BAQUBA, Iraq, March 31 (UPI) -- A previously less visible terror group has replaced al-Qaida in spearheading attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Armor-piercing hand grenades have appeared in the Diyala provincial capital of Baquba, disrupting the relative calm that has held in the key Iraqi city for months.
The RKG-3 -- a Russian acronym for handheld shaped charge grenade -- weighs just a bit more than 2 pounds and looks like a World War II German "potato masher," with a stem/handle for throwing and the detonator and explosive charge attached to one end.
Nine times since the beginning of February, RKGs have been thrown at American troops by a Sunni extremist organization, and more attacks are expected. In one week, five soldiers from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, survived such an attack in Baquba while in a Stryker vehicle when the grenade was deflected before detonating.
"Everyone still had their extremities, but the guys exposed (with their upper bodies outside the vehicles in gun and observation positions) were hit with small shrapnel," 1st Sgt. Frank Desario said.
Extremists claiming to be members of a group called Hamas al-Iraq have claimed credit for the attacks. Videos like the one Desario spoke of appeared within hours on YouTube. Like the improvised explosive device attacks of earlier years, the extremists film their handiwork and post it on the Internet to boost terrorist credentials, garner funding from extremist supporters in the region and beyond and possibly recruit new members.
Hamas al-Iraq is a Sunni nationalist group once part of the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade that was formed by former officials and military officers of the Saddam Hussein regime. In what form the separation of the two has taken and to what degree there may be cooperation between them is still a matter of conjecture, U.S. sources said.
Sources said the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade, formed to combat the U.S. occupation following the toppling of Saddam's regime, was part of the 2006-2007 Sunni rebellion against al-Qaida in Iraq and that an unwritten truce developed between it and U.S. forces in Diyala in the fight against a common enemy.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, although still operating in the province, has been seriously degraded by U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces operations, and perhaps the brigade is again specifically targeting Americans, according to one theory.
"They supported the coalition forces against AQI -- an enemy-of-my-enemy scenario -- but still look at us as occupiers," a U.S. officer said.
True, American troops are leaving. U.S. President Barack Obama is pulling all but 30,000 to 50,000 troops out of Iraq by the end of August next year. Those remaining soldiers will continue to train Iraqi counterparts and aid in counter-insurgency operations until the end of 2011 -- the date specified for complete withdrawal under the Status of Forces Agreement signed last year between the governments of U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It is also true that the 140,000-plus U.S. troops in the country now will withdraw from installations in all cities, towns and villages to large bases in less populated areas by the end of June as stipulated by the agreement.
Violence is at its lowest levels since 2005. Iraqi Security Forces are in the lead on operations and more capable of handling their security. But the war against terrorists and extremism is not over.
"Well, we're leaving," a U.S. contract police trainer in Baquba said. "Maybe they (the grenade throwers) want to give us one last kick in the ass."
In the beginning of the American post-Saddam occupation, there were the IEDs, planted beneath and alongside roads. In quick succession came the Explosively Formed Projectiles that penetrate armor -- car bombs, suicide vests, booby-trapped houses, sticky bombs attached to vehicles and even the short-lived Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar, a sort of flying IED. Extremists supplemented them with occasional rocket and mortar attacks. Now the RKG, used in other parts of the country on a less-than-regular basis, have made their way to Diyala.
U.S. forces here in the region are confident the extremist cell responsible will be rolled up.
"They're motivated; oh, they are motivated right now," 1st Lt. Todd Kluttz said of Bravo Company soldiers. "You hurt somebody's buddy, and they become very vigilant."