On the Job with 'Operation Minotaur'

The marketplace in the village of Quba. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR. i i

The marketplace in the village of Quba is deserted while U.S. military operations take place. Residents were ordered to remain in their houses while the Americans searched the area for insurgents and weapons. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
The marketplace in the village of Quba. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR.

The marketplace in the village of Quba is deserted while U.S. military operations take place. Residents were ordered to remain in their houses while the Americans searched the area for insurgents and weapons.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR

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First Lt. Michael Anderson (front left) and Capt. Michael Few. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR. i i

First Lt. Michael Anderson (left) and Capt. Michael Few (right) take a cigarette break during the clearing operations inside the village of Quba, northeast of Baghdad. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
First Lt. Michael Anderson (front left) and Capt. Michael Few. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR.

First Lt. Michael Anderson (left) and Capt. Michael Few (right) take a cigarette break during the clearing operations inside the village of Quba, northeast of Baghdad.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR
A U.S. soldier questions locals about a belt of ammunition. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR. i i

An American soldier questions local residents about a belt of ammunition found buried in their backyard. One woman claims it belongs to her husband, who has left the village to find work. Jamie Tarabay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Tarabay, NPR
A U.S. soldier questions locals about a belt of ammunition. Credit: Jamie Tarabay, NPR.

An American soldier questions local residents about a belt of ammunition found buried in their backyard. One woman claims it belongs to her husband, who has left the village to find work.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR

For the past few weeks, U.S. troops have operated in Iraq's Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, clearing villages of Sunni insurgents who moved into the area in force some months ago.

"Operation Minotaur," the U.S. military operation to clear the village of Quba, began hours and miles away, under the noses of the uninformed Iraqi military. Troops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne used a nearby Iraqi military base as a staging area. First Lt. Michael Anderson said the Iraqis were not told because they were not trusted to keep the operation a secret from the insurgents.

"We've had to arrest a lot of Iraqi army, especially one lieutenant, who's the chief of the station here," Anderson said. "We had arrest him because they're either JAM (members of the Shiite Mahdi Army) or Sunni ... and they will give an early warning to the insurgents in the area.

"Usually there'll be pistol shots or tracers in the air and that'll warn all the high-value targets in the area that we're coming so they'll all hide."

The village of Quba was once home to a mixed population of Sunnis and Shiites. But now nearly half the residents have fled, and the rest live in small sectarian enclaves.

Capt. Michael Few said Operation Minotaur took three weeks to plan. But even as he set off, Few wasn't sure what to expect.

"I don't know; it's always a gamble. We could get in there and they identify that we're coalition forces and we're coming with overwhelming numbers and they choose not to fight," he said.

If that happens, "it's going to be a long day talking to the populace and everyone tells me they're a farmer and their hands are much softer than mine are," Few said.

Another possible outcome: "If there's a key leader in the town, they will fight and we will kill them."

'You're cowards'

The operation itself involves three other units on the ground, and air assault teams. Few and his men arrived at the southern entrance to Quba as artillery from a nearby forward operating base rained down on the northern part of the village.

Flares flew into the night sky. Few said they were warning signals from insurgents. A mosque began its call to dawn prayers before morning had come.

With the booms of artillery in the air, Few pointed to a map on his computer screen to show the path his men would take into the village.

"We're going to begin our attack now," he said. "We're going to up to here set all our trucks in and push forward. My troop will clear from here up 'til about there — all the houses in there. You got that?"

There were about 50 houses, so the operation was likely to take all day.

"Now we're bringing the ordinance guys up, so if we hit an IED they'll find it first and clear it so we won't get blown up," Few said.

There was gunfire as the Humvees rumbled along. Night eventually gave way to a gray morning, and the soldiers moved door-to-door on foot.

One of the Humvees began broadcasting a message to the insurgents as it rolled down the street. It was part taunt, part challenge. "You're cowards," it said. "You don't have the strength or the courage to match our forces."

An American soldier yelled in Arabic at one Iraqi man telling him to go back inside his house. The troops wanted everyone to stay indoors during the operation.

'He's Obviously Working Some Bombs'

One of the units detained three men found with several weapons, fake ID cards and a spool of copper wire — the kind of wire, Few said, that is used to set up roadside bombs, or IEDs. The soldiers walked the three young men down the road, hands bound behind their backs with plastic ties.

Few said the soldiers have to rely on little signs to know whom to detain. Signs like a freshly shaved face, or a fake identification card. In this case the hunch pays off.

"We did a swipe test on those three detainees, and one of them came up positive for TNT," Few said. TNT was a sign that the man was probably making some type of bomb.

Few got on the radio to the soldiers holding the detainees.

"Get rocking and beat this guy up," he said. "He's obviously working some bombs and I'm wondering where they are ... My concern is there's a house being rigged."

The interrogation of the detainees took place out of view.

Looking for Sheik Abdel Rahman

One of Few's targets was a local religious leader, a man called Sheik Abdel Rahman. He'd apparently hidden in the local mosque — the one place in the village the U.S. troops can't enter. Few said the sheik only became more powerful after he'd been detained for a while by U.S. troops and then released because of insufficient evidence against him.

"When he comes back to his town he becomes invincible," Few said. "His stature's increased exponentially because he can't be touched by the Americans — or is at least perceived that way."

When the U.S. soldiers found a tribal leader closeted in his house along with the other men in his family, they gathered around the front gate to answer questions from Few's interpreter.

"Do you know Sheik Abdel Rahman?"

"Yeah, he knows."

"Is he here right now?"

"He said 'I don't know.'"

"Where does he live?"

"If you come on this road, it's the third house from here."

"Can you take us to his house?"

"No, he's scared, he cannot."

The man was scared because he was afraid Sheik Abdel Rahman would know he gave out the information about him.

The American captain continued to press. He pointed to the men standing around the elderly man and said it was their duty to keep the village safe.

"You have to take the responsibility as a sheik to step in and say 'This is wrong,'" Few told the man. "I'm not going to accept it. If you don't you'll have nothing — you're going to be prisoners in your own home ... and you will just stay in the house for the rest of your life."

'I Think It Was a Good Day'

The soldiers continued their search. They entered a house watched by two women, a young boy and a little girl. One of the soldiers found ammunition buried in the back of the garden and threw it at the feet of the Iraqis.

An interpreter said one of the women claimed it belonged to her husband, who had left the village to find work elsewhere. The soldier didn't buy it.

"I understand you're worried about the children, but why are you hiding the weapon?" he asked. "What else do you have buried in there?"

By nightfall, at least 20 insurgents had been killed, and at least as many detained. Weapons, passports, night vision goggles and ammunition were confiscated. Few said he hoped the operation would at least put a dent in the insurgency.

"All in all, I think it was a good day," he said. "All my boys are safe. We accomplished our mission. All my trucks are good. You can't ask for much more. First day of the operation went smoothly."

The second day, four of the soldiers in Captain Few's unit were killed by a roadside bomb. Two others were wounded. The operation continues.

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