Is the Surge Backfiring?

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Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall / AFP / Getty

U.S. soldiers search for weapons caches and insurgents in Old Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, April, 2007.

You never get much sleep at a patrol base at night. In Ramadi, where Marines man several combat outposts amid the inner city, darkness often brings fear as Iraqi security forces come and go, leaving some Marines wondering whether they are among friends or enemies. In Ghazaliya, a violent neighborhood in western Baghdad with similar combat outposts, nearby gunfire cracks through the inky blackness outside seemingly every time you drift off. And in Diyala Province, where nine U.S. soldiers died Monday, troops stand watch on rooftops overlooking stretches of palm groves where they know insurgents dwell, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Increasingly across Iraq, U.S. forces are leaving the comfort and safety of their fortified mega-bases and establishing small combat outposts and patrol bases like the one insurgents struck outside Baquba that left 20 soldiers wounded as well. Some patrol bases are well protected with blast walls and large numbers of troops. Others are little more than abandoned houses that a few platoons circle with Humvees while hunkering down inside. As a reporter frequently embedded with U.S. forces, I've visited many such patrol bases, and the sense of vulnerability at them is all too palpable. The paratroopers tasked with controlling the volatile territory on the outskirts of Baquba knew they would face attacks from insurgents in the area as they stepped up their presence by manning such patrol bases. But they saw little choice, since the ongoing surge strategy calls for U.S. forces to abandon the old notion of return-to-base patrols in favor of living full time in deadly areas.

Word of yesterday's deadly assault in eastern Diyala Province spread quickly among U.S. troops as far away as the western city of Tikrit, where soldiers with the 82nd Airborne kept a close watch on reports of their comrades sent to the Baqubah area to deal with rising violence there. The strike was what U.S. soldiers call a complex attack, one involving elaborate planning to maximize casualties. Initial assessments suggest that first a suicide car bomber rammed a vehicle into the gates of a small U.S. patrol base outside Baquba in the same area where single car bomber attacked a patrol base last month. A second suicide car bomber apparently followed the first in yesterday's attack, however. And at the same time insurgents fired small arms and rocket propelled grenades, according to soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. In the end, the patrol base was all or mostly destroyed, with several soldiers dead beneath the rubble.

At least one other U.S. patrol base remains in the same area of the Diyala River valley as American troops struggle against insurgents who appear to be increasingly bent on turning the territory around Baquba into the most deadly front of the war in Iraq for U.S. forces. It remains to be seen whether the dozens of other combat outposts popping up around Iraq amid the surge will come to face similar attacks aimed at sending U.S. troops back into heavily fortified compounds and, in the hopes of insurgents, ultimately home to the United States in defeat.