The focus now is on the security crackdown in Baghdad, but U.S. troops are also struggling to keep the lid on elsewhere
Such operations are something new for the Stryker unit known as the 2-3. For the majority of its first deployment and part of the second, the unit was based in the northern city of Mosul, a largely Kurdish city that was relatively calm. Commanders say they owe much of their success there to the way they employed traditional counterinsurgency techniques, such as establishing ties with the community. But now the battalion has been pulled off that counterinsurgency effort for the sake of a greater counterinsurgency plan for Baghdad. "Mosul was like a marriage ... now we kind of have flings," says Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, commander of the battalion.
Stryker brigades, in some ways, are made for flings-units of fast-moving vehicles carrying combat troops that can quickly support underserved battle zones. The operation here, scheduled to last only a few weeks, is going after a variety of enemy targets in order to give the regular Iraqi and American units in the area a chance to work on broader security measures. The region itself is on a critical fault line between the Sunni areas near Baghdad and the Shiite-controlled south, particularly around the religious shrines at Najaf and Karbala.
The Stryker's mission is, perhaps, a preview of what the war might look like if, as some have suggested, the military is pulled back to its bases and used as a quick-reaction force. "Going after targets is doable, but there needs to be actionable intelligence beforehand and a strong Iraqi or American unit to capitalize on the situation afterwards, or all the effort is for nothing," says one American combat commander.
This particular mission is also to help protect the hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who have migrated south of Baghdad for the Arbaeen religious festival (celebrated last weekend), 40 days after Ashura, the holiest day in Shiite Islam. It's a nearly impossible task, as there are hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, mostly moving on foot, who present countless soft targets for Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda-affiliated groups looking to further fan the sectarian warfare. Indeed, a pair of suicide bombers last Tuesday killed more than 120 pilgrims in the city of Hilla and wounded twice that number.
"Squirters." As the convoy approaches the farmhouse of the suspected al Qaeda cell leader, the ramp at the rear of the Stryker drops to the ground, the soldiers flip on their night-vision scopes, and they rush out into the darkness. Creeping up to the house, they toss a stun grenade through the front door and rush in. A single burning oil lamp sits on the stairs of the dark house-there are several men and women and numerous children, who stare wide-eyed at the flashlights mounted onto the barrels of the soldiers' rifles.
The soldiers identify one of the men as the brother of the cell leader they are seeking, so they bind him with plastic handcuffs and take him back to the base. The platoon leaves the house and continues to another. Then a report comes through the radio that five men have slipped the net and are fleeing across the open farmland. ("Squirters," the soldiers call them.) Soldiers give chase, but all five escape into a web of canals and drainage ditches. Half a dozen dogs bark in the darkness. The entire neighborhood knows what's going on. No one offers to help.