Voyage into Iraq’s Sunni Centre

October 27th, 2007 - by admin

Paul Wood / BBC News – 2007-10-27 22:14:43

US soldiers stand by a car they have stopped on the roadside
• Video: US stop and search

Inch by inch, they check for roadside bombs. It is slow going. After four hours, they still haven’t found an IED, or improvised explosive device. Then, they do. They have spotted a man running to a nearby village and they give chase. He may be behind this attack – and others.

Suspicion falls on every male here. The risk for the US is that this will create future enemies. But the head man says he feels safer with the Americans around. It’s the insurgents he fears, he tells me. Eventually, he identifies one man as a stranger. When he tests positive for explosives, an arrest is made.

• Video: 101st on patrol

Two roadside bomb attacks have been triggered from this village in just a matter of days and, to the ordinary soldier, the IED threat seems as dangerous as ever. But senior commanders insist the number of attacks are falling because ordinary Sunnis have decided to turn against the insurgency.

These men are central to US strategy. US commanders call them, without irony, the “Concerned Local Citizens”. They are recruited through Sunni tribal leaders, who are paid – some would say bribed – by the US to keep the peace.

But they work with the police and sometimes they have been known help the insurgents. Within sight of the police checkpoint, the patrol stops to meet the locals. There is sniper fire.

• Video: Shooting aftermath

A helicopter flies above the scene after a US soldier is shot. To the right of the armoured jeep, a soldier has been hit. He crumples.

For some of these young soldiers – just 18 or 19 years old – it is their first time under fire. But their sergeants, now on a third tour of Iraq, react instinctively. No-one can see the sniper.

The medic – and our cameraman – break cover to get to the injured man. Mute with shock, he is losing a lot of blood. The bullet passed through his leg but it missed the artery. The soldiers want to hit back. But where?

• Video: A handcuffed prisoner

The sniper is probably long gone by now. It is immensely frustrating. And anyway, the priority now is to evacuate the casualty.

Back at the base, they get ready to return – in force – to the scene of the shooting. But, by the time their sweep of the town is complete, not a single Iraqi will have come forward with information.

While most violence in Iraq is sectarian, Iraqi killing Iraqi, most violence against the US troops comes from Sunni militant groups. They must win here if they are to leave Iraq.

Even if things are turning around, their local allies remain uncertain, the population divided, the casualties, although reduced, keep coming. There is much still to do.