• World

Iraq: The Small-Town War

7 minute read
Mark Kukis/Baqubah

The insurgents took control of the Diyala River Valley outside Baqubah almost as soon as the Americans deployed elsewhere in Iraq. That was back in November 2006. The streets of Diyala province then became deadlier than ever, as the string of placid farming hamlets nestled among dense palm groves shuddered with violence. The province and its capital, Baqubah, which lies 30 miles north of Baghdad, unraveled. The once mixed villages have become sectarian enclaves; banks, stores and markets have shut down for fear of murder and bloodshed. But at the end of February, the U.S. began patrolling the valley again, and on March 24 America struck back with force. The first target: the insurgents’ safe haven of Qubah, a village on the edge of the river valley.

The attack opened at 4 a.m. when seven Chinooks, four Black Hawks and two Apache gunships rose as one from the U.S. forward operating base and descended on Qubah. At the same time, a convoy of humvees and Bradleys rumbled toward the action. More than 200 troops emerged from the choppers at the edge of Qubah, and the Apaches began strafing targeted insurgent positions. Street fights broke out as insurgents caught sight of the Americans. Qubah was largely secured not long after daybreak, with U.S. soldiers marking numbers on the necks of men and hands of women to keep track of residents during lockdown. Some 16 insurgents lay dead, but the bloodshed would continue through Sunday. The Apaches would kill 12 more suspected insurgents after some of them were seen triggering roadside bombs against a U.S. convoy. As dusk settled, another bomb exploded next to a parked humvee, killing four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi child.

The Bush Administration’s buildup of U.S. forces in Baghdad has yielded some tentatively encouraging results: sectarian violence in the capital has decreased in the past month, and some displaced residents have started to return home. But in places like Diyala, the surge is having the opposite effect. The increased U.S. presence in Baghdad has pushed many Sunni and Shi’ite fighters out of the city into areas where they have found roles in ongoing battles, launched new assaults on U.S. and Iraqi troops and infected the civilian population with sectarian hate. Colonel David Sutherland, commander of U.S. forces in Diyala province, says small-arms attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces there rose from 33 in July to 98 in February. Last July had just three suicide bombings in the province; this month there were five in one week, including one at a U.S. patrol base in the valley that killed one soldier and wounded 16 others. On certain streets in Buhriz, one of the worst villages in Diyala, U.S. forces face storms of mortars and shoulder-fired rockets from Sunni insurgents intent on turning it into the next Fallujah or Ramadi. Major Jeremy Siegrist, a cavalry commander working with a Stryker battalion, says more than 20 soldiers from his battalion of 800 men and women have died fighting in the city. “We’ve had a very rough couple of months,” he says.

It wasn’t always this way. When U.S. Captain Mike Few was stationed outside Baqubah in November, tensions between Shi’ites, who make up 30% of the population of Diyala, and Sunnis were being held in check by tribal leaders. “It was manageable in the beginning,” says Few. “The sheiks were working it out.” But as the U.S. began shifting military resources to Baghdad, sectarian tensions erupted. Late last year the largely Shi’ite government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki choked off supplies of food and fuel to the predominantly Sunni province. Tribal violence, which has long been a source of unrest, intensified as resources dwindled. Sunni insurgents who had gathered in the area under the banner of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, killed by U.S. forces near Baqubah last June, launched a campaign to exterminate Shi’ites, who retaliated in kind. As in Baghdad, kidnappings and gruesome murders have become everyday fare.

It’s hard to find any Iraqis–Sunni or Shi’ite–who openly embrace the presence of U.S. troops four years after the invasion. But the situation in Diyala shows why the vast majority–as many as 70%, according to a poll released on March 20–don’t want them to leave. With the assault on Qubah, U.S. forces have killed roughly 70 suspected insurgents since re-entering the river valley on Feb. 27. They estimate that perhaps 100 more remain in the village of Zaganiyah, where some stragglers from Qubah may have fled and which U.S. commanders say they must eventually retake as part of the broader strategy to rid the Baqubah area of insurgents. The U.S. believes there are also insurgent training camps around Qubah and Zaganiyah where fighters learn guerrilla tactics and perfect skills at making roadside bombs. One ominous discovery: among the dead in Qubah was an alleged insurgent whose Iraqi passport indicated he had been through New York City and Boston as recently as last year.

U.S. intelligence officers suspect that the leader of Sunni insurgent forces in Buhriz lives less than three miles from the home of the leading Shi’ite in the valley, Sheik Adnan Qudban Hamid. Few, a graduate of West Point’s class of 2000, spent much of his previous time in the valley working to bolster Hamid. After Few’s men left the valley for Baghdad three months ago, the increase in violence restricted Hamid to his compound, keeping him from traveling the roads at all. When Few returned to visit Hamid, the sheik embraced him. “I love you!” Hamid said in English. Few and Lieut. Colonel Andrew Poppas, the overall commander of the soldiers tasked with clearing the valley, quickly put pleasantries aside. Huddling with the two officers, Hamid unfolded a detailed map of Zaganiyah drawn by hand on pink construction paper and pointed out which streets were occupied by insurgents and where arms caches were likely to be in case Few’s troops decided to assault the village.

The roads, canals and overgrown footpaths snaking through the territory remain an eerie scene of violence, a jungle world reminiscent of Vietnam. At night, U.S. forces stand watch at two patrol bases in Zurah, a village at the western end of the valley. The crack of shots often pierces the darkness, the echoes of gunfire melting into the chorus of croaking frogs.

The signs of bloodletting reveal themselves by day. Some of Few’s men recently came upon a station wagon riddled with bullets. Inside were the bodies of a man, a woman and a young child–all murdered. While searching for gunmen in a house a short distance away, the soldiers came across a white burlap sack hung on a door; it contained a human head. There was no sign of the victim’s body, which may very well have joined other decapitated corpses periodically seen floating down the Diyala River.

The American officers believe that within weeks they can kill or disperse insurgents in the valley, strangling the flow of fighters and weapons into Baqubah and Muqdadiyah. The retaking of those two towns may require much more time. Siegrist says clearing operations in Baqubah could take months and require another influx of U.S. forces, and Sutherland, the commanding officer in the province, says he’s mulling over making a request for more soldiers.

But with the military already scrambling to send reinforcements to Baghdad, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will ever have the forces it needs to fully pacify places like Diyala. Even if U.S. troops manage to re-establish a measure of normality in the city, simply pushing out the insurgents won’t solve the deep-seated disputes that have sent the province, like so much of Iraq, hurtling into civil war. A functioning local government for the valley must re-emerge, with support from Baghdad, if the area hopes to break free of the militants who hold sway in its absence. “I can kill all day long,” says Sutherland. “It will do no good.” Four years after it came to Iraq, the U.S. has learned that lesson the hard way.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com