iraqi forces rolled into Shakarat to commandeer the tiny bridge over the canal. Army Lt. Michael Stallings explains the strategic importance of controlling the bridge.
"It became a key hub for the insurgents because so many roads intersected here, and this is the only crossing of the Marrouk Canal in this breadbasket area," he says. "So in the Sunni-controlled area, this was their main lifeline. But now we own it."
Stallings says insurgent groups terrorized the local people, and that they beheaded a retired police officer. "They pulled everybody out of their houses to watch it," he says.
The U.S. and Iraqi military intend to stay. They've taken over homes along the main road, and offered compensation to the owners. One of their main outposts is the biggest and nicest house in the street, but the owner has yet to be compensated.
Stallings tells a member of the owner's family that the forces aren't prepared to make payments yet.
"We've been here less than a week," Stallings says. "There are a lot of claims that we have to handle and we don't come into town with a trunk of money to hand people cash for the things that have happened."
Stallings is assailed by questions from the locals. He's not helped by a short Iraqi soldier at his elbow asking how much longer they have to stay in Shakarat. The soldier complains he's working 12-hour shifts, hasn't had time off, and hasn't been paid.
Stallings becomes frustrated.
"Yes, we're going to be here as long as we need to be to secure the people of Iraq," he tells the Iraqi soldier. "You need to talk to your chain of command, your commander, your platoon leader... to ask them these questions, not me. I only run the American part of things; your commander runs the Iraqi part of things."
Shopkeeper Fadhil Kadhmi wants the U.S. military to allow cars over the bridge again so he can sell his crops to buyers coming from other parts of the country.
"We have no connection with the insurgents," he says. "We don't know who they are or where they come from. This operation is for them, but it's been six days and we have nothing left to eat."
Other Iraqis also want the bridge opened. But the U.S. military says it's too soon. Iraqi soldiers call men approaching the bridge to lift their shirts to make sure they're not wearing explosives. A suicide bomber killed an Iraqi child here this past weekend.
Jamal Aloun, 61, sits with other Iraqis outside a store watching the bulldozers work. He says he feels better now after this latest operation, and wants the military to stay.
"We need electricity, we need water, we need this garbage removed. That's what everyone is now asking for."
He's told it's coming, along with the reconstruction of the local school, which only last week bore the flag of al-Qaida, the U.S. military says. He replies "inshallah," God willing, and those standing with him say the same.
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