It's 2:30 on a Thursday morning when four humvees, five Bradleys and a couple of minivans pull up in front of a two-story building in the Ghazalia district of western Baghdad. Bravo Company of the 91st Engineering Battalion is making a house call. The address is a suspected hideout of foreign fighters allied with Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, thought to be the mastermind of the recent wave of insurgent violence. Bravo has been joined by some special-forces soldiers, and together they come barreling out of their vehicles, clamber over a metal gate and charge into the house.
They quickly realize this is a "dry hole": the house is empty. The raid has awakened the neighbors, though, which allows Bravo Company leader Captain Michael Rainey to ask some questions. The house had indeed been occupied by foreigners, says an old man, but they left a few weeks ago. They had claimed to be students, but Rainey uncovers hand-drawn maps of the area that hint at a more sinister purpose.
The predawn operation is a reminder that last week's handover of sovereignty doesn't mean coalition forces have marched off into the sunset; they're lurking just over the horizon. Across the capital last week, barbed wire and concrete barriers were hauled away, opening up some roads that have been blocked for a year or more for security reasons. Iraqi national guardsmen and police are taking over from coalition soldiers and MPs at many checkpoints and police stations.
But the coalition's reduced footprint isn't supposed to compromise their ability to get at the "anti-Iraqi forces"--military shorthand for homegrown insurgents and foreign terrorists. "The enemy will still feel our breath on his neck," says Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry, the armored division responsible for the security of Baghdad. "We'll make damn sure the bad guys know we're still in the neighborhood."
When 1st Cav is in the neighborhood, you can hardly miss it. From his headquarters at Camp Victory, a sprawling base 10 miles west of downtown Baghdad, Chiarelli commands seven brigades comprising 29,000 soldiers and several thousand humvees, Bradley vehicles and Abrams tanks. At any given time, several groups of vehicles are on patrol or conducting raids, raising a huge dust cloud and a god-awful din. The base abuts Baghdad's most hostile districts, Khadra, Ghazalia and Abu Ghraib, which makes it a target of almost daily mortar attacks. Those areas are known to harbor al-Qaeda cells and secret bombmaking factories.
Flushing them out is the task of 1st Cav's 2nd Brigade, a.k.a. the Black Jack Brigade. The commander, Colonel Michael Formica, is keenly aware that when al-Zarqawi brings his jihad to the Iraqi capital, these districts will supply fighters and support.