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U.S. troops take in insurgents in Southern Baghdad

The Washington Post

CAMP STRYKER, Iraq &

Minutes before sunrise Monday, two companies of American soldiers inched in Humvees toward a hulking concrete compound near this base south of Baghdad, guns ready, their eyes on a long-coveted target along the banks of the Euphrates River.

Nestled in a Sunni stronghold isolated by the river, bomb-seeded roads and a long canal, the Yusufiyah Thermal Power Plant is a prime example of one of the most serious concerns for U.S. commanders: It is an insurgent sanctuary just miles outside Baghdad from which fighters have launched attacks and terrorist bombings in the surrounding area.

Surveillance photos have shown enemy muzzle flashes coming from the upper floors of the sprawling facility, and officials believe it has served as an important way station for the movement of arms, explosives and men. Previous U.S. military units had attacked, but with low numbers of soldiers to commit to the fight, and were ultimately driven out by persistent counterattacks.

As the Humvees rolled in Monday morning and soldiers began storming the main building, Maj. Kenny Mintz watched live aerial video of the raid, which was several months in the making.

"Getting in there isn't the hard part, it's staying there," said Mintz, operations officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, which is running Operation Commando Thrust to occupy an area known as the Shakariya triangle. "The insurgents go where you're not. The power plant is important because it will offer us a place we can project from in a problem area. It has been untouched, and we have to be there."

More than three years into the Iraq war, insurgent safe havens in such close proximity to Baghdad underscore the complexity of the fight U.S. forces continue to wage. As American troops try to shore up Iraqi government institutions, transfer large swaths of territory to Iraqi forces and dampen spiraling sectarian strife, they are confronted by still lawless areas like this one.

The triangle's three points are Sadr al-Yusufiyah on the Euphrates to the northwest, the Jefur al-Sakur Bridge on the Euphrates to the south and Yusufiyah to the east. The region is a fault line between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab populations and a scene of flaring sectarian violence.

As they make the first sustained effort to seize the triangle, U.S. troops in recent days have discovered more than 100 large weapons caches &

buried in 55-gallon blue plastic drums in the tall reeds along the Janabi canal &

that officials believe have been used in attacks and deadly explosions in and around Baghdad. Including several 500-pound aircraft bombs, the materials are estimated to be enough to build more than 1,000 roadside bombs and supply a battalion of fighters, roughly 400 people.

Amid the caches, guns from downed U.S. helicopters have been found, apparently salvaged as trophies. On Sunday, mortar rounds that were fired into a temporary U.S. patrol base nearby killed a young soldier with the unit.

Securing the power plant site has special symbolic importance to the U.S. military because the booby-trapped bodies of two soldiers who were captured and killed in June at a nearby checkpoint were dumped at the bridge crossing into the compound.

This offensive is playing out in the 600-square-mile sector that is the 2-10 Mountain's area of operations, a mix of rural Sunni farmland to the north and west and a dense urban setting to the south and east.

As Shiite militias have gained strength across the region, they have been trying to move into cities such as Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah, escalating sectarian violence. The Iraqi army brigade in the region is having mixed success. A powerful and competent pair of battalions in the east is working hand-in-hand with U.S. forces; two other Iraqi battalions in the west struggle with mass desertion.

In many ways, the area is representative of Iraq as a whole, with areas of great promise bordering others where progress is largely unknown. "It is a complex situation," said Col. Michael Kershaw, the U.S. brigade's commander. "We have two different realities, and we have to build on what we have in Mahmudiyah and move west, where in some ways we're starting at the beginning. It's going to take time."

Even Mahmudiyah, with a strong Iraqi army presence and developing governmental strength, is facing sectarian violence.

On Saturday afternoon just before 5 p.m., seven bicycles were left amid holiday crowds in a bustling market in the largely Shiite city. Plastic explosives crammed into the hollow metal frames of five of the bicycles later detonated, destroying market stands and killing at least 17 people, including children, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Col. Fawzi, an Iraqi battalion commander in Mahmudiyah, said Sunday that he believed the attack was meant to intimidate the local population and was in retribution for Iraqi army raids on a local Sunni political party's offices.

"I am upset and saddened by what happened," Fawzi said before leading a tour of the marketplace, wreckage still strewn across the road. "If we can remove the menace we are facing right now, Mahmudiyah can be stable."

On Monday, Iraqi army officials arrested 17 suspects in the market bombing and killed two insurgent mortar teams attempting to launch an attack, U.S. officials said. American soldiers intercepted a massive truck bomb that officials believe was heading to an Iraqi police station in Mahmudiyah.

Despite incidents like these, U.S. officials cite the possibility of progress. They say that the region's long-standing embrace of people who remain loyal to former president Saddam Hussein is diminishing. Maj. Frank Andrews, the 2-10 Mountain's executive officer, said that it is important to push out extremist operatives and convince locals that the United States is committed to the long haul.

"Now would be a very bad time for us to leave, not in a pessimistic way, but in an optimistic way," Andrews said. "We have a number of opportunities here that we want to see to fruition. I don't think it would be helpful to abandon them."

U.S. soldiers established themselves Monday atop the power plant along the Euphrates without resistance. Insurgents may have seen them staging for the large operation and chosen to pull back. Kershaw said, however, that he expects some form of counterattack in the coming days.

"We know how they respond to us trying to take their sanctuary," he said, referring to what followed past U.S. actions. "The question is how they will respond to a sustained U.S. presence."