Insurgents elude forces in eastern Iraqi province
Villagers deny knowledge of the rebels -- except for a teen who describes their getaways.
By Alexandra Zavis, Times Staff Writer
January 6, 2007
In each village, U.S. and Iraqi troops are moving house to house, separating out military-aged men, swiping their hands for explosives residue and questioning them about insurgent activity in the area.
In Fontimiya, one of the larger wheat-farming communities, 20 men sat cross-legged in a windblown field, eyes downcast and some shivering in the cold, as U.S. soldiers barked out questions.
But the village was otherwise deserted, many of its mud-brick homes reduced to rubble. Residents said the once mostly Shiite Muslim hamlet had been racked by sectarian violence that sent many families fleeing. Just two Shiite families remain in what has become a mostly Sunni Muslim community, they said.
Most denied any knowledge of insurgents. But a detained teenager told troops that the community included a number of fighters who fled on motorcycles through the canal network at the first sound of U.S. helicopters. The boy also said residents received regular visits from masked men on motorcycles who warned them which roads were mined.
U.S. forces said they had positioned troops to block the insurgents' escape.
"The enemy is reacting the way we expected them to, and that will ultimately lead us to triumph and prevail," squadron commander Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas told superiors in a radio call later Friday night, as a sandstorm closed in and wailing winds buffeted their vehicles.
But Poppas has said that long-term success depends on the cooperation of the mostly Shiite Iraqi forces, who until recently had refused to patrol the area, which they consider a death trap. He plans to build them a new patrol base in the area.
Now, U.S. forces say, they must hold the Iraqis back. Iraqi soldiers, used to sprinting through attacks, have expressed frustration at the deliberate approach of the Americans.
"We want to kill Wahhabis," an Iraqi soldier complained to his U.S. counterparts in a joking exchange as they sifted through piles of receipts, letters, identification cards and other documents at a suspect's residence. He referred to followers of the fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam practiced by Al Qaeda, which has spread in the region.
posted by Steve @ 3:05:00 AM