Insurgent Leaders in Iraq Remain Elusive

U.S. and Iraqi forces have detained hundreds of suspected insurgents in recent operations launched in and around Baghdad and in western Iraq. But American commanders acknowledge that many of those captured are low-level insurgents, while cell leaders and organizers evade capture.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

A US helicopter has been shot down near Baghdad. The two US servicemen on board were killed. Another helicopter was also hit, but it managed to land safely. The loss of the two pilots brings the number of American servicemen killed in Iraq in the past month to 78. More than 600 Iraqis have been killed, making May one of the bloodiest months in the past two years. US and Iraqi forces have detained hundreds of suspected insurgents in recent operations launched in and around Baghdad and in western Iraq. But American commanders acknowledge that many of those captured are low-level insurgents. Cell leaders and planners remain elusive, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

A large joint US-Iraqi raid in one corner of Baghdad yesterday didn't make headlines. But the quiet efficiency of the operation says a lot about the successes and shortcomings of the counterinsurgency fight raging across Iraq. Before dawn, the US Army's 37 Calvary linked up with a battalion of the US-trained Iraqi intervention force, more than a thousand soldiers in all. The Americans brought attack helicopters, unmanned planes and seasoned US troops to the raid near Salman Pak in southeast Baghdad. The Iraqi soldiers brought limited firepower, but added the essential knowledge about the area, its people and culture and language, assets the US has so often lacked during its mission in Iraq. The Americans established an outer defensive ring while the Iraqis, with the help of US Marine advisers, pushed inside the town, raiding specific homes sheltering suspected insurgents. Specialist James Gleason, a Humvee gunner with 37 Calvary, is worn out from the 12-hour mission.

Specialist JAMES GLEASON (US Army): We sat on the blocking positions to cover possible escape routes for the insurgents. So basically, the Iraqi army just flushed them out to us and then we tracked them down.

WESTERVELT: The US battalion commander and his Iraqi counterpart coordinated throughout the operation. American air support tracked suspects when ground forces lost sight. In all, 23 suspected insurgents were taken into custody. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Johnson commands the third squadron, 7th US Calvary.

Lieutenant Colonel MICHAEL JOHNSON (7th US Calvary): It's the largest operation that we've done with Iraqi forces and it went extremely smooth. We planned it together, jointly, and we rehearsed it and then we executed pretty much according to plan, and no major issues and a very successful operation.

WESTERVELT: Successful but with a big caveat. The suspects now being interrogated by the Iraqi military, US officers concede, are likely at best low-level fighters or people with only lose ties to some branch of the insurgency. Private First Class Duane Jackson(ph) with the 37 Cav Thursday chased one suspect into a drainage ditch filled with putrid waist-high sludge. He says it's hard to see and measure progress in this kind of guerrilla fight, where there always seems to be another suspect to chase through another drainage ditch.

Private First Class DUANE JACKSON (US Army): Sometimes it's quiet, so you think you did your job, then, like, two or three days later then you hear IAD or mortar, so, you know, you need to go out and do more. It's a continuous thing, which is on and off so you really can't tell. You don't know who's who. So we just stay safe and keep doing our job.

WESTERVELT: It's a frustration shared by PFC Jackson's top commanders.

Colonel JOSEPH DISALVO (2nd Brigade Combat Team Commander): I think the biggest concern we got is the needle-in-the-haystack enemy.

WESTERVELT: Colonel Joseph Disalvo commands the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. His unit is responsible for most of eastern Baghdad, stretching from Sadr City in the north through Salman Pak in the south. Colonel Disalvo and others believe insurgents use the less populated semirural areas of southeast Baghdad as a planning and staging area for deadly attacks in central Baghdad. Disalvo says they're working on going after the bigger fish, not just the insurgent foot soldier who detonates a car bomb or what the military calls a VBIED.

Col. DISALVO: It can be very frustrating because you just don't get the intelligence. But slowly but surely, the people are now starting to come forth. The hard part is getting the cell leaders, not necessarily the blue collar as we call it, the ones executing the mission. We can get those guys. It's the ones that can finance it and the ones that supply the technology, for example, for the VBIEDs. That's who we got to go find and capture or kill them. That's what we're focused on.

WESTERVELT: The insurgency remains multifaceted with hard-to-distinguish ethnic, tribal and religious nuances. And gathering solid, human intelligence on insurgents is painstaking and slow work, something Lieutenant Colonel Johnson's young soldiers trained in infantry tactics are learning.

Lt. Col. JOHNSON: It's very difficult; it's very complex out there. With the tribal way that they--the Iraqis live and all the dynamics that go on in a society that we just don't completely understand, you have to be patient, and I think that's the key over here. Tactical patience and understanding. It's gaining little pieces of intelligence that when you piece them together will lead you to the person or the weapons cache that you're looking for.

WESTERVELT: It can be hard to teach that tactical patience to a 20-year-old soldier who's seen a friend maimed or killed by an armor-piercing roadside bomb. Soldiers here say they're committed to the fight in Iraq but are counting the days until they go home. The methodical grind of counterinsurgency is something this armored brigade that swept into Baghdad two years ago has had to adjust to. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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