MOUSTACHE ISLAND, Iraq, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- On Moustache Island, on the Tigris River, close to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, American soldiers slowly worked their way through the groves and orchards, map grid by map grid, pulling apart piles of fallen branches and palm fronds, digging through dung piles used for fertilizer and checking large holes or mounds of dirt in a recent operation.
They were hunting hidden caches of weapons essential for guerrillas, whether Sunni or Shiite Muslim, to carry out attacks in an attempt to destabilize the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the elections that are scheduled to be held next month.
Some of the American troops used metal detectors in the task. Meanwhile, the dogs sniffed where directed by their U.S. handlers.
Nothing was found. It was the same in Thalba, where soldiers sprinted from building to building to investigate piles of bricks and building interiors. But U.S. commanders considered the missions successes because of the side benefits and the fact that no weapons found indicated interdiction efforts were working.
"It was pretty boring," Capt. Tim Hall of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, told United Press International. "But boring is better than the alternative."
Ahead of them were five hours of scouring palm groves and fruit orchards on a sliver of land in the Tigris River to unearth any hidden arms and munitions caches terrorists could use to roil nearby Baghdad.
The list of bomb materials terrorists use and could be found was long. On it are Iraqi army munitions left over from the 2003 invasion -- mortars, grenades, rockets and artillery shells. And then there are newer imported devices, primarily the explosively formed projectiles -- EFPs -- from Iran and their components.
Hall and his 40 American soldiers and 30 members of the Iraqi National Police ex-filtrated Moustache Island the way they came in -- by helicopter to an operating base they share with the Iraqis. Later in the evening, they or others were leaving the base again, this time in armored vehicles, to conduct dismounted patrols in villages and in towns flanking Baghdad.
They also would watch the river for small boats going to or leaving Moustache Island.
Provincial elections in Iraq at the end of January would be a tempting target for terrorists -- whether Shiite militiamen or al-Qaida bombers -- and U.S. authorities in Baghdad say they expect an increase in violence to coincide with the balloting. They are looking at security measures for polling sites in the province with their Iraqi counterparts.
"We've seen some political targeting …," a U.S. 4th Infantry Division staff officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We think that type of violence will be part of the political landscape leading up to the provincial elections. We think we'll see an increase in attacks -- drive-by shootings, under-vehicle bombs, bombs planted on a gate, those types of things -- to either intimidate a candidate not to run or to influence the population not to vote."
To conduct those attacks, extremists need the material wherewithal to do so. And that is where missions such as those to Moustache Island and Thalba prove their worth.