On Scene: Assault on an Iraqi Village

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

U.S. soldiers duck machine gun fire during an air assault on Qubah, a village north of Baqubah used as a base by insurgents. U.S. troops stormed the village after leaping from helicopters in the darkness before dawn.

Since November 2006, when U.S. forces deployed elsewhere in Iraq, the Baqubah River valley, a string of farming hamlets nestled among dense palm groves northeast of Baghdad, has become the scene of intense violence. Over the weekend, the U.S. military returned in force. TIME'S Mark Kukis went along with the assault on the insurgent-dominated village of Qubah.

The attack on Qubah opened in the hours before dawn March 24 with the sounds of a flotilla of helicopters thundering through the darkness over the river valley outside Baqubah. At about 4 a.m. local time, seven Chinooks, four Blackhawks and two Apache gunships rose as one from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the main U.S. military base in Baqubah. Moments later, the helicopters descended on Qubah, a village at the northern edge of the river valley used by insurgents as a safe haven.

The helicopters barely touched the ground at the edge of Qubah long enough for 241 soldiers to leap out and begin moving into the town to go house to house in search of insurgents as artillery fire shattered trees in the surrounding palm groves. At the same time, a convoy of 19 Humvees, two Bradley tanks and several other vehicles rumbled toward Qubah from the opposite end. Gunfights broke out as soon as U.S. troops from the air assault reached Qubah's ruddy streets, with insurgents letting machine guns loose from several buildings. One U.S. soldier took a burst of fire in the chest at virtually point-blank range that knocked him on his back. But his body armor saved him from serious injury, and a moment later he was up after emptying his own weapon into the gunmen while on his back.

Overhead, the Apaches circled the battle, occasionally strafing insurgent positions with cannons and sending Hellfire missiles whooshing into buildings soldiers were attacking from the ground.

The fighting slowed as daylight filled the cloudy skies over Qubah, where 16 suspected insurgents lay dead after initial clashes that also left three Americans wounded. Among the dead found later in the rubble was a suspected insurgent holding an Iraqi passport who'd recently traveled to Yemen, Jordan, New York and Boston.

For the rest of the day, Qubah remained largely quiet as U.S. forces fanned out through the city. At each house, soldiers marked the back of the neck of each male with a number inked in black marker. By the end of the day, most every man in Qubah bore numbers like 600-10 and 730-5, designations for the neighborhood and home they were from according to a grid U.S. troops drew over the village. Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas said the numbering system allowed U.S. troops to tell whether anyone was moving about the village despite a lockdown.

U.S. forces estimated that roughly 50 fighters managed to slip from town and into the nearby palm groves, where Poppas and other commanders believed insurgents have been stashing weapons and running small training camps for months. The following morning, U.S. troops lined the road edging Qubah with their backs to the village and then marched slowly into the breezy hush under the canopy. Shots sounded among the thick undergrowth throughout the day as insurgents fired on U.S. troops combing the thickets, but there were no casualties on either side. U.S. forces say they found two large arms caches in the palm groves outside the village, however, as well as signs of crude guerilla training facilities.

While U.S. forces struggled to find guerilla fighters in the palm groves, insurgents hit back at U.S. forces with several roadside bomb attacks. Twice a U.S. convoy was struck by roadside bombs as it made its way from Qubah. Apache gunships watching overhead identified suspected triggermen on the ground and opened fire, leaving 12 dead in two separate incidents. And as dusk settled over Qubah, a roadside bomb exploded next to a parked Humvee where several soldiers were on foot. The blast killed four soldiers and wounded two others. An Iraqi child of no more than eight died as well in the explosion, which also wounded another Iraqi boy.

The U.S. move on Qubah leaves the village of Zaganiya as the last insurgent stronghold in the Baquba River valley that U.S. forces have not entered in their effort to regain control of the area. Capt. Mike Few admits being impatient about a return to Zaganiya, where he worked with local leaders when he patrolled the river valley in the fall. Capt. Few said he had a tense relationship with the head sheik in Zaganiya, Septar al-Zuharie. The American officer suspected that al-Zuharie was cooperating in some way with insurgents when he was last in Zaganiya. Capt. Few continued to work with al-Zuharie nonetheless, warning him in parting that allowing insurgents into his village would bring trouble. Few plans to seek out al-Zuharie again with the same message if and when U.S. forces attack Zaganiya. "I think he'll be very receptive this time," says Few.