Feature: Taking on al-Qaida in Diyala

By RICHARD TOMKINS  |  Jan. 14, 2008 at 1:23 PM
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FOB NORMANDY, Iraq, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- After six days of clearing operations against al-Qaida terrorists in Diyala's northern river valley in Iraq, U.S. military forces are preparing to transition to the holding stage of Operation Raider Harvest to lay the security groundwork for follow-on Iraqi security forces.

Military authorities said though clearing operations are ongoing in the area, day-to-day security will increasingly be handed over to Iraqi army and police units and a network of Concerned Local Citizens groups – an armed neighborhood watch organization – would be buttressed and expanded.

"Although decisive, the combat operations will likely not have as great of an effect as the next phases," said Lt. Col. James Brown, executive officer of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division.

A focus, he said, would be tying local villages to the city of Muqdadiyah and Iraq's central government.

The Bread Basket, an area of some 110 square miles in the northern Diyala River Valley, had long been an al-Qaida stronghold – part of it's Islamic Republic of Iraq caliphate that was centered in Baqubah, the provincial capital about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

When the surge of U.S. force pushed al-Qaida out of Baghdad last year al-Qaida retreated to Baqubah, when pushed out of Baqubah they retreated to the Bread basket, where villagers now tell of a reign of terror.

"As we transition into the next phase, you will essentially see a planting of the Iraqi flag in the northern DRV (Diyala River Valley)," Brown said. "You will start to see Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, which up until this point, had not patrolled in this area, and here shortly, you will see the linkage between the provincial leaders and the local leaders."

The push by at least seven battalions of U.S. soldiers, reinforced by three 5th Iraqi army division, began early Tuesday under the name Operation Raider Harvest, which was part of a larger operations in Iraq called Phantom Phoenix.

Leading the so-called Tip of the Spear were the combat engineers of the 38th Engineer Battalion from Fort Lewis, WA, which cleared the roads of improvised explosive devices so vehicle-borne infantry could push in-country.

The lead vehicle in the convoy led by the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Platoon, of the 38th was put out of action within 5 minutes of entering the first village. A 50-60 pound IED hidden under the road surface at a T-junction in Sinsil exploded when the heavily armored Buffalo rolled over a concealed crush-wire detonator. The four soldiers and one American reporter in the 40-ton vehicle escaped with concussive injuries.

Expected heavy fighting with al-Qaida militants in the Diyala River Valley, however, didn't occur. Intelligence reports later indicated many fled farther north in advance of the operation.

It's believed the insurgents were tipped off to impending action by the increase in helicopter and vehicle traffic to the largest U.S. base in the area, Forward Operating Base Normandy and/or by a possible leak from Iraqi security forces.

By Sunday, the U.S. military said four enemy fighters had been killed, four wounded and 24 terror suspects detained. Thirteen explosive devices had been found and destroyed as well as 10 vehicle-born bombs and four IEDs planted in houses. Six U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed on Wednesday when a bomb in a booby-trapped house exploded shortly after they entered it.

Four U.S. soldiers standing of the flat roof of the house were injured when it collapsed from the explosion.

Although the Army is transitioning to the holding phase in the bread basket, clearance operations are continuing. Late in the week Marine engineers from Anbar province were rolling into FOB Normandy to join in the hunt for more IEDs -- al-Qaida's weapon of choice and necessity.

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