- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

HIMBUS, Iraq — Hundreds of Iraqis lined up in the dirt outside an elementary school in Iraq”s northern Diyala River Valley last month to be seen by U.S. and Iraqi military doctors — the first free medical clinic for residents of the town of Himbus and its surrounding villages.

In the village of al-Hib a day earlier, children lined up behind Stryker armored vehicles and carried armloads of U.S.-donated notebooks, pencils and other materials into their school.

“I”m trying to build human intelligence,” said Army Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, commander of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.

“The population is less nervous every day about giving us information on the remaining al Qaeda in the area,” he said, and outreach efforts such as the medical clinic ease the process.

Himbus is in what is known as Iraq”s “Bread Basket.” Until Jan. 8, when U.S. and Iraqi forces began a multi-pronged operation, it was a stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq — so much so that severed heads marked bridge crossings into the area.

The militants maintained training camps and arms caches and strictly enforced Shariah law, banning music, smoking and shaving while requiring full-length veils for women.

In recapturing the valley, U.S. forces have detained at least 58 terrorist suspects and discovered a small tunnel system in a palm grove. They turned up 20 large arms caches, 16 improvised explosive devices, seven vehicles loaded to explode and six houses rigged with booby traps.

Every day, as soldiers search deeper into the palm groves and peer into isolated houses, more enemy weaponry is found. Interspersed with the searches are the so-called “presence patrols,” in which soldiers interact more closely and personally with the locals.

Soldiers said that when they first entered Himbus, they were greeted with empty streets. When the residents eventually emerged from their homes, they met the soldiers with cold, hard stares.

Today, though, the troops receive tentative waves, smiles and, when entering compounds hidden from view of neighbors, offerings of sweet tea, flat bread and fruit.

Although the atmosphere has improved, the Americans worry that the heavy fighting they expected in the valley never materialized. Instead of gunbattles with some of the 200 to 500 al Qaeda terrorists thought to have been in the area, only occasional snipings and several improvised explosive devices were encountered.

Most of the enemy appears to have fled before the attack, probably tipped off by a buildup of U.S. helicopters and armored vehicles before the offensive.

The soldiers also are frustrated by the slowness with which the area’s residents are coming forward to cooperate with coalition forces and identify terrorist sympathizers. That will require patience.

“How can you tell me you know nothing about the al Qaeda camp that was just 500 [yards] from your farm — that you didn”t know it was there?” Lt. Max Ferguson of Iron Company asked an elderly man pruning vines on the outskirts of Himbus.

“Oh, that camp,” was the reply. “I stayed inside,” the man said through an interpreter, “and only saw trucks with masked men coming from there sometimes.”

“If you stayed inside, how did you do your work in the fields?” Lt. Ferguson asked.

The man remained silent.

At al-Hib, a village elder said no al Qaeda operatives or supporters were in his area, but asked for an AK-47 to protect himself because he had been seen cooperating with U.S. forces.

The contradiction didn”t escape Lt. Ferguson, who pressed again for information on al Qaeda in Iraq, but also stressed that villagers elsewhere have formed armed neighborhood-watch groups to protect their communities.

“Al Qaeda made us like chickens, afraid of everything,” the village elder explained.

Col. Coffey estimates that 50 to 60 hard-core terrorists remain in his area of responsibility. There also are supporters — either by choice or intimidation — and many more waiting on the sidelines to see who prevails.

“There remains in my operational area [al Qaeda] that have gone to ground or are hiding in plain sight. They are going to be rolled up in time,” he said.

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