Diyala, Iraq: Signs of Normalcy

This time the sound of Stryker personnel carriers rolling into the town of Himbus had a triumphal rumble to it. Two weeks after launching an offensive to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq from its stronghold in Diyala province, American soldiers were back, arriving in broad daylight in a trio of provincial towns to see townsfolk cautiously venturing into streets they had once avoided and interacting openly with Iraqi security forces.

Platoons watched as residents lined up for fleece jackets and rice being distributed by Iraqi soldiers in the hamlet of Abu Musa. Soldiers mingled with people receiving medical care for the first time in weeks at a clinic in Himbus. And they stood guard while men, women and children filled jugs of kerosene from a tanker truck in Taiha.

"Iraq forces now have control of the bread basket, announced Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, commander of the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. "The facts on the ground are we have freedom of movement and the insurgents do not."

The bread basket, an area of 45 square miles in northeastern Iraq, had been one of Al Qaeda in Iraq's few remaining "centers of gravity," as U.S. military commanders termed it—a place the group had fled to once it was forced from Anbar province. When American and Iraqi forces launched their campaign on Jan. 7-8, they estimated there were 200 Qaeda operatives holed up in the area, where much of the country's produce is grown. So far in the continuing operation, the coalition has captured 72 insurgents and killed at least four. The rest either have fled, again, or are hiding out in Diyala.

"We are cleaning up these towns," Iraqi 5th Division commander Gen. Salim al Mandalawi said in Abu Musa. "The next step is we're coordinating with residents now to set up Concerned Local Citizens groups." Setting up CLCs is the tactic coalition leaders now use once they have evicted Al Qaeda, to make sure the terrorists do not return. The CLCs are armed and typically man checkpoints and handle security.

Through much of Diyala, mounds of rubble and pocked buildings testify to the toughness of the battle to roust Al Qaeda in Iraq. Baqubah, the provincial capital and long a Qaeda headquarters, is now under Iraqi Army control but is not completely tamed. Two suicide bombings in the city Tuesday suggested the terrorists have not yet given up, and a vehicle ban in some suburbs makes it clear that coalition officials remain wary about the organization's facility with car bombs. "They get more inventive and we get more inventive and the circle continues," said Capt. Roland Minez, civil affairs officer with the 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment.

The soldiers' drive back to Warhorse base after their visit to Himbus, Tahia and Abu Musa did offer one measure of Operation Bread Basket's success in rousting Qaeda cadres from their embeds. Three Strykers drove over an IED on a stretch of road the Americans call Route Ann. It did not go off. "There was no triggerman," said Coffey. "With our forces around, they cannot get into position [to detonate their bombs]."