Making the distinction between friend and foe in Diyala province is tough
January 24, 2009
KARAB, Iraq — A deadly silence stalks edgy soldiers in this devastated collection of earthen and concrete hovels.
Every frayed wire and shuttered door is suspect. As if the soldiers need a reminder, a gaping hole in a smashed home shows the consequences of a misstep.
"That son of a bitch kicks in that door, I’m going to kick his head in," Staff Sgt. James Gautier barks, calling off an Iraqi police officer about to burst in to an unsearched house.
Gautier has reason to worry: Four soldiers from his battalion have been injured, some grievously, in the past two months by booby-trapped homes, and a local man was recently killed when a mine exploded on his farm.
Only a handful of people remain in this parched agricultural outpost in Diyala province, the majority of residents having long since fled a terror campaign that left much of the area sown with bombs. U.S. soldiers patrolling the area are tasked with helping local residents rebuild their livelihoods, but sorting victim from perpetrator is difficult.
First Lt. Thomas Maney said he distrusts anyone in town who stayed despite the insurgent threats.
"It’s because they’re al-Qaida or supporters of them," said Maney, of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
The unit, like thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq, occupies a battlefield that lurches between violence and calm during these murky latter days of the war.
As in much of Iraq these days, actual battles are almost unheard of in Diyala. But bombs — under roads, in cars, even on bicycles — still lurk. Insurgents have retreated to the shadows, but there’s a palpable unease about their ability to re-emerge. American troops work daily with Iraqi security forces, with Iraqis ostensibly leading or at least approving all missions, but often don’t trust them enough to share sensitive information.
The soldiers now find themselves trying to stimulate local economies and mediate sectarian disputes. Just figuring who’s on whose side can be dizzying.
While Maney meets with an Iraqi army commander in a nearby town, Iraqi soldiers joke with a reporter before taking on a grim tone. One holds out his cell phone and plays an Arabic song while the soldiers chant "Alahu Akbar," a common Arabic phrase meaning "God is great" but one also favored by extremists. When asked what it all means, a soldier makes the unambiguous sign of slashing his hand across his throat.
"We’re definitely taking a more standoffish approach with the Iraqi army now," said Maney, who said local Iraqi soldiers had recently botched a plan to clear out a suspected insurgent stronghold.
At a nearby Iraqi army station on a bluff overlooking the meandering Diyala River, Lt. Muhammad Radi Yousef says his area is safe.
"We do a lot of operations," he says confidently.
But down the street, truck driver Ishmael Abdullah Jari stands by his mangled truck with a heavy white bandage wrapped around his head. The vehicle was blown up earlier that day by a bomb laid in one of the nearby cratered dirt tracks that pass for roads. Three other people were also hurt in the explosion. Jari said he can’t afford another truck.
"I am looking for a new job," he said.
Yousef admits there are several insurgents and insurgent sympathizers living near the army station. Despite the seemingly glaring problem of having his station surrounded by insurgents and their friends, he points at a suspected insurgent home and says there is no danger.
"No, he can’t do anything to us," he says.