The focus now is on the security crackdown in Baghdad, but U.S. troops are also struggling to keep the lid on elsewhere
SKANDARIYAH, IRAQ-The moon is nearly full as the American soldiers clamber into their rugged Stryker armored vehicles and head out to catch a suspected al Qaeda cell leader. He's wanted for setting up false highway checkpoints in order to abduct and kill traveling Shiites, and the Army thinks he's holed up in a farmhouse outside of town.
The Stryker unit rolls through an area of isolated huts and lonely roads south of Baghdad where troops know all too well to expect enemy ambushes and roadside bombs. What they don't expect is to take small-arms fire-from an Iraqi Army patrol. "Every night is something different," says Staff Sgt. Darrell Griffin, sitting in the back of his eight-wheel Stryker vehicle. "The uncertainty is one of the hardest things to deal with."
But uncertainty, it seems, is the one thing these soldiers can count on. The Iraqi patrol fires only a few shots-the Americans don't know why, and they don't bother to investigate. (Perhaps, they joke, the Iraqis mistook the dozen 20-ton Stryker vehicles for insurgent pickup trucks.) A few minutes later, a call comes through that strikes dread in everyone: A Stryker up ahead has been hit by an improvised explosive device. Soldiers curse, then go silent. Their eyes turn with nervous anticipation to the radio as if it's a television, and after a moment, the news is reassuring. "IED detonated, no casualties," says Capt. Stephen Phillips, the commander of Charlie Company. "Repeat, no casualties."
Staging area. For the past few weeks, most attention has focused on Baghdad, with its ceaseless violence and the rollout of the new security plan backed up by a U.S. force increase of more than 21,000 combat troops. Senior Pentagon officials said last week that the buildup will include nearly 5,000 additional military police and support troops, and word came from Baghdad that the "surge" may extend until at least early 2008. In Washington, House Democratic leaders put together a plan calling for U.S. troops to leave Iraq by September 2008 (story, Page 28).
Attacks, meanwhile, have been increasing in surrounding areas. Groups like al Qaeda in Iraq are increasingly using cities outside Baghdad as staging grounds for attacks, according to U.S. officials. As a result, the new top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told reporters last week, it is very likely that some units will be shifted to areas such as Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital to counter moves by insurgents and militia fighters fleeing the security crackdown in the capital. "We are still in the early days of this endeavor-an endeavor that will take months, not weeks, to fully implement," Petraeus said. But he also repeated his view that while military force is necessary to improve security, an end to the insurgency depends on political talks and reconciliation.
That reality seems clear to the members of this Stryker unit from the Army's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment-part of the Tacoma-based 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team-who are growing accustomed to an increasingly wide-ranging mission that includes tracking Sunni insurgents one day, Shiite militia forces the next. This series of quick-hit operations recently included a counterattack against a little-known cult that left hundreds of Iraqis dead, including women and children-and left some soldiers in the battalion with nightmares.