Blowing up insurgents’ old hut sends signal that Tarmiyah area is more secure

Nathan Webster is an independent journalist who embedded with the US Army in Tarmiyah in Salahadin province, Iraq. Nathan is providing reports from Tarmiyah for The Long War Journal.

TARMIYAH, IRAQ: Destroying a nondescript hut, made of mud and thatched straw, might have seemed a devastating overstatement. But according to US Army Captain Christopher Loftis, its destruction will show the local residents “Al Qaeda isn’t coming back.”

Loftis commands Alpha Company 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Tarmiyah, Iraq, about 25 miles north of Baghdad. On June 7, members of the 66th Engineer Company, part of the 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade, used nearly 150 pounds of C-4 explosives to destroy the former al Qaeda cache house in the farmland area north of Tarmiyah.

Back in 2007, when al Qaeda in Iraq was dominant here, this was one of the worst areas for the insurgency.

Because of the houses’s bad reputation – when raided, chemicals used for kidnappings were discovered – rehabilitating it is not an option, Loftis said. “Local Iraqis didn’t come out this way unless they wanted to get kidnapped and beheaded,” he said.

Much of the area, including adjacent vineyards, were owned by Abu Ghazwan, the al Qaeda emir in the area who is now on the run. The soft farmland also has been the hiding place for many illegal weapons caches.

“Anyone we find in this building is either a bad guy or stupid,” said First Lieutenant Matt Ives during the pre-patrol mission brief. “Friendlies won’t be using it.”

At the site itself, soldiers knocked on doors of the few scattered buildings and farmhouses, making sure local Iraqis were aware of the upcoming blast and suggesting they take any pictures off their walls until after the explosion.

At one unused chicken farm, an Iraqi said through the translator that this area used to be “very bad,” and while “it’s not 100 percent, it’s getting better.” When al Qaeda came in 2007, he said, they wanted locals to work with them against the Coalition, but it soon became evident they were nothing more than thugs and thieves, threatening and extorting residents.

Sergeant Chad Ward and Private First Class Edward Beaupre walk up one straight dirt road, turning back occasional traffic, and telling drivers to wait a couple hours before heading down the road into the city. Along the roadside, Beaupre notices something “suspicious, out of place,” he said. A white sandbag that he can tell contains something long and cylindrical – like an artillery shell.

“You’re right, it’s a round,” Ward says, after cutting away a bit of sandbag to gingerly check inside, just a hint of concern now in his voice. “Move out.”

On the quick walk back down the road, where they will alert the engineers they now have a second job at the site – removing the suspected IED – Ward laughs and smiles. “It happens.”

Beaupre is not impressed with himself, despite a “great eyes” compliment from Ward, his team leader. “Just being curious like they train me to be.”

One of the engineer’s anti-IED vehicles, heavily armored for their constant route clearance missions, checks out and removes the round, which was unwired, and by itself no real threat. But, Loftis said, this is a very dangerous area, with long straight roads providing excellent aiming line for insurgent IED teams. The dirt roads are wide enough for Strykers, but the ditches and culverts make off-road travel difficult. It puts the Stryker vehicles in a vulnerable position.

For that reason, “I swarm this place,” Loftis said. “We have a lot of patrols out here, and we’ve been very fortunate so far.”

Back at the cache house, the engineers line walls and roofs with C-4. One back wall of the house still has a hole where soldiers punched through into a 5-foot-wide false room, containing explosives, propaganda, ski masks and other al Qaeda-linked material.

Once completed, the soldiers do one more check of the area. Beaupre’s eyes work again, spying a motorcycle way down one road. They tell the driver to leave the area, and then they button up in the Stryker, closing the hatch but turning the vehicle so they can watch the explosion on their imaging screens.

At about the 10-minute mark, two children wander down the road and are hastily warned away. One soldier remains above the hatch until the 1-minute warning, in case any stragglers enter the area.

The explosion itself is anti-climactic. The building disappears into a fountain of cascading dirt, nearly straight into the air. A vibration ripples through the Stryker, noticeable mostly because the soldiers were waiting for it. “That’s it? Lame! Booo!” the soldiers joke.

Back at the site, the demolition is complete. The building is gone, and the thatched straw that once was the roof now litters the adjacent road. A bulldozer is already clearing it off.

The man at the unused chicken farm reported no damage from the explosion, and invited the soldiers in for chai tea, which they declined, eager to be on their way back to their Joint Security Station headquarters in downtown Tarmiyah. As the man said, the area is improving, but it is still not safe enough for Iraqis working closely with the Coalition.

Very close to the destroyed building is a chicken farm and home owned by Sheikh Sa’ed Jassim, a very influential local leader who works closely with Loftis. The local Sons of Iraq program is run by his son, Imad.I Insurgents mortared his home, and placed IEDs on his property. Two of his sons were murdered in 2007, leading him to payoff al Qaeda in Iraq, which led to detention by the U.S. Released from detention in February, he now lives in his son’s Tarmiyah home, a few miles away.

Right now, the sheik believes it’s too dangerous for him to return to this area to live, “and I agree with him,” Loftis said.

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