A Thin Green Line Outside Baghdad

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

U.S. soldiers investigate the site of a car bomb attack in the Karradah neighborhood in central Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, July 23, 2007.

The dusty farming communities southeast of Baghdad have become a key front in U.S. efforts to pacify the Iraqi capital. As militants search for sanctuaries from which they can stage attacks in the city, American troops are looking for ways to block an elusive enemy. As tens of thousands of additional American soldiers began patrolling Baghdad this summer, Madain, to the southeast of the capital, was an obvious fallback position for Sunni and Shi'ite militants. Until this spring, the U.S. presence there had consisted of only a couple of companies that patrolled in Humvees, but a brigade was assigned to the area in anticipation of a rise in insurgent and militia activity in response to the surge.

"This whole place used to be sanctuary," says Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of U.S. forces in the area. Now several thousand Americans are spread across several combat outposts, and they patrol Madain for hours each day. Grigsby's men are confronting enemies whose diversity and ingenuity reflect the variety of armed groups that have proliferated in Baghdad since 2003. Their main focus, says Grigsby, is preventing militants and their weapons from entering the capital.

The two Baghdad-connected highways that run through Madain make the area a natural transit point for the bombers that sow mayhem in the capital. A preferred insurgent tactic for evading detection is to construct car bombs and IEDs as close as possible to their target in or around Baghdad.

"Where they're building [them] is right in our battle space," says Grigsby. "We know that." Because of the time taken to acquire and assemble bomb parts, his men seek to interdict bomb materiel and maintain pressure on the militants, to put them on the defensive in the hopes of disrupting their offensive plans. Capt. Richard Thompson, 35, explains the thinking: "If we don't kill or capture a bad guy that [particular], night the message to him is still, you are not safe."

And the U.S. commander believes his brigade is succeeding in limiting the number of bombs entering Baghdad. But he's unsure whether the bomb-makers live in the area or are brought in to construct the devices. "If I had that answer, man, I'd go out and whack 'em right now," Grigsby says.

Gathering intelligence isn't the only challenge; Sunni militants are well practiced at basing themselves in areas where it is difficult for the U.S. to operate. Thompson says that the Sunni insurgency in Madain — as elsewhere in Iraq — is divided between nationalist elements and the jihadists of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The al-Qaeda group has based itself in a bend in the Tigris River dominated by fish farms, and the dike roads that criss-cross the area cannot carry the weight of U.S. vehicles.

"There aren't really a lot of people, and they can stage from there," says Thompson, who commands a company based at one of the combat outposts. "They're smart; they will go where we are not." Anticipating that difficulty, the Americans practiced helicopter assaults before leaving for Iraq from their base in Georgia.

The last line of defense against strikes inside Baghdad are the checkpoints along Madain's arterial routes — most of them manned by the Iraqi security forces. The checkpoints are an improvement over the open roads that previously prevailed, but they are only as effective as the soldiers manning them. In Madain, as elsewhere in Iraq, the security forces are dominated by Shi'ites. Grigsby is aware of the danger of sectarian bias in their operations.

"Do I worry about that? Sure I do," Grigsby says the U.S. commander. He said he trusts the politicians and security chiefs he deals with at his level. But the loyalties of the force as a whole are more difficult to discern. "The further you get down in the organization," he said, "I don't know."