The man had just finished explaining to U.S. soldiers that he had no connection to insurgents when his cellphone rang. An Army interpreter picked up, pretending to be the phone's owner.
"Are the Americans still there?" the man on the other end asked breathlessly. Yes, the interpreter replied.
"Good thing we got all the Jaish al-Mahdi stuff out of there," the man said, according to the interpreter's recounting of the conversation, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army, Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia. "We've got it all here."
The man under interrogation had been caught during a U.S. raid near Suwayrah, southeast of Baghdad in Wasit province, that provided a glimpse into the limitations of the U.S. military's current staffing levels in Iraq. Six months after President Bush began sending nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq and two weeks before a key progress report is due, some volatile areas of the country remain havens for Shiite and Sunni extremists because there are not enough American and Iraqi troops to conduct regular patrols.
In Wasit and other parts of Iraq, U.S. commanders rely on quick air assaults to drive out insurgents. Though commanders said they are confident of the strategy, recent "disruption operations" southeast of the capital have yielded only modest results. All too often, suspected insurgents and their weapons have disappeared by the time Americans alight from their helicopters for a three- or four-hour assault.
The cellphone exchange came toward the end of a raid before dawn on Sunday morning that netted only the man whose phone rang at the wrong moment, plus a neighbor who was found hoarding cash and three AK-47 assault rifles in his home.
Commanders of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, called the mission a success because they gathered basic information about the geography and population of an area near Suwayrah where few troops had set foot in more than two years, and captured the two men. Yet officers acknowledged that they had hoped for the discovery of a significant weapons cache or a safe house, or the arrest of an insurgent leader.
Disruption operations have always been part of the U.S. strategy in Iraq, and they have led to some successes, particularly in parts of Anbar province, which has seen a dramatic decrease in violence in the past several months. But spending only a short time on the ground decreases the chances that troops will accomplish their objectives, especially if insurgents detect an upcoming raid and flee. Because there is no sustained military presence in the Suwayrah area, commanders acknowledged they have no way of keeping insurgents out.
"We can't prevent them from coming back," said Lt. Col. Robert Wilson, executive officer for the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, which is leading the operation that included Sunday's raid. "But hopefully we can keep them on their toes and disrupt their pattern of living."
Sunday's raid, dubbed Falcon Fury III, was the third air assault of Operation Marne Husky, a 30-day effort to capture insurgent leaders and weapons southeast of Baghdad. During the three assaults, troops have seized a handful of weapons, blown up one house suspected of being booby-trapped and taken hold of seven people, five of whom were questioned and released.
Commanders say wresting control of the area south of Baghdad is critical to the future of Iraqi security as a whole. To the southwest lies the area known as the "Triangle of Death," where the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is dominant. Southeast of the capital, neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army lie adjacent to those held by Sunni insurgents. Both areas sit along major thoroughfares leading to Baghdad and are believed to be the source of many weapons that flow into the capital.
"You guys have got everything down here," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. commander south of Baghdad, said during a visit near Wehda, a short distance from Suwayrah, a week before Falcon Fury III. "This is the most active and dangerous area we've seen."
Military leaders in the area said disruption operations will make insurgents worry that an air assault is coming. Still, Lynch acknowledged his strategy would have been different if more soldiers had been available, though he declined to specify what such a strategy would have looked like. "You do what you can with the resources you have," Lynch said. "So maybe we can't hold the area, but we can constantly remind the enemy that we're here."
Of the 30,000 additional troops sent to Iraq this year, the vast majority have gone to Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces. On Monday, the military announced that two Marines had been killed in combat in Anbar over the weekend, and that two soldiers were killed in neighboring Salahuddin province, just north of Baghdad, on Sunday.
The soldiers died in a clash in Samarra that caused the deaths of at least a dozen insurgents and two civilians, the military said. Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that the dead included two women and five young children.
At the start of Falcon Fury III, American soldiers who sprinted out of two Chinook and five Blackhawk helicopters seemed to have the element of surprise on their side. A video feed from an unmanned aircraft showed dozens of people descending into their homes from their roofs, where they had been sleeping in a futile attempt to stay cool.
Taken precautions too
But the man on the other end of the cellphone line had clearly taken precautions against the Americans, and U.S. soldiers did not know why. After the raid, Maj. James Wilburn, the operations officer, speculated that insurgents may have seen the helicopters landing at Kalsu that day and removed incriminating evidence from Suwayrah just in case. Capt. Eric Nylander guessed that Mahdi Army leaders had left the area when they heard about Operation Marne Husky.
"Just like we do, they have well-planned escape routes," Wilburn said. "They know where to go and how to get there if we're coming in, which is a challenge for us."
In a best-case scenario, Nylander said, insurgents will not return to the Suwayrah area, allowing Iraqi security forces to assume control of the region. But the phone call from the Mahdi Army made him think that goal would take more time. Commanders declined to discuss future plans in the area, but they said they would continue to monitor Suwayrah and other southern towns now that they have visited there for the first time in more than two years.
"We're not clearing a lot of ground here, but we're gathering some information for future operations," Nylander said. "We can't do it all overnight."