Baquba Residents Displaced by Insurgents U.S. troops in Baquba, Iraq, are trying to flush out insurgents believed to have al-Qaida ties. The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed in Baquba and have commandeered residents' homes. U.S. troops move from house to house, finding roadside bombs and entire houses wired as bombs.
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Baquba Residents Displaced by Insurgents

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Baquba Residents Displaced by Insurgents

Baquba Residents Displaced by Insurgents

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It has been an exceptionally bloody couple of days for American forces in Iraq. Fourteen U.S. troops have been killed in a number of attacks. In the deadliest incident, five soldiers died when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad this afternoon. Three Iraqi civilians and an interpreter were killed as well.

The U.S. military has stepped up its effort to go after insurgent groups both inside and outside of their capital. It's being called Operation Phantom Thunder.

BLOCK: New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon is embedded with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment in Baquba. That's the capital of Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The city has been the base of insurgent activity lately. Now thousands of U.S. troops have cordoned off half of Baquba and they're starting to move in.

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Chief Military Correspondent, The New York Times): They have not only cut off the fighters, they've also cut off half of the city's population because there are thousands of civilians, and they also can't get out. Americans, in fact, are discouraging them from trying to leave. They're saying, stay in your homes, just sort of wait out the fight, and you'll be okay. But a lot of the people seemed to determine to leave anyway because they're trying to get to the marketplace in the other side of the city. There are students who are trying to take exams, and a lot them are trying to flee the fighting.

BLOCK: You know, in past operations, the U.S. military has encouraged residents to leave the city when they were going to be going in and knowing that there'll be fierce fighting. That wasn't the case here, you're saying?

Mr. GORDON: Right. Their concern is that these insurgent fighters just melt away in the population. That they'll put their guns down and just sort of blend in and pretend they're part of the normal citizenry. And so if thousands of people were to flee, they think these guys would've succeeded in sort of slipping out. And indeed, you know, they're letting people leave on a sort of selective basis to go to the market, but they're letting women leave. And their plan is to search the women, also to make sure they're women. And they are not letting military-age males out as they call them.

BLOCK: It seems that if the civilians are there and the al-Qaida fighters are blending in with them in Baquba, that could lead to another problem for the military, which is a lot of civilian casualties as they tried to find the fighters.

Mr. GORDON: Yeah, there have been civilian casualties. I was just talking to our photographer and he had seen people who are hurt by phosphorus shells. But, you know, the civilian casualties are also being caused by the other side. I mean, really, you have to realize what, sort of, western Baquba is. I mean, what these insurgents have done is whole streets are just - are sort of fields of these what they called IEDs (unintelligible) buried improvised explosive devices, and these are large bombs that are buried underground with a kind of cable so they can be triggered by the insurgents.

And in fact some of the houses here have been wired with explosives and turned it to traps. And what soldiers have been doing is moving pretty methodically very slowly with the soldiers ahead of the vehicles probing for what they think the primary threat - is these massive roadside bombs. Sometimes they'd dropped satellite-guided bombs on them or satellite-guided rockets, and then there are some fairly large secondary explosions. So western Baquba is a pretty nasty place between the insurgents' roadside bombs and the Americans moving in.

BLOCK: Michael, with U.S. operations before - at times when they've cracked down on insurgent groups and cities around Iraq, the insurgents have fled, gone elsewhere, waited it out, and come back. We saw it in Fallujah. Why does the U.S. military think this will be any different?

Mr. GORDON: I think there are a couple of reasons they're doing this. I mean, Diyala is really the new Anbar province in a sense. It's really one of the worst places in Iraq. It's a place where insurgents are rampant and they've been using it as a staging ground into Baghdad.

And so to try to quell the violence in Baghdad, they sort of working the problem in Baghdad, but they're also working it from the outside in. In terms of permitting the fighters from fleeing, that all depends on the Americans being able to maintain this cordon.

And every day they press in another block. And it is like a vice, you got to imagine the al-Qaida fighters in the center and a couple of battalions pushing in with, now, some Iraqi army forces day by day, block by block. And it hasn't yet reach the critical phase, but I think that phase is coming in the near future.

BLOCK: Michael Gordon of the New York Times speaking with us from Baquba, Iraq. Michael, thanks very much.

GORDON: Thank you.

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