U.S. Troops Confront a Mix of Enemies in Iraq

U.S. troops recently deployed to the southeast region of Baghdad, which is the size of Rhode Island, are facing a mix of enemies, including Shiite militia and al-Qaeda.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

The surge of some 30,000 additional troops in Iraq is now complete. The strategy is to make Baghdad more secure by clearing insurgent sanctuaries outside the capital. To achieve that, the Army has created scores of new bases in areas where U.S. troops have never been before.

NPR's John Burnett is at one of those combat outposts and he's on the line from Iraq. John, exactly where are you?

JOHN BURNETT: John, I'm at the combat outpost Assassins, located southeast of Baghdad. It borders the Tigris River. Around me is sort of a mini fortress surrounded by concrete blast walls and these enormous (unintelligible) of sand they call heskas(ph). It's made up of soldiers of Alpha troop of the 31 Cav Squadron. It's part of the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Georgia.

This is the part of third surge of the troops to arrive here in Iraq since April. The objective is to attack insurgent sanctuaries southeast of Baghdad and disrupt the bomb making cells and the bombers that go in and out of the capital.

YDSTIE: And how successful have those troops been?

BURNETT: Well, the short answer is that it's really too early to tell. All the troops in the surge have just arrived. Down here where I am, they've kicked (unintelligible).

There's a lot of contact, regular IEDs on the highways, mortars firing here into this compound. They call it happy hour when it starts. The problem is the hour is late. There really hasn't been any military presence down here along the Tigris for four years now, and so these groups have entrenched themselves. They've had complete freedom of movement and so that makes it harder to flush them out.

Having said that, the commanders down here feel like they're making a difference. They said they've destroyed 37 boats on the Tigris used to ferry bombs and ammunition across the river. They've killed 23 suspected insurgents. There are constant patrols in the community where they say they're disrupting insurgents and extremists and just making it harder for them to operate. I mean, whether or not this means fewer bombs in Baghdad, which is the ultimate goal, it's hard to say now.

YDSTIE: John, the Bush administration has been saying with increasing frequency now that the insurgents the military is targeting in Iraq are members of al-Qaida. Skeptics wonder if this is not an attempt by President Bush to try to link the Iraq war again to 9/11. What evidence do you see of an al-Qaida presence there?

BURNETT: Well, that's a really good question. When I was in Baghdad at the NPR bureau, I was reading all these military press releases coming out of Iraq. And there's this drumbeat about al-Qaida, al-Qaida. And in this battlefield southeast of Baghdad where I am, which is kind of mixed urban/rural, the picture is really much more complicated.

There are al-Qaida in Iraq fighters here. There are also Sunni extremists. Mostly, though, it's Shiite militia members loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. They're shooting at the Americans, shooting at each other. And it's a good example of the complexity of Iraq. Actually, al-Qaida in Iraq is the minority here in this area. But they're also the best trained; they're the toughest fighters. The military says they have the most accurate snipers and they build the biggest bombs.

YDSTIE: John, just to the north of you in Baqubah there was a similar operation called Arrowhead Ripper. Many insurgents apparently fled ahead of that operation and melted away. Is any of that happening in your area?

BURNETT: There's probably some of that, but also the insurgents in this area, the commanders tell me, have hunkered down. They moved farther south of the riverside town of Salman Pak. And the Shiite militias, which are right around this combat base where I am now, are definitely still here because we hear their mortar fire every afternoon. The area commander told me that his soldiers are ready to push south and flush out the area farther along the Tigris. But remember, the name of this operation is Clear and Hold.

Now, U.S. troops - there's 3,000 soldiers of the Sledgehammer Heavy Brigade Combat team. They're responsible for an area the size of Rhode Island. So they can clear the area, but in order to hold it they're relying on the Iraqi defense forces and the Iraqi national police, which while the commander says they're making progress, they're simply not ready to hold the area now. You'll recall this is the same thing the American commanders have been telling us for four years now, that the Iraqi defense forces are almost ready.

YDSTIE: NPR's John Burnett at a U.S. Army combat outpost just southeast of Baghdad. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: My pleasure, John.

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