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AL JIZANI, Iraq — The Task Force 82nd Engineer commander went door-to-door Thursday in a village on the outskirts of Baqouba in an effort to stop attacks on his soldiers as they convoy along “Blue Babe Highway.”

On a one-kilometer stretch of highway in Al Jizani, the soldiers have been hit by 30 to 40 makeshift bombs, according to Lt. Col. Gerald O’Connor, commander of the 82nd Engineer Battalion from Bamberg, Germany. They’ve also come under small-arms fire several times, he said.

O’Connor first met with the village’s mayor, Shaker Mahzin Rahib Hamed, to give his condolences for four Iraqi National Guard soldiers killed on Tuesday by a car bomb on a different section of the same highway. Then, he spoke with him about two large palm groves that provide cover for insurgents who attack U.S. convoys.

Even the commander’s vehicle has been hit by a roadside bomb on the road. In a separate incident, the vehicle carrying his senior enlisted adviser, Command Sgt. Maj. John Gioia, was hit by a bomb and by small-arms fire. Gioia’s up-armored vehicle still bears the scars of the attacks.

“The guys fire at the convoy, then run into the palm groves,” Gioia said. “It’s a cowardly way to fight.”

The solution seems simple enough — palm grove, meet bulldozer. But it’s not that simple any more, not since June 28, at least.

“Before the turnover, if something posed a threat to soldiers’ safety, you could just eliminate that threat,” O’Connor said. “If there were no houses or trees here, they couldn’t hide so close to the road to set off IEDs [improvised explosive devices] or fire at us.”

So O’Connor decided to talk with the landowners, which proved difficult.

Through his translator, Sgt. Zine El Kouarati, an Arabic-speaking U.S. soldier of Moroccan descent, O’Connor spoke with two families — one on each side of the highway.

One of the families said the people who owned the property on that side were not home.

On the other side of the highway, another family seemed reluctant to talk about demolishing the palm grove, but agreed to attend a meeting about it the following week.

Next door, an abandoned house had a for-sale sign in the front, but the owner was nowhere to be seen.

O’Connor is determined to clear away about 450 feet of the groves, and the meeting on Monday should set that in motion.

“I could just clear it now; these are date palm groves that aren’t even producing dates anymore,” O’Connor said, standing in the abandoned house, which was missing all of its doors and windows.

“If we were to destroy the grove, the people would say: ‘See what the Americans are doing to us.’ I want to do this correctly. If I talk to them and give them a memorandum, they can file a claim [through the nearby Civil Military Operations Center] for their loss.”


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