U.S., Iraqi Forces Target Diyala Insurgents

U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken over some of the houses in Shakarat to establish a presence in the i

U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken over some of the houses in Shakarat to establish a presence in the village. One of their new outposts is the largest and nicest house on this street. The owner's son complains that the family hasn't been compensated for the use of its house. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken over some of the houses in Shakarat to establish a presence in the

U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken over some of the houses in Shakarat to establish a presence in the village. One of their new outposts is the largest and nicest house on this street. The owner's son complains that the family hasn't been compensated for the use of its house.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR

Reporter's Notebook

In Iraq, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remain the principle cause of death and injury among U.S. soldiers. NPR reporter Jamie Tarabay learned first hand about the IED threat as she traveled with American troops in Diyala province.

Iraqis stand outside a store covered in graffiti. i

Iraqis stand outside a store covered in graffiti. When U.S. and Iraqi forces arrived, they spray painted over writing by al-Qaida-linked groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq. The U.S. military says it found al-Qaida flags atop some buildings in the village, including the local school. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
Iraqis stand outside a store covered in graffiti.

Iraqis stand outside a store covered in graffiti. When U.S. and Iraqi forces arrived, they spray painted over writing by al-Qaida-linked groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq. The U.S. military says it found al-Qaida flags atop some buildings in the village, including the local school.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR
Men cross a bridge near the village of Shakarat. i

U.S. and Iraqi forces have blocked off access for vehicles across the bridge to the village of Shakarat since they began operations here March 14. U.S. soldiers say they will reopen the bridge once the situation is more secure. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
Men cross a bridge near the village of Shakarat.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have blocked off access for vehicles across the bridge to the village of Shakarat since they began operations here March 14. U.S. soldiers say they will reopen the bridge once the situation is more secure.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR

Sunni insurgents are moving into Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, to escape a U.S. operation that has become increasingly violent. Now U.S. and Iraqi troops are conducting operations aimed at denying the insurgents access to a region that has been an insurgent stronghold.

The road to the village of Shakarat is pocked with craters from roadside bombs. Cars approaching a U.S. military convoy teeter precariously to the left side of the road, almost falling into the pungent ditch. Shakarat and most of Diyala province are home to Iraq's most fertile land. Towns are squeezed between dense clusters of palm groves and snaking canals.

Capt. Eric Philips, from the 293rd MP Company, says it's also the terrain of bomb-making Sunni insurgents; improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, are a constant threat.

"I think we see about one a day on this road, in this little stretch," Philips says. "We either find it or get hit by it. I've had several trucks have the doors blown up and had to go get replaced on this road."

The road is drenched in sewage and garbage. Locals stare as the U.S. convoy goes past. The spray-painted graffiti on the cinder block walls is all about support for the insurgent groups, with messages like: "Long live the mujahedeen," "Long live the Islamic state of Iraq," and "death to Maliki," referring to Iraq's prime minister.

On March 14, U.S. and Iraqi forces rolled into Shakarat to commandeer the tiny bridge over the canal. Army Lt. Michael Stallings explains the strategic importance of controlling the bridge.

"It became a key hub for the insurgents because so many roads intersected here, and this is the only crossing of the Marrouk Canal in this breadbasket area," he says. "So in the Sunni-controlled area, this was their main lifeline. But now we own it."

Stallings says insurgent groups terrorized the local people, and that they beheaded a retired police officer. "They pulled everybody out of their houses to watch it," he says.

The U.S. and Iraqi military intend to stay. They've taken over homes along the main road, and offered compensation to the owners. One of their main outposts is the biggest and nicest house in the street, but the owner has yet to be compensated.

Stallings tells a member of the owner's family that the forces aren't prepared to make payments yet.

"We've been here less than a week," Stallings says. "There are a lot of claims that we have to handle and we don't come into town with a trunk of money to hand people cash for the things that have happened."

Stallings is assailed by questions from the locals. He's not helped by a short Iraqi soldier at his elbow asking how much longer they have to stay in Shakarat. The soldier complains he's working 12-hour shifts, hasn't had time off, and hasn't been paid.

Stallings becomes frustrated.

"Yes, we're going to be here as long as we need to be to secure the people of Iraq," he tells the Iraqi soldier. "You need to talk to your chain of command, your commander, your platoon leader... to ask them these questions, not me. I only run the American part of things; your commander runs the Iraqi part of things."

Shopkeeper Fadhil Kadhmi wants the U.S. military to allow cars over the bridge again so he can sell his crops to buyers coming from other parts of the country.

"We have no connection with the insurgents," he says. "We don't know who they are or where they come from. This operation is for them, but it's been six days and we have nothing left to eat."

Other Iraqis also want the bridge opened. But the U.S. military says it's too soon. Iraqi soldiers call men approaching the bridge to lift their shirts to make sure they're not wearing explosives. A suicide bomber killed an Iraqi child here this past weekend.

Jamal Aloun, 61, sits with other Iraqis outside a store watching the bulldozers work. He says he feels better now after this latest operation, and wants the military to stay.

"We need electricity, we need water, we need this garbage removed. That's what everyone is now asking for."

He's told it's coming, along with the reconstruction of the local school, which only last week bore the flag of al-Qaida, the U.S. military says. He replies "inshallah," God willing, and those standing with him say the same.

Roadside Bombs Plague Iraq Patrols

In Iraq, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, remain the principle cause of death and injury among U.S. soldiers. NPR reporter Jamie Tarabay learned first hand about the IED threat Tuesday as she traveled with American troops in Diyala province.

First Lt. Douglas McGregor, 24, of Wilsonville, Ore., leads a convoy of supply vehicles in Iraq. His team had just finished delivering supplies to the newly built outpost in the village of Shakarat, and was on its way back to base. Just 10 minutes into the journey, the first IEDs were spotted. McGregor got out to check, and an ordnance team was called in.

A boom. An hour later, another loud boom — and McGregor returned.

"That would have killed us," he said. "It was a land mine right in the middle of the road. It was command-wired and pressure-plated, so whether he set it off or we set it off, it would have been a bad day."

Sunni insurgents have long controlled this part of Iraq. They elude capture by slipping into the nearby palm groves and vineyards. Recently, U.S. and Iraqi forces began operations to clear the area of al-Qaida-linked insurgents. McGregor says the IEDs are often placed in the same spot daily.

"They're pretty hasty setting them in the same holes," he said.

We reached the spot where the first IED exploded; a massive gap in the middle of the rocky road was all that was left.

"Go slow ... all right, slow down, keep going, keep going. OK, stop," McGregor directed. "That's where it was. Hey stop! What the? Go! Get out of here, you're right over the hole! We had to check over the hole to make sure they didn't put something else in it."

The soldiers say it's hard to know what to look for. Everything — and everyone — looks suspicious. Even children. McGregor got news on his radio and turned to the gunner to warn him.

"Hey, we got rock throwers on the left in an alleyway — just stay down. Just stay down and watch your head, there's rock throwers on the left. These little kids they're waving, but they probably hate you, actually," he said. "Hey, grab some candy for the rock throwers, throw some peanuts at them."

The convoy then rolled into a deserted part of the village. The shops looked like mechanic garages, but they were all shuttered. It was eerily vacant, so close to the place where moments earlier children had played. McGregor pointed out a curious yellow trash can.

Then a bomb went off. The explosion showered metal and sand into the Humvee, leaving those inside coughing. But the vehicle kept going. McGregor ordered the convoy to continue, his tone unchanged. Contact with an IED, he called it.

The soldiers tried to inject some humor into the moment by counting how many IEDs they'd each encountered.

One cracked, "Hey throw some peanuts at these kids. Maybe they'll stop setting up IEDs."

By the end of the journey, all vehicles in the convoy were still intact.

The gunner wondered aloud in jest if he'd been hit in the head. Reminding him that things could have been much worse, McGregor told him to quit whining.

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