Dozens of U.S. Stryker combat vehicles roared into Baqouba at sunrise. The enemy was ready. As the dawn call-to-prayer fell silent, the streets blazed with insurgent fire.
Within minutes of the start of their first mission in Diyala province Wednesday a voice crackled across the radio: “Catastrophic kill, with casualties.”
Inside the rear of one Stryker, soldiers shushed one another and leaned closer to the radio. They all knew what it meant. A U.S. vehicle had been lost to hostile fire.
Nearly 100 Strykers, armored troop carriers with 50-caliber machine guns, were called north from Baghdad into the province and its capital to try — yet again — to rout Sunni insurgents, many who recently fled the month-old Baghdad security operation.
The fighters have renewed their campaign of bombings and killings just 35 miles northeast of the capital as the war enters its fifth year. Diyala province is quickly becoming as dangerous as Anbar province, the Sunni insurgent bastion west of Baghdad.
Rocket-propelled grenades pounded buildings Wednesday where U.S. soldiers sought cover. Mortars soared overhead and crashed to earth spewing clouds of deadly shrapnel.
Gunfire rattled ceaselessly — the hollow pop of insurgent AK-47s and whoosh of grenade launchers nearly drowned out by shuddering blasts from the 50-caliber machine guns.
Soldiers screamed into their radios for backup. Apache attack helicopters swooped in, firing Hellfire missiles.
By day’s end, one soldier was dead, 12 wounded and two Strykers destroyed. The Americans said dozens of insurgents were killed but gave no specific number.
'They threw everything at us'
It was a bloody first day for the 2nd Infantry Division’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment — the crack Stryker battalion dispatched from Baghdad’s northern suburbs.
“They threw everything at us — RPGs, mortars — and a guy even tossed a grenade just in front of my vehicle,” said Capt. Huber Parsons, the 28-year-old commander of the 5-20’s Attack company. “But the most devastating was the IEDs,” the Coral Gables, Fla., native said. He was talking about improvised explosive devices — roadside bombs.
One Stryker was lost in a particularly sophisticated ambush.
Struck head-on by an IED, the rubber-tired armored vehicle was swallowed up in the bomb crater. Insurgents emerged from hiding, firing RPGs in unison.
The Stryker crew was trapped. One U.S. soldier was killed. All nine other crew members were wounded, though six later returned to duty.
The other Stryker was destroyed when a roadside bomb exploded as the armored vehicle drove over it. The nine-man squad got out alive, three with injuries.
“It was quite an introduction to Diyala,” said Sgt. William Rose of the 5-20’s 3rd platoon, Alpha company. “That was the most contact we’ve had in weeks, maybe months,” said Rose, a 26-year-old Arlington, Mass., native.
“They always say the next place we’re going is the worst — the most violent — and it never turns out to be the case,” Rose said. “They really meant it this time.”
Sharp rise in attacks here
Violence has risen dramatically in Diyala since the Feb. 14 launch of the Baghdad security operation. Insurgents have slowly been taking control for months, however. Attacks on American forces in the province have shot up 70 percent since July, according to military figures.
The Stryker group sent to fight the insurgents was hand-picked by Gen. Ray Odierno, the second in command of all U.S. forces in Iraq. It marked the opening of a new front in the Baghdad security operation, a broadening of the mission for which President Bush has promised more than 20,000 additional soldiers.
The Stryker group came to Baqouba on Tuesday full of optimism about pacifying Diyala, as they did earlier in parts of Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul.
Confidence faded Wednesday in the hail of insurgent fire and news of casualties among comrades.
“Our first day and we lost one already,” said 22-year-old Spc. Jose Charriez of Hermiston, Ore. “You realize how quickly your life can go.”
He and his comrades went through names — Jones, Rubenstein, could it be them? — trying to figure out who died. A young private bowed his head in prayer.
“One killed in action and nine casualties. That’s basically all of us right here,” said Spc. Anthony Bradshaw, a 21-year-old from San Antonio, pointing to the nine men around him.
Hunkered down in their vehicles, the 3rd platoon was itching to get into the fight. They are infantrymen trained for foot patrols, not to ride in armored vehicles, they said. And word of the two lost vehicles fueled their determination.
Then the order came: dismount, clear houses to the north.
At the back of the Stryker, the hatch dropped open, and nine soldiers piled out. They took cover on the front porch of an abandoned house and plotted their path. Explosions rang out to the east, source unknown.
They crouched behind a crumbling cement wall separating overgrown lawns where rusted garbage trucks lay. With large red wire cutters, Spc. Jeremiah Westerfeld, 22, ripped through concertina wire to allow the soldiers to scramble over the wall.
The Batesville, Ind., native bent over and offered a reporter his shoulder as a step to break her fall.
Smoke grenades and gunshots
They dropped down into a scruffy yard, thick with foliage and muddy ruts. A dog barked wildly. Smoke grenades were thrown for cover.
Someone shot the dog.
Doors were kicked in, residents questioned. One vacant house was booby-trapped with a trip wire connected to a homemade bomb made from a propane tank.
Throughout the day, soldiers took aim but seldom got a clear shot at the elusive militants, who hid behind rooftop water tanks and vanished in lush palm groves. Gunfire seemed to come from nowhere and from everywhere.
Insurgent fire kicked up pebbles at the Americans’ feet as they ran between buildings. Incoming bullets were getting more accurate.
In Baghdad, the 5-20 met little resistance as it scoured suspected insurgent dens in neighborhoods around Sadr City. They often drank tea with residents.
Things were different in Diyala, which could prove far more difficult to tame than Baghdad.
“I think the chai (tea) days — the quiet days — are over,” said 24-year-old Pfc. Allen Groth of Winona, Minn.