The focus now is on the security crackdown in Baghdad, but U.S. troops are also struggling to keep the lid on elsewhere
There's another operation the next night: The Stryker unit raids the local headquarters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the town of Mahawi, north of Hilla. They are looking for weapons, particularly components of EFPs, explosively formed penetrators-the deadly variant of the IED that American officials say come from Iran. When a squad of soldiers bursts through the door, no one is inside. A phone is ringing. The unit's Iraqi interpreter quickly grabs it, pretending to be a guard at the office. The voice on the other end is excited. "Get out of there," says the voice. "The Americans are coming."
Meanwhile, a Stryker smashes through the gates of a car dealership across the street, and the soldiers begin riffling through papers in the front offices. They suspect that the dealership is being used to supply cars to be made into car bombs. But it seems more likely that the soldiers are just there to make their presence known. They find some Mahdi Army propaganda in some of the cars in the parking lot and some green headbands traditionally worn by Sadr's militia. It's unclear what role the car dealer plays, or if he's a member of the militia.
Like searching for al Qaeda, it's difficult to know who is a true believer and who is simply affiliated with the groups for his own protection. Shiite militias, like the Mahdi Army, for example, occasionally may protect a Sunni neighbor. Sometimes Sunni or Shiite factions target members of their own sect, and criminals get into the act, too. "There's a lot about the enemy that is unclear," says Phillips. "Al Qaeda is the 16-year-old down the street with an AK-47 and one magazine; al Qaeda is the 60-year-old man with a cane that's paying other guys to do the work. [The enemy] is broad and amorphous."
Two days after the raid on the local Sadr headquarters, the 2-3 is targeting Shiite militia leaders, having located what the Americans think are two militia commanders in the small town of Jabella. It's a village that has seen little overt action in the war. In fact, the convoy nervously slows down when crossing one of two canal bridges in town after being told that they are the first recorded coalition vehicles to have traversed them. Driving along one of the canals, the soldiers spot a body floating face down in a canal, shot multiple times in the back.
The soldiers find the target houses packed with Shiite pilgrims, and it is unclear who is militia and who is not. They find a lone 60-mm mortar round buried near a pair of palm trees, where they suspected an entire cache of weapons was hidden. In another house, they find some homemade explosives, blasting caps, and other potential components for an IED. They take a few men in for questioning and let most of them go. Maj. Scott Green, a commander of the Stryker unit, says there is a constant debate over whom to let go and whom to arrest. "If we detain the wrong guy and take him away from his family for a week or two," he says, "then when he gets out, the appeals to join the militias sound even better than before."