The village of Binat al Hasan was eerily empty when U.S. forces arrived, swooping out of the sky in four helicopters in a pre-dawn assault. Within moments of the helicopters touching down, roughly 75 U.S. paratroopers and a small contingent of Iraqi special forces fanned out through the desert hamlet about 15 miles southeast of Samarra. House after house turned up empty as the soldiers scoured the dozen or so buildings clustered together amid stretches of sandy flatlands covered with thorn brush. U.S. forces had hoped to surprise insurgents thought to be hiding on the outskirts of Samarra, where violence is on the rise. But in the end the raiders found only one older male and 10 women and children. As dawn broke, the helicopters returned to take the forces away.
American troops operating in the Samarra area are combing the countryside day by day in a counter-move against an expected influx of insurgent fighters, a shift expected in the wake of U.S. gains made against guerrilla forces in the neighboring provinces of Anbar and Diyala. U.S commanders say up to 80% of the insurgent leaders thought to be in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, fled ahead of the ongoing U.S. offensive there. And already signs are emerging that some of the insurgent leaders who've escaped the massive U.S. assault in Diyala have come here.
Lt. Col. Viet Luong, the commander of U.S. forces in the Samarra area, says insurgent violence has increased dramatically in Samarra and the arid plains surrounding the city. In the last two weeks, attacks have risen threefold in Samarra and the areas just outside the city, says Luong. There used to be roughly two attacks per day in Samarra and the farming towns around it. Now there are five to six attacks per day in the same radius, Luong says. Moreover, the insurgents on the scene around Samarra now are fighting with better tactics, a sign to Luong that experienced newcomers are increasingly part of the mix.
"They are fighting harder than what I have seen in the past year," Luong says of the insurgents. "When you see that, you know there's somebody new in town. And that's what we've seen higher levels of sophistication during these attacks, more explosives being used, more complex IEDs, things like that."
Inside the city of Samarra, the fighting has taken on a daily rhythm. In the afternoons, insurgents sling mortars, rockets and bullets into U.S. and Iraqi compounds, usually disappearing in the street before anyone has a chance to kill or wound them. At night, U.S. troops roll from their outpost on the eastern edge of Samarra and search those same streets for fighters moving about laying roadside bombs. They usually find some, and shooting erupts again.
The picture is somewhat different in the vast space around the city, where insurgents bed down, stash arms and hatch attack plans. There are dozens of tiny villages like Binat al Hasan all around Samarra, some consisting of only three or four houses. Luong says insurgents move from village to village, rarely staying anywhere long for fear of being found by U.S. forces. Luong's troops are now staging two and three air assaults per week in an effort to keep insurgents from settling in the Samarra area as they did in Diyala in the months before the ongoing U.S. drive to retake that region.
Some nights bring success. On one recent raid outside Samarra, U.S. forces arrested 14 suspected insurgents who essentially surrendered when American helicopters thundered out of the night sky. Other nights turn up only cold trails in dusty towns that appear on few maps. "Any of the sleepy villages could be a safe haven or a passage point," says Luong. "The bad guys don't have any true boundaries."