Baqouba operation moves to next phase
U.S., Iraqi troops have 60 days to win over locals and restart economy
Stars and Stripes
The cannister hit the ground and popped, spewing out a huge cloud of white smoke as U.S. and Iraqi troops sprinted from behind a mud-brick house to a mosque compound across the road.
Once inside, the troops began searching for anything that might link the mosque to al-Qaida fighters or other insurgent groups.
Intelligence reports had earlier indicated that the mosque was serving as a haven for enemy fighters. U.S. forces had already hit the compound with a precision-guided bomb when they launched a massive operation to clear Baqouba of insurgents 10 days earlier. The raid was meant to find any evidence that the intelligence had been correct.
Once inside, the small group of U.S. soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and Kurdish troops from the 5th Iraqi Army Division began searching, rifling through papers, looking through stacks of books and peering into closets for weapons or documents that would confirm the initial reports.
After about 20 minutes of searching, an Iraqi interpreter the Americans call “Cal” produced a couple of sheets of paper with Arabic writing. The paper warned local residents not to cooperate with the Iraqi police, army or U.S. forces. It was signed on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq in Diyala province, an underground umbrella organization for al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in Iraq.
“This is exactly what we’re looking for,” said Capt. Stuart Chapman, 25, of Richmond, Va.
Other documents found at the site included identity cards, ration cards and piece of notebook paper with a sketch of an AK-47 rifle and a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq drawn in a childish hand.
Other documents identified the mosque as Wahabbi, a fundamentalist branch of Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and one to which many Sunni insurgents adhere.
Absent any weapons or insurgents themselves, it seemed that the raid produced something of a jackpot of potential intelligence information.
“We’re money,” said Sgt. Luis Cruz, 28, of Davenport, Iowa.
That sort of information could prove vital as U.S. and Iraqi forces move into the next phase of operations in Baqouba. With almost no hostile fire reported in days, combat operations are winding down. The focus of the effort now is to consolidate control and persuade local residents to begin cooperating with U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.
The overall intent of this phase of the Baqouba operation, said Capt. Issac Torres, commander of Company C, is to “lock down the local population and keep pressure on them” until they begin turning in al-Qaida and other insurgents who remain in the city.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Col. Steve Townsend, commander of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said about half of the estimated 300 to 500 fighters thought to be in Baqouba at the beginning of the operation had either fled the city or gone into hiding.
But according to local residents, most insurgents fled Baqouba two days before the offensive started, tipped off by reports on Iraqi television that U.S. and Iraqi government forces were set to begin a massive sweep of the city.
Two battalions of U.S. troops — the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry and the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry, both part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team — moved in June 19 to seal off the western half of Baqouba. A similar offensive to retake the eastern half of the city took place earlier this year left scores of enemy fighters and dozens of U.S. troops dead.
Two years ago, the Islamic State of Iraq declared the city, about 40 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, to be its capital. Fighting in the city and surrounding areas has worsened since last January when insurgents flocked into Diyala province after President Bush announced a plan to send additional U.S. forces to secure Baghdad.
Although fighting to retake Baqouba proved much easier than expected, the next 60 days will prove crucial as U.S. and Iraqi government forces try to win over the local population and restart the economy and government services.
One of the biggest challenges has been to provide food to local residents caught in their homes during the fighting and who have since been prohibited from leaving because of a ban on vehicle traffic in the city. U.S. and Iraqi government forces have been distributing food and water in different areas of Baqouba, drawing hundreds of hungry residents daily. Rations of rice and flour are supposed to feed a typical-sized Iraqi family, usually around six to eight persons, for three weeks.
In an interview before the offensive, Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek said it would take at least 60 days to secure Baqouba, restart government services and turn over the lead security role to Iraqi army and police.
Since the beginning of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, as the offensive in Baqouba is called, Iraqi and American troops have distributed some 265,000 pounds of rice and flour, along with 10,000 meals, to families in the area.
U.S. military officials said Thursday that some 60 suspected al-Qaida fighters had been killed so far in the operation, with 74 suspects arrested. To date, 31 weapons caches have been recovered.
At least 81 explosive devices have been found and disarmed, but there was no word on the number that exploded before being detected. The combined force has also destroyed 18 booby-trapped structures, officials said.
During one clearing operation, the troops found a warehouse in the Khatoon neighborhood of the city filled with food that had allegedly been stolen by militants from government food distribution centers.
The food was later distributed by the troops to civilians in the area.
“The theft and hoarding of these essential supplies by al-Qaida is just another example of how that organization seeks to control the population by depriving it of needed provisions,” Col. Steve Townsend, commander of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, was quoted as saying.