Operation Iron Harvest began in the dark of night, as Blackfoot Company soldiers marched across the bridge leading from their K-Wal combat outpost in Shakarat and headed toward the village of Sinsil some 500 yards away. It could have been another nighttime mission, but in fact was the opening maneuver in a determined U.S. military operation to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq out of Diyala province. In the next few hours the Americans would narrowly escape an IED attack, face sniper fire and establish a beachhead for the expected final onslaught on Al Qaeda.
Hounded from Anbar province and other hiding places, the insurgents have descended on their longtime stronghold of Diyala to wage a murderous stealth effort built around IED detonations and high-profile suicide and bombing attacks. But the U.S. forces believe they are slowly beating them back and have deployed some 24,000 U.S. troops and 50,000 Iraqi Army soldiers to take part in the four-province operation. "We want to put a stake in [them] and be done with it," says Brig. Gen. James Boozer, assistant commander in chief of Multinational Division-North, in a briefing before the launch.
Iron Harvest's main thrust is here in the Diyala River Valley bread basket, a fertile area in the north of the province at the foot of the Hamrin Mountains where much of the country's produce—mainly oranges and palm dates—is grown. The objective of the days-long, four-battalion operation is to kill or evict an estimated 200 Qaeda operatives who have sought refuge in the bread basket, planning and executing their missions from there. "We want to either take them out or force reconciliation," says Boozer.
Just before midnight Monday, the 1st and 3rd platoons of Blackfoot Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, led off the effort, with the 2nd platoon taking a rear defensive position. Walking briskly under a clear sky that twinkles with stars, the approximately 80 men (and one woman) move quickly to investigate homes and secure the area to allow Stryker personnel carriers and road-clearance vehicles to advance.
At the first house a woman sat on the floor clutching a blanket as the 3rd platoon's leaders, Capt. Travis Batty and Sgt. John Shanyfelt, arrived. A man wearing a long traditional robe cowered in another room; an Iraqi interpreter incongruously named Peter translated instructions as a cigarette burned dully in his left hand. This was the first mission in a planned series called "bounding overwatch," in which a squad takes over a position by fire and another squad goes through it and seizes another position. To a civilian it sounds a good deal like leapfrogging.
At the second house Batty, Blackfoot Company First Sgt. Ken Brantley and others questioned the patriarch at length, as his family sat on the floor swaddled in blankets to ward off the cold. The temperature had dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the soldiers huddled in a room around a kerosene heater as they waited to move on to the next objective. The Iraqi man eagerly answered every question in a torrent of words: Yes, Al Qaeda has many cadres in the area. No, he does not support the terrorists. Yes, he'd be interested in joining a Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) group if one were founded. And perhaps most significantly tonight: Yes, he had heard something about the Americans' upcoming operation and yes, he believes Al Qaeda also was aware of it. They had been tipped off by Iraqi Army elements, he said. Batty was neither dismayed nor surprised. Leakage is not atypical; the important thing is that Al Qaeda not know specifics of the overall campaign.
In the road, heavy vehicles that will look for and disable or explode the dreaded roadside bombs known as IEDs (improvised explosive devices) rumbled slowly along, then stopped as the Blackfoot warriors resumed their march on Sinsil. It was a risky and unpredictable venture, as each footstep in the half light could trigger an explosion and lead to disaster. Soldiers can trip crush wires on the ground that could detonate an explosive—"victim-operated IEDs," Shanyfelt says. But the soldiers arrived safely at their major objective, a large house on Middle Road that overlooks a canal, a grove thick with palm trees and three roads, one of which leads to the Qaeda redoubt of Hembis. They moved quickly through the rambling building, checking rooms and staking out strategic positions on the flat rooftop.
They gathered the occupants: five women, four children, an older man with cataracts and a younger man, clad in a leather bomber jacket and obviously ill. Despite orders to sit down, one old woman, wearing a shapeless crimson burqa, walked confusedly toward the soldiers—a potentially dangerous lapse at a time when the number of female suicide bombers is on the rise and every move therefore suspicious. Eventually she joined her family squatting on the decorative rug. Meanwhile, the soldiers had come to suspect that the younger man, Maad Kalaf Darweesh, was Al Qaeda. "The house is too large, too nice and this area too bad," said Brantley. "And he speaks fluent English. Come on."
Under intense questioning Darweesh told the soldiers there were many IEDS planted nearby but that he didn't know where they were. He said Qaeda operatives were all over Sinsil and that they often wore masks, but they had abandoned their old black uniforms to better blend in with the citizenry when U.S. forces arrived. He said the insurgents had established a curfew that runs from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., and he said local militias would like to become CLCs but are scared. He coughed incessantly and within a half-hour was under heavy blankets and receiving an antibiotics drip administered by a platoon medic. Brantley had interviewed a neighbor, and Darweesh's story checked out.
Just then a loud blast from outside rattled the house and soldiers rushed out to find that an IED had exploded in the road, damaging a Buffalo road clearance vehicle. "I walked right on that spot just before the Buffalo came along," said Sgt. Rod Kern. The men crisscrossed the road looking for insurgents and the apparatus that set off the device. They found remnants of wiring and charges, but no Al Qaeda bad guys. No one was hurt, but the Buffalo lost its brakes and was out of commission. Operation Iron Harvest was delayed while the military rushed a new Buffalo from Warhorse, a U.S. military camp on the outskirts of Baqubah, about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad.
By then it was daylight, and the Blackfoot soldiers relaxed somewhat, some soaking up the sun in the spacious garden. But they scrambled again when a sniper started spraying the house with gunfire. No one was hurt, and the soldiers fired a few retaliatory mortar rounds into the neighboring palm groves.
Gen. Boozer soon arrived to assess the first stage of Iron Harvest, which is part of a wider offensive called Operation Phantom Phoenix. "It was very quiet last night," he said. "I thought we'd have a little more contact than this, quite frankly, but it never goes as expected. Our sense is that they're watching us. This is not a force that's going to go toe to toe with us. They have all the time in the world. This will be a long, slow, laborious process. They will wait us out and lure us in."
By Wednesday morning the battle was fully joined, with U.S. forces raining mortar shells and rockets on Hembis and the bread basket. The Americans discovered a handful of IEDS, one of which injured three soldiers but killed no one. Elsewhere, though, the death toll is rising: according to the U.S. military, three U.S. soldiers were killed in Salahuddin Tuesday, and Iraqi military reports say that about 20 to 30 militants have been killed. Here in Diyala, Al Qaeda has been firing rocket-propelled grenades as the advancing military pushes its assault on the bread basket. The Army's 3rd squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment takes over the push to force Al Qaeda out of the Diyala River Valley, in a stage that may last several more days. "There's no break from here on in," says Brantley.