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Squaring a ‘triangle of death’

Times Staff Writer

U.S. troops had nicknamed the suspected insurgent “George Clooney” because of his handsome mug, but he wasn’t so pretty after members of his own Sunni tribe shot and wounded him, then turned him over to the Americans.

U.S. forces say the tribe’s act was an example of the payoffs from practicing the counterinsurgency techniques preached by Gen. David H. Petraeus as he enforces President Bush’s troop “surge.” But unlike the 28,500 newly arrived troops, soldiers here have been at it for nearly a year.

Their experience in trying to tame this palm-fringed enclave south of Baghdad, within the area sometimes called the “triangle of death,” serves as a sobering reminder of how long it can take to remake a region steeped in violence, be it bucolic farmland or a chaotic city like Baghdad.

They have seen victories, but they also have suffered horrific losses. And most say that the improvement in security did not begin until May, when the disappearance of three U.S. soldiers prompted a virtual lockdown of the area.

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“To take guys who just got here and throw them out there and say the surge isn’t working, or the surge is working -- it’s not an educated assessment,” said Lt. Col. Michael Infanti, commander of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, or 4-31. “It takes time to work into an area.”

It is a message that U.S. military leaders have been sending since additional troops began arriving in Iraq in February, but it is not a message many politicians in Washington want to hear. They are awaiting a September progress report on the war, which if negative will increase pressure on Bush to begin withdrawing troops.

In and around Yousifiya, change has come painfully, and security is far from a done deal. At least 21 U.S. troops and three Iraqi soldiers serving as interpreters have died since Sept. 17, Maj. Rob Griggs said. The latest death occurred July 17, when a U.S. soldier was shot to death in the town of Rushdi Mullah.

The dead also include four Americans and an Iraqi killed in May when suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents attacked two Humvees in Qaraghul, southwest of Yousifiya. Three other U.S. troops were captured in the ambush; one was killed days later and the other two remain missing.

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Infanti’s soldiers, part of the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, moved into this market town in September and made camp on the grounds of a former potato-processing plant. Within a week, the first troops had moved out of central Yousifiya and into a newly established patrol base, dubbed Siberia, in one of the farming hamlets dotting the area. Two weeks later, a second patrol base, Shanghai, took shape on the grounds of an abandoned villa. Patrol Base Inchon quickly followed.

Now, 70% of his soldiers live in remote outposts, or “outside the wire,” as Infanti puts it. “They burn their waste in a pit, and they’ve been doing it for 10 months.”

The troops say the approach has worked. Roads once booby-trapped with bombs are mostly quiet, and locals armed with clubs patrol some stretches to chase off outsiders. Soldiers on overnight guard duty at lonely battle positions might spend an entire shift behind their .50-caliber machine guns without hearing a shot. Locals line up for free checkups and medicine when U.S. forces bring mobile medical units to their villages.

“We used to take a collective breath, because you knew you were going to get blown up,” said Griggs, describing what patrols used to be like in the region.

A wider presence

In the days following the May ambush, U.S. troops from across Iraq flooded the area and rounded up virtually every man and teenage boy for questioning. Most were released as locals pointed troops toward weapons caches and suspected insurgents. Although the added search troops were temporary, they enabled Infanti to position his soldiers in areas previously out of reach and to establish a 24/7 presence. That has made locals feel safe enough to keep providing intelligence, soldiers say.

“Let’s face it, 95% of the people in Qaraghul are not terrorists,” Capt. Shane Finn said. “Really, what it comes down to is people here are sick and tired of living in terror.”

Finn spoke from the apocalyptic environs of a base called Dragon, on the sprawling, windblown site of a half-built power station. Construction stopped when the war began. Now, troops from the 4-31 live in the steel-and-concrete framework of the project, surrounded by giant pipes and rusted cranes jutting out of the sand. To the east are lush groves and orchards that form the southern belt of Baghdad. To the west, about a mile away, are the blue-green waters of the Euphrates River, and across from that the khaki-colored desert of Al Anbar province.

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This area’s location and history have made it a haven for insurgent activity. During the late former President Saddam Hussein’s reign, the scenic riverside villages were getaways for wealthy loyalists in his ruling Baath Party, and their sprawling villas line the roads. Many ex-Baathists joined the insurgency after Hussein’s fall. They have received support from insurgents in Al Anbar, which harbored Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters until tribal leaders there turned on the insurgents last year.

At a battle position a couple of miles away, Staff Sgt. Kevin Littrell was pulling guard duty, a seven-hour shift that would pass uneventfully. From behind his sandbags and camouflage netting, Littrell watched the sky turn orange with the setting sun, then erupt into a star-studded black blanket as night fell.

“We’re getting so much more human intelligence this year,” Littrell said. “The pace really perked up after the DUSTWUN,” he said, using the terminology for missing personnel -- Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown -- to refer to the May 12 ambush.

Soldiers say locals approach them with information and sometimes turn down the financial rewards, from about $30 to as much as $200, that are offered when tips pan out. At the locals’ request, soldiers destroyed bridges that crossed the Caveman Canal, a major irrigation source, to cut off suspected insurgent routes. In their place, U.S. forces built a new bridge that will be the sole crossing point. A checkpoint will be erected there.

A fragile calm

But sectarian issues slow progress here, soldiers say. The sectarian divide affects trust in the Iraqi security forces, who are overwhelmingly Shiite but who outside of Yousifiya police an overwhelmingly Sunni populace.

Staff Sgt. Clark Merlin, at a patrol base in Qaraghul, recalled playing soccer with local kids one day along with other U.S. troops. As soon as some Iraqi army soldiers came to join in, women took their children home, Merlin said. “There is definitely a lot of distrust,” said Merlin, who says most of the Iraqi soldiers he has seen lack the discipline to hold onto the security U.S. troops have achieved.

At the joint security station in Yousifiya, where U.S. forces live alongside Iraqi police, American forces fear the relative calm may be fleeting. The Iraqi police commander for Yousifiya, Lt. Mahmoud Shakir Hamid, is a Sunni, and U.S. troops sometimes must intervene to force his Shiite officers to obey him, said Lt. Jonathan Blevins of the Army’s 23rd Military Police Brigade.

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Blevins and Staff Sgt. Brett Willet, two of the 39 U.S. troops living at the station, lamented the high absenteeism of the police, most of whom commute from Baghdad and who blame checkpoints, curfews or other security-related problems if they miss work. Blevins hopes this will change as a result of a police recruiting drive recently that drew more than 1,000 applicants from the region.

The shooting death of the soldier July 17, the killing of an imam who had cooperated with U.S. forces in Qaraghul a few days earlier, and the beheading of a local man who had shown support for the U.S. presence underscore the perils that remain in the region.

So did the arrival at a patrol base of a man who led soldiers to a nearby house, where they found a 17-year-old with welts and lacerations on his ankles and wrists. The teenager said he had been abducted by men in a black sedan who grabbed him as he took a smoke break from tending his family’s fields.

He told soldiers he was beaten and then taken to a torture house and suspended by his wrists from the ceiling while his captors punched and slapped him. They berated him for smoking, saying it violated laws imposed by Islamic militant groups active in the area.

The boy eventually was released, but soldiers say the incident is a sign of things to come if troops pull out. “I think the insurgents will come and mess with people who’ve worked with us,” Merlin said.

Infanti is more of an optimist. He says the Iraqi army battalion here is the best he has seen, and he hopes to turn over two of the six U.S.-run battle positions to Iraqi forces soon. Seventeen already are in Iraqi hands.

“It’s great news,” he said, but acknowledged that his area of operations is but one sliver in a vast country. “If the people to your left, your right, your north and your south can’t say the same thing, it doesn’t matter.”

tina.susman@latimes.com


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