On the Job with 'Operation Minotaur' U.S. soldiers taking part in Operation Minotaur are trying to clear Sunni insurgents from a maze of villages in a province northeast of Baghdad. On a recent overnight sweep, there were victories and losses.
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On the Job with 'Operation Minotaur'

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On the Job with 'Operation Minotaur'

On the Job with 'Operation Minotaur'

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Here's an example of how signs of progress in Iraq can sometimes lead to side effects. American forces gave control Iraqis control over security in a province northeast of Baghdad, but they couldn't stop insurgents who moved en force to Diyala province. Then there was another side effect, the so-called surge of U.S. forces in Baghdad caused some insurgents to move elsewhere, and some chose Diyala. Now U.S. forces have had to increase their military operations there.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay accompanied American soldiers last weekend at the start of a mission to clear one of the villages.

JAMIE TARABAY: Dubbed Minotaur, the U.S. military operations to clear the village of Quba, began hours and miles away, under the noses of the uninformed Iraqi military. Troops of the 82nd Airborne used a nearby joint U.S.-Iraqi military base as a staging area. First Lieutenant Michael Anderson said the Iraqis were not told because they weren't trusted to keep the operation a secret from the insurgents.

First Lieutenant MICHAEL ANDERSON (82nd Airborne Division): We've had to arrest a lot of Iraqi army, especially one lieutenant who's the chief of the station here. We had to arrest him. You know, what they'll do is give early warnings to the insurgents in the area. Usually they'll use pistol shots or tracers in the air and that will warn all of the high-value targets in the area that we're coming. So they'll hide.

TARABAY: The village of Quba was once kind to a mixed population of Sunnis and Shiites. But now, nearly half the residents have fled and the rest live in small sectarian enclaves. Captain Michael Few said Operation Minotaur took three weeks to plan that even as he set off, he wasn't sure of what to expect.

Capt. MICHAEL FEW (82nd Airborne Division): I don't know. You know, it's always a gamble. I mean, we could get in there and they identify that we're coalition forces, and that were coming with overwhelming numbers and they choose not to fight.

It's going to be a long day talking to the populous, where everybody tells them if they're a farmer and their hands are much softer than mine are. Or, they may choose to fight. If there's a key leader in their town, they will fight, and we'll kill them.

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

(Soundbite of explosions)

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

(Soundbite of gunshots)

TARABAY: With the booms of artillery in the air, Few pointed to a Mac mini computer screen to show the path his men would take into the village.

Unidentified Man #2: We're going to begin our attack now. We're going to go up to here, send all of our troops in, then they will push forward. My troop will clear from here, up to about there - all the houses in there. You got that?

TARABAY: How many houses?

Unidentified Man #2: Probably about 50. It's going to take us all day. Now, we're bringing the coordinates guys up. So if there's a hidden IED, they'll find it first, and clear it.

Unidentified Man #3: If you don't get blown out.

(Soundbite of explosions)

TARABAY: There's gunfire as the Humvees rumble along. Night eventually gives way to a gray morning and the soldiers moved door to door on foot.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: One of the Humvees begins broadcasting a message to the insurgents as it rolls down the street. It's part taunt, part challenge. You're cowards, it says. You don't have the strength or the courage to match our forces.

Unidentified Man #5: (Speaking foreign language)

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

Unidentified Man #6: Roger, we've got three military-aged males - break. We also have a fake I.D.…

TARABAY: One of the units have detained three men found with several weapons, fake I.D. cards, and a spool of copper wire. The kind, Captain Few said, that's 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.

Capt. FEW: (Unintelligible) you got there.

Unidentified Man #8: Yeah. (Unintelligible).

Capt. FEW: They shaved their beards this morning. No one in Diyala River ever is freshly cut. Everybody always has a two or three day growth.

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

Capt. FEW: We did a slight test on those three detainees and one of them came up positive for TNT. TNT is pretty easy. He was making some type of bomb.

TARABAY: Captain Few gets on the radio to the soldiers holding the detainees.

Capt. FEW: Okay. Get Rocky(ph) to start beating this guy up, cause he's obviously working on some bombs right now, I wanna know where they at.

Unidentified Man #9: (Unintelligible)

Capt. FEW: My concern will be a house being rigged…

TARABAY: The interrogation of the detainees took place out of view.

Unidentified Man #10: Okay. Roger that. All right, one, red one, two, one -

TARABAY: One of Captain Few's targets was a local religious leader, a man called Sheikh Abdul Rahman(ph). He'd apparently hidden in the local mosque, the one place in the village the U.S. troops can't enter. Few says the sheikh only became powerful after he'd been detained for a while by U.S. troops and then released because of insufficient evidence against him.

Capt. FEW: When he comes back to his town, he becomes invincible. And so his stature's just increased exponentially because he can't be touched by Americans - or it's at least perceived that way.

Unidentified Man #12: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: The U.S. soldiers find 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.

Capt. FEW: Do you know Sheikh Abdul Rahman?

Unidentified Man #13: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #14: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #13: Yeah, he knows. He say, I know.

Capt. FEW: Well, where does he live at? Please help.

Unidentified Man #13: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #14: (Foreign language spoken)

Capt. FEW: Could you take us to his house?

Unidentified Man #13: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #14: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #13: He's scared. He say, he cannot go there.

Capt. FEW: Why are you scared?

Unidentified Man #13: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #15: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #13: He say that's the situation there. He said I cannot go with you. He think when I go with you, he think that Sheikh Abdul Rahman, he think that (unintelligible) for him, you know.

Capt. FEW: I just want to talk to him.

TARABAY: 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.

Capt. FEW: You have to take the responsibility as a sheikh to step up and say this is wrong and I'm not going to accept it. If you do not do that, you're going to have nothing. You're going to be prisoners of your own home.

TARABAY: The soldiers concluded their search. They enter a house watched by two women, a young boy and a little girl. One of the soldiers finds ammunition buried in the back of the garden and throws it at the feet of the Iraqis. An interpreter says one of the women claims it belongs to her husband, who's left the village to find work elsewhere. The soldier doesn't buy it.

Unidentified Man #16: I understand you worried about your children, but right now, we're talking about the weapons. What else do you have buried in here?

TARABAY: As the operation continues, one of the Humvees starts playing music on its speakers to boost the morale of the soldiers on the ground.

Unidentified Group: (Rapping) Twenty-three level, will I live to see 24? The ways things that are going I don't know.

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

Capt. FEW: All in all, it was a good day. All my boys are safe. We accomplished our mission. All my trucks are good. And you can't ask for much more. The first day of operation went smoothly, so…

TARABAY: The second day was deadlier. Four of the soldiers in Captain Few's unit were killed by a roadside bomb. Two others were wounded. The operation continues.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, in Diyala Province, Iraq.

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