U.S. Troops Target Insurgent Havens Near Baghdad The U.S. military says villages in Iraq's Tigris River delta have become havens for insurgents. The Army has set up outposts close to insurgent strongholds in the region, an effort to engage both the enemy and the villagers, whose trust is essential to winning the war.
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U.S. Troops Target Insurgent Havens Near Baghdad

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U.S. Troops Target Insurgent Havens Near Baghdad

U.S. Troops Target Insurgent Havens Near Baghdad

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Iraq today, at least 85 people were killed in a series of bombings in the northern city of Kirkuk. It's another indication that insurgents are attacking outside central Iraq, where U.S. troop surge is underway, in an attempt to impose greater security. The strategy is to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries around Baghdad. The aim is to reduce bombings and other mayhem in the capital.

NPR's John Burnett recently embedded with the Sledgehammer Heavy Brigade Combat Team, part of the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Georgia. The unit has dug in along the Tigris River Delta, southeast of Baghdad.

JOHN BURNETT: Truck convoys filled with the things it takes to wage war in a distant land - generators, Gatorade, hand sanitizer - roar past in the darkness toward Baghdad. A tipster has alerted the Army that a gas station on the highway outside the city of Nahrawan is being used to store explosives or IEDs. A bomb-sniffing German Shepherd named Gino is on the case. A filthy street cur wanders into the station and gets too close to the military canine.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Unidentified Man #1: Hey.

Unidentified Man #2: It's Gino.

Unidentified Man #1: If the dog ain't dead, so we got to - you got to kill the dog.

BURNETT: Nearby, four disconsolate Iraqis, the station's night guards, sit with hands flexicuffed behind their backs before an enormous American soldier bulging with battle gear.

Unidentified Man #3: He's been working here for a long time. Does he you know anything about any IEDs possibly being underground here?

Unidentified Man #4: He was let into Calypso and now…

Unidentified Man #5: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #4: No, there's like, like, guards who are out every night.

Unidentified Man #3: If he was a bad guy, where will he put IEDs?

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #5: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #4: I don't know.

Unidentified Man #3: Tell him thank you very much. Go sit him back over there.

BURNETT: After 20 minutes of interrogation, the big soldier is convinced the frightened Iraqis either don't know or won't tell. They cut off the flexicuffs. Lieutenant Colonel John Kolasheski, commander of the 3-1 CAV, steps forwards and adopts a paternal tone. The Iraqis listen impassively.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN KOLASHESKI (Commander, 3-1 CAV, United States Army): All of us lose by the extremist blowing things up.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

Lt. KOLASHESKI: We have to work together.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

Lt. Col. KOLASHESKI: You have to tell us where the bad people are.

BURNETT: One of the lessons learned in the past four years is that sometimes abusive behavior by U.S. troops such as forced entry, wholesale detentions, and pointing guns at everybody embitters Iraqis and helps recruit for the insurgency. With this latest phase of the war, the military says its soldiers will no longer act like occupiers. Commanders say they can already tell the difference. People are coming forward to volunteer information on bombs and arms caches.

Lt. Col. KOLASHESKI: In the early stages, we would kick in doors and we would break things and we would immediately just, you know, say, well, we're sorry and then pull off.

BURNETT: Again, Lieutenant Colonel John Kolasheski.

Lt. Col. KOLASHESKI: The majority of the people understand that we treat everybody with dignity and respect. But there are cases where we have to detain them. So it is a delicate balance.

BURNETT: But during five days with the Sledgehammer Brigade, actions by combat troops were observed that are certain to deepen animosity among Iraqis.

Unidentified Man #6: Hey, tell them that we need to get him to a hospital.

BURNETT: In Nahrawan, U.S. troops shot the wrong man when he ran from a house thought to belong to militants. He lay on the ground as soldiers bandaged his bloody arm and leg.

Unidentified Man #7: AJ.

AJ(Translator): Yes, sir?

Unidentified Man #7: Start (bleep) translating. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?

Unidentified Man #6: Tell him get to the hospital.

Unidentified Man #7: Okay.

BURNETT: A gathering crowd glowered at the troops.

Unidentified Man #7: We need to clear out.

BURNETT: In two separate convoy incidents, U.S. Humvees rammed civilian vehicles. The first, when an Iraqi Sedan drove past the traffic blockade.

Unidentified Man #8: Go for it. Go for it. Go for it.

(Soundbite of car crashing)

Unidentified Man #8: Go for it. Hit him. Hit him. Hit him.

BURNETT: In the second incident, a Humvee commander instructed his driver to clear a crowded intersection. The Humvee smashed into a minibus full of terrified passengers causing considerable damage in order to push it out of the way while his gunner fired an M16 in the air to frighten other drivers.

When informed of the incident at the intersection, Colonel Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3,000-man Sledgehammer Brigade, said bullying is not authorized and he would investigate.

Colonel WAYNE GRIGSBY (Commander, Sledgehammer Heavy Brigade Combat Team): Because that kind of stuff is what will get us in trouble and that's a slippery slope with discipline and standards. On over here, we're trying to liberate and support and assist, and we make some of these people on a fence, the instinct is to become enemies and they feed the insurgency.

BURNETT: Insurgents and militias had grown strong in the medium-sized cities and vegetable-growing villages in the Tigris delta, owing to an absence of a sustained U.S. troop presence there. U.S. authorities suspect terrorists use them as bedroom communities, building bombs and then commuting to work to blow things up at Baghdad.

Now, this region has become one of the newest battlefronts on the war map. The Army has carved out a network of outposts close to insurgent strongholds. The idea is two-fold: to aggressively engage the enemy and to live closer to the people whose trust is essential to winning the war.

Col. GRIGSBY: The surge has allowed us to disrupt his butt.

BURNETT: Colonel Wayne Grigsby.

Col. GRIGSBY: If he has to change his game and go to a different town, and we got a relationship with some good people in that town, those good people come back and say, hey, there's about four, five, new guys who came here in a bunch of trucks. Never seen them before. Really? Go get them.

BURNETT: One of the desolate new bases surrounded by sand-filled blast barriers is the aptly named Combat Outpost Assassins. Captain Arthur McGruder(ph) is commander.

Captain ARTHUR McGRUDER (Commander, Combat Outpost Assassin): Before we moved here, there weren't any mortar tanks. Now, can it be associated with us moving to this location? We knew that when we moved here, it was the best place for us to be to get after the insurgency within this area.

BURNETT: Here in this battle sector, it looks like classic guerilla war. Americans had armor, artillery, airpower and infantry, insurgents hit and run with AK-47 fire, mortars, rockets, suicide car bombs and increasingly lethal roadside bombs. A chilling twist on the Iraqi art of explosive making is the deep buried bomb - an ammonium nitrate fertilizer charged or an artillery shell dug in two or three feet below the surface. An area commander said one insurgent group was so brazen, they hired a local backhoe operator to dig a bomb trench.

Captain Darrell Milton(ph), commander of an outpost called Cash North(ph), says deep-buried bombs are powerful enough to disable a 32-ton Bradley fighting vehicle.

Captain DARRELL MILTON (Commander, Cash North Outpost): The other day, I had two deep-buried IEDs go off on two Bradleys almost simultaneously. One was about 300 pounds worth of explosives underneath the ground that, as a Bradley was traveling along the road, it hit the IED. It literally picked the Bradley up and turned it sideways.

BURNETT: The White House and Pentagon frequently described a monochromatic enemy in Iraq - al-Qaida. Critics say it's an attempt to rally a war-weary United States against a known foe. East of the Tigris, the picture is much more complex. Shiite militias are expelling Sunnis. Along the river, Sunni bands of radical pro-Saddamists are killing each other and Shias. Al-Qaida in Iraq is here as well, fighting to dominate everyone else. But Lieutenant Patrick Geiger(ph) a platoon leader at Combat Outpost Cahill, says al-Qaida is only one of many.

Lieutenant PATRICK GEIGER (Platoon Leader, Combat Outpost Cahill): The As are a very big player, very influential, but there's other factions, too. It's not just like, you know, coalition forces versus al-Qaida. There's a lot of other groups in the area.

BURNETT: When the Americans showed up to establish bases, everyone turned their guns on the new interlopers. The Arab proverb beholds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. One infantryman says, where he is, it's more like, the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.

John Burnett, NPR News, Baghdad.

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