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First Sgt. Troy Piirainen jokes with local children while questioning residents on the outskirts of Tal Afar about a string of roadside bombings. U.S. troops believe the bombs are being planted by cash-strapped local men paid by a local Sunni sheik who allegedly issued a directive, urging the killing of U.S. and Iraqi troops.
First Sgt. Troy Piirainen jokes with local children while questioning residents on the outskirts of Tal Afar about a string of roadside bombings. U.S. troops believe the bombs are being planted by cash-strapped local men paid by a local Sunni sheik who allegedly issued a directive, urging the killing of U.S. and Iraqi troops. (Monte Morin / S&S)

SINJAR, Iraq — The cluster of thumbtacks said it all.

Every blood-red pushpin marked the crater of a recent roadside bombing and more than a dozen of the tacks studded the laminated wall map at Tiger Squadron headquarters. The pins crowded a narrow stretch of Route Santa Fe, the main highway between Tal Afar and Sinjar, an ancient settlement near the Syrian border.

“We’ve got a cell there,” said Lt. Col. Gregory D. Reilly, Tiger Squadron commander. “It’s not really in our zone, but it’s right on our line of supply. We need to get rid of it.”

Nearly two months after the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the Iraqi 3rd Infantry Division recaptured Tal Afar in a pitched battle with insurgents, and just two weeks before a historic parliamentary election, life in Iraq’s fragile and ethnically rich northeast remains noticeably calm. In a few instances however, “Brave Rifles” troopers are still attempting to root out insurgents.

Such was the case this week with Route Santa Fe — a two-lane strip of blacktop that cuts through the Iraqi prairie, past a constellation of dusty villages and herds of mud-stained sheep. Centuries ago, Alexander the Great and his army passed over the same route.

The bombings began several months ago and are believed to be the work of cash-strapped local men who have been paid to plant artillery shells and other explosives late at night. Trip wires are the preferred method of detonation.

First Sgt. Troy Piirainen of Howitzer Battery has been on the case for roughly a month, trying to identify members of the nascent cell through interviews with locals. It’s been slow going. The residents are a mix of Sunni and Shiite and many are afraid or refuse to cooperate.

Piirainen, a wry 42-year-old from South Paris, Maine, suspects that the bomb plantings were financed by Mohammed Taha — a local Sunni sheik who allegedly issued a fatwa, or directive, urging locals to kill U.S. troops and Iraqi police.

Taha, a local poultry and real estate baron, allegedly has his fingers in gun running and extortion as well. U.S. forces took him into custody some months back, accusing him of criminal activity, but released him some time later for lack of evidence.

On Monday, Piirainen climbed into his Humvee, slammed the armored door shut and set off in search of evidence that would keep Taha in custody for good.

“We goin’ to Soccer Ball Guy’s house?” asked Sgt. Matt Williams, who sat behind the wheel of the truck.

“Yeah, let’s go see Soccer Ball Guy,” Piirainen said.

“Soccer Ball Guy,” as he is known, is a local man who approached soldiers with information as they were handing out soccer balls to a crowd of shrieking children recently. The man had good reason to talk with U.S. troops, Piirainen said. His father, a Shiite Muslim, was reportedly gunned down after he refused to join Taha and a group of Sunni Muslims in their fight against the coalition, Piirainen said. The Sunni men, who had enjoyed preferential status under Saddam Hussein — even though they were in the minority — were hoping to join forces with Shiites, who had suffered oppression under the regime.

As Piirainen’s Humvee sped toward the informant’s house, traffic parted like the Red Sea. When the Humvee wheeled up to a weathered cinder block compound some time later, Soccer Ball Guy was nowhere to be seen. His brother, a beefy, broad-faced man in a threadbare dishdasha invited Piirainen inside.

Taking a seat on a small rug in a long, narrow living room, Piirainen explained the purpose of his visit through an interpreter. The beefy man looked unimpressed. Why doesn’t Piirainen just send his soldiers to Taha’s house and beat him senseless, he asks.

“We can’t do that,” Piirainen said. “That would make us no better than him. I understand why you would want us to beat him though.”

Piirainen asks the big man if he knows anything about the bombings. The big man said that locals were being offered 75,000 Iraqi dinars a pop to plant the explosives — a sum equal to about $50.

“That’s all we’re worth now?” Piirainen asked in mock surprise. Piirainen then tells the man he needs written statements to stop the bombings. He asks the man if he will tell him what he knows about Taha in writing.

“The more people we have tell us what happened the more it will help us put him in jail,” Piirainen said.

“... again,” cracked Williams, who was standing guard near the doorway.

“Again,” Piirainen said.

The big man said, no, he would not give a statement. A toddler who resembles the big man plopped down beside him and started gnawing on a clear plastic package labeled MARC – Meal, alternative, regionally customized.

The big man starts to look annoyed and raises his voice. He slaps the floor with his hand.

The mayor is bad, he says. So are the police. “The police do not help. When you go to them with information, they say, ‘No, you’re just saying that because you don’t like them.’”

Piirainen tells the man to have patience. Things are improving, but it won’t happen overnight.

“It’s very very frustrating to see this guy back on the street,” Piirainen says of Taha. “We have to dig even harder for evidence. We don’t like to see a bad guy on the street any more than the Iraqis do.”

Rubbing the toddler’s head, the big man asks Piirainen if he’s brought a medic with him. His brother has a sore throat. Piirainen says no, but that he can bring one back with him in a couple days. Piirainen asks again if the big man and his brothers will write statements for him. The big man shrugs and says, yes.

After a glass of sweet tea, Piirainen, Williams, and their translator say goodbye, leaving the big man with a handful of forms in which he and his relatives could write statements.

Mildly encouraged, Piirainen climbed into his Humvee and started back toward camp.

“I’d like to roll this guy up today,” Piirainen said. “But somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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