U.S. soldiers on patrol here recently watched a man walk into the street with a bomb and begin to dig. They killed him before he finished. Out stepped another man to finish the job, so they shot him too -- then another, and another and another.
In all, five people tried to place the makeshift bundle of munitions in the same hole within an hour.
“You see what we’re up against,” said Adam Jacobs, a 26-year-old Army captain, after recounting the astonishing story.
Despite a major push by U.S. forces this year to retake deadly Diyala province by focusing on insurgent outposts in Baqubah, huge sections of the city have no meaningful American or Iraqi security presence.
The roads are riddled with explosives powerful enough to kill soldiers inside every vehicle at their disposal. Al Qaeda in Iraq caravans career through the streets with men openly carrying machine guns.
Many of the militants arrived in Diyala after being pressured out of portions of Baghdad by the U.S. troop buildup there. Even more were pushed out of Al Anbar province, the desert hinterland west of Baghdad, when tribal sheiks who had harbored them decided to form an alliance to expel them.
Diyala is now the primary sanctuary for the militant group, and some American officers worry that the insurgents will spread out into the country at an increasing rate. The future, they worry, will be marked by an increasingly sophisticated armed resistance to U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and the imposition of a stringent fundamentalist vision of Islam on the people within the fighters’ grip.
On a per-capita basis, Diyala has proved to be the deadliest place in Iraq for American troops, although its total casualties trail those in Baghdad.
The violence here also contributed to the high toll in April and May, the deadliest two-month period for Americans in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The situation is so desperate that U.S. forces over the last month decided to seek uncomfortable alliances with some of the groups that have killed Americans but now say they hate the group Al Qaeda in Iraq even more, and are willing to fight it.
Members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a Sunni resistance group that is dedicated to the expulsion of U.S. forces and takes its name from the revolt that pushed out the British occupation, are among those newly granted the right to patrol with U.S.-supplied uniforms and be exempt from AK-47 weapons seizures, said Lt. Col. James D. George, the acting American commander in the province.
Just a year ago, this region appeared to be nearly pacified. Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed just outside Baqubah, and U.S. commanders decided the province was ripe for the transfer of primary responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.
Instead, Al Qaeda quickly regained a sanctuary in the province and imposed its extremist interpretation of Islam. U.S. and Iraqi security forces scarcely venture into west Baqubah, where smoking is prohibited, as is the sale of women’s clothing by men. Even placing a cucumber next to a tomato in the markets is forbidden because they have been gendered male and female.
Violators have been arrested and confined to outdoor mats in makeshift prison camps. U.S. soldiers found and freed 41 people last month in such a camp, including a 13-year-old boy who said he had been caught smoking.
As Al Qaeda assumes some of the trappings of government, the elected local government faded from view for long stretches of the last year.
The provincial governing council did not hold a single meeting for six months ending in April and spent only 2% of its $165-million budget for basic services and reconstruction projects last year.
George said things were slowly improving after a sustained effort to retake Baqubah since his brigade’s arrival in October. A $228-million budget was recently sent by the provincial governing council to Baghdad for approval, and government salaries are once again flowing.
The commander credits the tenuous gains to the block-by-block effort to take back the city, beginning with a police station in the southeast section where Al Qaeda operatives had lowered the Iraqi flag and raised a black one.
“We said OK, fine, we’re taking it back,” George said.
But even with the recovery of the station, he acknowledged that security in the surrounding area remains poor, and the effort to add more U.S. military outposts has not reached the western half of the city.
“Obviously, we had hoped to be farther along by now. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote,” George said.
A significant hindrance to the effort has been the Iraqi security forces, he said. The Iraqi army and police proved to be ineffective and abusive, targeting Sunni Arabs for detention and holding them for 10 months or more without any access to the courts, George said.
In the meantime, U.S. forces in Diyala are looking past the Iraqi police and army for help driving Al Qaeda from the province. Dozens of militia members have been outfitted by American troops with brown T-shirts spray-painted with numbers and will soon be provided with cards identifying them as members of “the Concerned Local Nationals.”
The gunmen are allowed large caches of AK-47s and ammunition, and they are promised eventual positions in the Baqubah police force.
George said the group included members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade and other fighters who have engaged in violent battles with Americans, but he said no one on a “high-value target” list would be able to evade American capture.
“Since we came here, the No. 1 priority has been to drive a wedge between insurgents and terrorists, and this is one of the only ways to do that,” George said.
He acknowledged that aligning with fighters whose long-term agenda remained unclear was risky, but said it was part of a countrywide strategy to jump-start efforts against the insurgency.
On a recent day, Capt. Marc Austin led a squad of soldiers from their command outpost in an abandoned women’s college to visit the new partners.
Along the way, Austin passed homes demolished by Apache helicopter fire after insurgents used the dwellings to set off bombs that killed members of his company. Main thoroughfares were impassable because of bomb craters. On one narrow street, Austin’s men had been ambushed by snipers on rooftops.
“On each of these streets, I’ve lost guys,” Austin said.
Finally, at an intersection where three of his men died in a Bradley fighting vehicle when it was struck by a makeshift bomb, the soldiers entered a courtyard to find dozens of men wearing the brown T-shirts.
The men said they knew where to find two newly planted improvised explosive devices in the road and agreed to dig them up for the Americans, who then detonated the devices, causing windows to crack. One of the devices blew a 6-foot-deep crater.
“Thank God we found that. It would have destroyed basically any vehicle we have,” 1st Lt. Sean McCaffrey said.
Rifle turns up
But relations soured when the Americans found a sniper rifle in the home that was not covered by their agreement. When Austin insisted on seizing the weapon, some of the men’s eyes began to well with tears and the leader of the group, who identified himself as Haidr, said, “We are trying to help you, but you are not trying to help us.”
The Americans walked a few blocks to another abandoned home where more members of the Concerned Local Nationals were found.
Austin asked for the man he had been told led the group, but a thin man wearing a red “Seattle Sport Club” sweatsuit said he was the group’s actual leader and wanted Austin to leave.
“He said he doesn’t want to work with the U.S. He hates the U.S.,” the American military interpreter said. “He said the neighbors say, ‘You guys don’t work for Iraq, you work for the U.S.’
“If he’s not going to go outside and tell me where I can find these IEDs,” Austin said, “what’s the point of me letting him maintain AK-47s here? What are we doing if he isn’t going to dig?”
Finally, one of the militia members agreed to wear a disguise and point to the place where the Americans could find an IED.
The soldiers laid some explosives on top of the spot in the road and took cover inside the home of a 78-year-old man who said he had been abandoned by his 12 children when they left for safer parts of Iraq. The old man said he had no food and wanted to die.
Outside, the explosives laid by the soldiers blew up, but there was no IED underneath.