Recently, a young soldier arrived fresh from his wedding. He died the next day in a roadside bombing.

"I felt very, very sorry about what happened," Farouk said, his eyes misting with tears. "He was very happy, because he loved his wife so much. We brought him to his house, and we lay him on his wedding bed."

The militants established their authority in the region by taking control of Sunni mosques, from which they issued decrees.

When U.S. troops pressed into a 50-square-mile area north of Muqdadiya in January in their ongoing offensive, the white-bearded imam in Sinsil Tharia informed them that the senior cleric in the village departed sometime during the last year rather than comply with the militants. Imam Abid Hassim said he replaced his cousin, a moderate cleric who fled when the militants torched his house and wrote on the wall: "Property of the Islamic State of Iraq."

Hassim said notices went up in mosques warning that anyone working for the Iraqi police, army, government or U.S. would be killed. Barber shops, music stores, and coffeehouses were ordered to close. Alcohol and smoking were banned. Women were forced to wear long black robes, with only a slit for their eyes.

Shiites were ordered to leave or were slain. The militants used some of the abandoned homes as safe houses and rented out others to make money.

At least one was turned into a makeshift hospital, according to the U.S. military.

"The people here are poor," Hassim said. "They live a simple life. They have women and children to protect. So they do what the terrorists say."

Since May, U.S. forces in Diyala have uncovered at least six centers where insurgents apparently tortured their victims.

They say that a complex discovered northwest of Muqdadiya had chains attached to the walls and ceiling, bloody tools, a fan belt fashioned into a whip and a metal bed frame attached to a battery that was apparently used to inflict electric shocks. The remains of 26 people were found in communal graves nearby.

To help secure a hold on these tribal communities, some militants sought to marry local women. When three from the Albu Aziz clan refused the marriage demands of Al Qaeda in Iraq emirs, or "princes," gunmen surrounded their village, dragged the women from their homes and slit their throats with jackknives, police reported in December.

Asked where the insurgents came from, residents in village after village said Hembis, one of the larger villages in the area north of Muqdadiya known as the breadbasket of Iraq.

When U.S. forces arrived in Hembis in Stryker armored vehicles, they found a car-bomb-making factory and houses rigged to explode. Hidden on a nearby farm was a recently built base with weapons, maps drawn on the backs of travel posters, a makeshift classroom under the trees and tunnels leading to underground sleeping quarters for three platoons of fighters.

But the militants themselves had vanished. Villagers insisted they could not identify the fighters because they always wore masks. Some whispered there were Saudis, Moroccans, Algerians and other foreigners among them.

The villagers who emerged from behind their gates to stare at the U.S. troops were mostly welcoming, but remained convinced that the masked gunmen would return.

"When you attack one village, they will move to the next. When you attack that one, they will move to the next. You will never catch them all," a despairing Maad Khalaf Khadrish told the U.S. soldiers.

His once prosperous military family was reduced to penury when its businesses in nearby Muqdadiya were destroyed in the fighting and its orchards cleared to make way for a U.S. outpost at Shakarat. The family spent the last of its savings trying to secure the release of Khadrish's kidnapped brother. He was not returned.

But at his remote outpost, in an area not yet targeted by the U.S. offensive, the Iraqi major took a more hopeful stance.

"If we continue with all these operations all the time, they will get weaker and weaker," Farouk said. "And we will destroy them."

Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad contributed to this report.