Report from Iraq: Hawijah raid
Near Hawijah, Iraq - It is early morning, not yet light, as the men of Alpha Company 2-27 Infantry step off the helicopter and crouch down beneath the whirling blades. They pause a few seconds, look around and trot forward into the dark toward the village that lies ahead.
Scattered fluorescent security lights shine in front of a few houses. The 22 men who jumped off the helicopters trudge across a shallow muddy brook and head toward the center of town. A few men of the command element make for the house on the southern edge of the village. This is the second flight in, and the soldiers take care to distinguish Americans and Iraqi Army (IA) soldiers already in the houses.
The soldiers link up and begin separating the somewhat disoriented Iraqis. All the males are sent to the command post on the southern edge of town, while the women and children are left in the houses. One woman argues as her husband is led away, but the soldiers assure her he will be back in a little while.
The soldiers are looking for a high-level insurgent who organizes attacks on security forces. His house is the one on the southern edge of town. He is not home. Two of his accomplices live a few houses away in this village of a few hundred people. They are not home, either.
More than 50 males from the village are lined up as the sun begins to peek above the horizon. One by one they are taken inside. A retinal scan is taken, and their information noted. The information will help build a picture of who lives here, and will help the security forces if they are picked up elsewhere at the scene of a crime.
Aside from the buzzing of helicopters overhead, the scene is quiet.
"It's quiet because we got them early in the morning," Sgt. James Bishop said. "No telling what would have happened if we came here in the evening."
Once the males are lined up the soldiers go back through the houses again, searching for weapons and contraband. Each Iraqi male is allowed to keep one assault rifle for personal protection. The soldiers look for signs of roadside bombs.
The American and Iraqi soldiers look through kitchens outfitted with ancient steel bowls and in bedrooms with blankets piled high. An occasional child sleeps undisturbed in the rooms as the soldiers search. The scene is deceptively peaceful.
"They always seem peaceful but we get a lot of activity, a lot of reporting out of this town," explained Capt. Garrett Trott, the Alpha Company commander. "This road, about a kilometer up the road here, is always laden with IEDs [roadside bombs]. Almost every time we take it, we're getting hit with IEDs and they're coming from these villages."
As the sunlight strengthens, the soldiers begin beating the bushes around the perimeter of the village. For the past month or two, kidnappings in this area have increased. The soldiers are looking for so-called spiderholes, which are small, con- cealed underground dungeons that hold kidnapped people. The soldiers have information this village is the epicenter of the scourge.
Government officials are kidnapped, as are wealthy people. And local tribes with an ax to grind with each other are also part of the problem. Many of those tribes are affiliated with one of two insurgent groups, either the Islamic State of Iraq or the Army of Islam in the area surrounding Hawijah, the largest city in the area.
"There's a lot of tribal conflict going on in this region in particular," Trott said. "A lot of it is insurgent-oriented, a lot of it's the old-school Hatfields and McCoys going on."
The soldiers said they have one of the two groups on the ropes. The Army of Islam has been seriously weakened because the tribal chiefs that are part of it have been arrested, isolated or forced to flee. The Islamic State of Iraq is next on the list.
The Iraqi Army has been instrumental in dismantling much of the insurgent structure here, the soldiers said, because the head of the local IA battalion is from the area. The locals are faced with fighting one of their own, and it weakens the credibility of the insurgents.
The 2-27 Infantry, a battalion of more than 500 men, lost 16 soldiers, killed in their first six months here. Midway through, they moved the IA to their base, and in the second six months they have lost no one. The attacks are less eff ective and less numerous, but still they happen.
As the clock moves on toward 7:30 p.m., the soldiers reassemble at the helicopter landing site. The Blackhawks swoop in and retrieve the soldiers. The line of Iraqis waiting to be processed is still long but the helicopters need to return to base, so the air assault people will return to base early.
The soldiers didn't get their men, nor did they find explosives or spider holes. But raids like this show that the Iraqi and American forces are continuing their campaign against insurgents. Editor's note: For six weeks, our Marlborough Community Reporter Doug Grindle is again embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there, he plans to send us articles whenever he can to provide our readers with glimpses of what is going on in the region.
Many thanks to Doug and other journalists like him who put themselves in harm's way so that those of us safe at home can be wellinformed.
This is his third contribution from Iraq.
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