ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Iraq, U.S. troops recently cleared out a key al-Qaida in Iraq haven south of Baghdad. It was located in the northern part of Babil province, which is a sparsely populated mix of swamp, date groves and fish farms. There, insurgents are said to have trained recruits and built bombs used in suicide attacks across Iraq. Many of the insurgents fled when the Army's 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment started building a small base there a couple of weeks ago. But the military says the fight is far from over.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson embedded with American troops and sent this report.
Unidentified Man: Hey, watch your step. You want to loose dirt?
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: A dozen American soldiers attached to Bravo Company and their Iraqi army counterparts move swiftly across fields of nettles and palm trees, their weapons at the ready. Their mission this day is to meet the new neighbors, Iraqi farmers who've started trickling back into the area after the U.S. forces arrived and al-Qaida in Iraq fighters fled.
But as the attack helicopters buzzing overhead suggests, the troops aren't here for a social visit. They are trying to find out whether the Iraqis are insurgents or sympathizers.
Unidentified Man #2: Are you searching the (unintelligible)?
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah (speaking foreign language).
NELSON: The first stop is at a humbling compound with a single-story home. Women in long robes and scarves peer out nervously from inside. Their children are more daring, lingering in the yard as Iraqi soldiers pound on the metal door at the back. There are no men at home. The soldiers suspect they've run away because they have something to hide. Suddenly, an Iraqi man herding sheep approaches the compound.
Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: The man greets them in Arabic and bids them to enter, which the troops do. Through an interpreter, Staff Sergeant Brad Cantrell and his men ask the Iraqi man and an older male relative whether they know of insurgents in the area.
Unidentified Man #5: (Speaks in foreign language).
Unidentified Man #4: (Speaks in foreign language).
Unidentified Man #6: (Speaks in foreign language). He says he knows them, I mean the bad guys.
NELSON: First Lieutenant Allen Von Plinsky says they take that with a grain of salt.
First Lieutenant ALLEN VON PLINSKY (U.S. Army): I want these guys to take your (unintelligible). A lot of them have rivalries amongst their tribes and stuff. So we're just trying to figure out what is rivalry and what is really al-Qaida and stuff.
NELSON: Something in the sheepherder's behavior makes the soldiers suspicious, so they take down his name and phone number and photograph the irises in his eye, a process similar to taking fingerprints. The idea is to catalogue these guys so they'll be easier to find if they turn out to be troublemakers. Intelligence gathering is among many steps the Army's 3rd battalion 7th Infantry regiment is taking to try and restore calm to this northern part of Babil province. And they are doing so at the request of local tribal leaders, many of whom are linked to insurgents only a few months ago.
But those sheikhs, who belong to the same strict Islamic sect as al-Qaida in Iraq, have turned on that group. Some of it is because of turf battles, but mostly because everyone here is tired of war.
(Soundbite of people talking)
NELSON: Lieutenant Colonel Newsome, the battalion commander here, nurtures these relationships that give his troops a vital edge over the enemy. Like at this Christmas Day meeting in the nearby town of Jurf al Sakhar. Over platters of lamb and rice, Newsome asks the gathered sheikhs and tribal leaders about trouble spots.
Lieutenant Colonel TIM NEWSOME (Commander, Army's 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment): These irreconcilables that are going to operate in and amongst our populations, they've got to be killed and captured.
NELSON: Newsome says he's interested in creating additional squads of Iraqi men handpicked by the sheikhs to set up checkpoints and gather intelligence on insurgents. The sheikhs quickly provide a list of 100 candidates for the concerned citizens' patrols. Armed with AK-47s and reflective armbands to identify them to U.S. and Iraqi forces, the citizen patrols provide vital intelligence to thwart insurgent activity and receive a monthly stipend for their trouble. It's a program that in Newsome's area of operations cost more than $1 million each month. But U.S. military commanders say employing local men for such patrols keeps them from being recruited by al-Qaida in Iraq.
Back in al Khidr, the sparsely populated area where Bravo Company was on patrol, Company Commander James Hart is busy getting his new patrol base up and running. With the sheikhs' blessing, he and his men moved into the area less than two weeks ago. At the moment, the base amounts to a patch of sand ringed by thick blast walls made of wire, cardboard and dirt. Hart's office, for now, is the damaged headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida-linked group. All that's left of the group are its slogans written in charcoal on the walls.
Hart says the building will be torn down as soon as the base is ready next month. Hart says getting here was difficult, mainly because insurgents lined the lone road leading to the new base with bombs. The lone U.S. soldier killed in the operation was Sgt. Samuel Kelsey, who died diffusing those bombs. The new base is named for him. Hart says air strikes and artillery fire hours before they moved in destroyed most of the al-Qaida hangouts and munitions. How many enemy fighters were killed is unclear.
Captain JAMES HART (Commander, Bravo Company): I estimate 15 to 20, but we never recovered any. Some fighters, financiers, the harborers - a lot them have blended back into the population pool. It's going to take several months trying to dig it out. The real important guys had either run off or disappeared to other safe havens.
NELSON: So nobody was recovered for, like, arrest or whatever?
Capt. HART: No, we detained a few people here and there. We questioned some people. And there are some we got our eyes on that we don't have the facts yet to prove that they're guilty. But…
NELSON: One clear success has been the American recapturing of a key canal that provides water to the nearby city of Iskandariya. The militants used it as a tool to terrorize Shiite residents.
Capt. HART: The ministry of water just sent a rep up back up here. And he's now operating this dam, because the issue is the AQI had opened it up. They were flooding out the Shiite apartments down in Iskandariya, all the way down there. So we've now controlled this. And right now, we're just keeping this blocked off until we get established. And then we'll open it back up for civilians to move back into the area.
NELSON: Getting Iraqis back into their homes and to do work is the only way to stop this war, says Brig. Gen. Jim Huggins, deputy commanding general for Maneuvers, who recently visited the new patrol base.
Brigadier General Jim Huggins (Deputy Commanding General for Maneuvers): And eventually, what we'll have it, because this is obviously a pretty fertile area in Iraq. You'll see it be repopulated. And then, life will start to get more like their normal.
NELSON: Huggins says that doesn't mean there won't be setbacks.
Brig. Gen. HUGGINS: We know the enemy won't like us here. And typically, where we go where we haven't been before, they'll try and mount some sort of attack. But that's why we plan pretty thoroughly when we come in. And we think it'll be - we think we'll be fine.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from Kelsey Patrol Base in Iraq.