The GI's marched in silence, placing their feet carefully to avoid tripwires that could detonate an IED. In the no man's land between Shakarat and Sinsil, small villages about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the only sounds that pierced the midnight darkness were the murmurs of platoon leader Capt. Travis Batty into his radio, and the crunch of boots hitting sand. The military's Operation Iron Harvest—a major offensive to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq from Diyala province—was underway, and the troops from Blackfoot Company were in the vanguard, tasked with securing the area for their comrades in the rear. I was along to watch.
Diyala province is the latest battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda, and since the operation began last week, at least nine U.S. soldiers have been killed. The insurgents holed up here remain tenacious, unleashing suicide bombers and planting lethal explosives that can blow anything off the road. And they've upped the ante. A severed head turned up last week in a deserted market in Shakarat, a mere 500 yards from the U.S. military's combat outpost. It was the 10th head discovered in two weeks—gruesome warnings of what will happen to anyone who helps the Americans. "They stuck the head of one of my brothers on the bridge close to the camp," a local farmer, Nazem Aziz Habib, told me as he walked by with his two children.
The idea behind Operation Iron Harvest was to kill or capture the approximately 200 Qaeda members who've been hiding out in the Diyala River Valley, an area known as the Bread Basket because much of the nation's produce is grown here. But Al Qaeda apparently got wind of the offensive beforehand; some locals say they were tipped off by Iraqi Army sources. The insurgents set booby traps, then disappeared.
As morning arrived, we set up camp at a large house in Sinsil. Inside, soldiers questioned a young man, Maad Khalaf Darweesh, about Al Qaeda's presence in the town. He seemed suspicious, coughing and sweating as First Sgt. Ken Brantley grilled him about a strange drawing. But it turned out to be the building's electrical grid, and the soldiers realized Darweesh was actually ill with a nasty cold. A medic gave him antibiotics, and gradually, the platoon relaxed. "Sit down over there so you don't get shot by snipers," a 22-year-old sergeant told me.
The calm didn't last long. A 50-pound IED rocked the house and sent a 25-ton Army vehicle bouncing into the air. Smoke billowed, and we took cover while the company rushed out to investigate. Inside the vehicle, four soldiers and a freelance reporter were injured. "It blew up right under my feet," the writer, Rick Tomkins, told me. "I was just holding my breath wondering if there would be another blast." The soldiers found no Qaeda operatives. Like phantoms, the culprits had slipped away yet again, with the soldiers of Operation Iron Harvest right behind them.