US Forces Go On Offensive
As Iraq Election Looms

By Toby Harnden in Sharqat
The Telegraph - UK
Codenamed "Seeds of Liberty", the largest military operation in Iraq since the 2003 invasion has started. American-led troops are fanning across the country to secure the election, even as they try to persuade Iraqis that the United States has nothing to do with it.
Far from taking a back seat, US forces have adopted an aggressive strategy of disrupting insurgents in their heartlands, flooding soldiers into areas where previously there were no coalition troops.
"Hopefully we'll throw them off, so they can't throw off the election," said Lt Col Scott Leith, commanding the US Army's 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry from a makeshift base outside the Sunni bastion of Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad.
No soldier from the unit doubts that the insurgents - dubbed by one officer a "legion of doom" - are prepared to unleash a wave of violence before the election, even if January has been relatively quiet. "We're assessing this as the calm before the storm," said an intelligence officer at brigade headquarters.
Lt Col Leith's unit has been known as "the Wolfhounds" since its relentless pursuit of Bolsheviks in 1919 while on a highly secret mission to guard Allied military stores in depots along the Trans-Siberian railway. After retreating, the Bolsheviks nicknamed them the Wolfhounds after the Russian tsars' hunting dogs which chased predatory wolves.
Last Friday, the unit launched Operation Wolfhound Fury - storming the town of Sharqat, a key insurgent centre where Syrian and Jordanian fighters are believed to be operating, and surrounding villages.
Strategically located halfway between Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit and the northern city of Mosul, Sharqat was where the Turks were defeated by an Anglo-Indian force in 1918 during the Mesopotamian campaign. Now, the Americans view it as a "terrorist sanctuary" for Sunni insurgents determined to undermine the election with suicide car bombs in Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city to the east.
The area has seen numerous attempts by insurgents to foment ethnic tensions and scare people into staying at home on January 30. Five schools in the Hawija area assumed to have been earmarked as polling stations have been bombed. An election banner had the message, "If you participate in the elections you will die" scrawled on it. "These guys are out hereÖ doing pretty much anything from torching police stations to beheading our informants," said Capt Tony Eason, the Wolfhounds' intelligence officer. "There is a nest of folks here that are definitely into destabilising the area."
Most insidiously, the insurgents, known as the Mukafan or "those who fight the infidels", appeared to be a loose alliance of foreign jihadists and Saddam loyalists.
Operation Seeds of Liberty began with an 18-minute flight from Hawija in 10 Black Hawk and three Chinook helicopters. More than 200 infantrymen, accompanied by The Telegraph, landed at 2am in muddy fields close to the eastern bank of the Tigris; about 300 troops arrived in Humvees two hours later.
Bathed in green light through the soldiers' night vision sights, the eerie stillness of the town was broken by the barking of dogs and the clatter of rotor blades. Landing from the air, with support from Apache helicopters and a Spectre gunship, meant that their goal of almost complete surprise was achieved.
Within three minutes, the troops had sprinted to "Objective Gold", three houses belonging to suspected insurgents. Blasting or kicking open the doors, the soldiers shepherded women into one room while the men were interrogated outside by military intelligence teams.
In the aftermath of their surprise attack, the Wolfhounds set up temporary headquarters in Sharqat police station, which was attacked and burnt in November by insurgents who threatened local officers with death if they returned. Just three of 400 officers on the payroll could be found on Friday. None was on duty.
Most of the local people, who are Sunni, seemed to welcome the Americans. The soldiers bought shoes from local shops for 65 children and offered projects valued at $750,000 to improve the wider Sharqat area.
As their houses were searched, men in keffiyehs bowed respectfully and offered tea. One imam even brought a heater out to warm soldiers, standing huddled together in the biting cold, while his young brother was being questioned.
Few, however, said that they would turn out to vote in the elections, which, according to wide predictions, will return power to Iraq's majority Shi'ite population.
"Why should I put myself between the hammer and the anvil?" asked Abdullah Naif, 27. A local businessman, he once studied in Washington state but told the soldiers he had turned against the Americans. "You kicked the arses of the people," he said. "You behaved like you were the big men here. There was a gap and you allowed the terrorists to convince the people about their ideas. I've seen my fellow Muslims robbed and killed. And now Bush tells me I have to vote?"
Maj Mario Diaz, operations officer for the Wolfhounds, told Mr Naif that he acknowledged that "mistakes were made", but insisted that only elections could enable Iraqis to control their own destiny.
If Operation Seeds of Liberty was successful, he argued, there was hope. "As a coalition we have said the Iraqi security situation is stable and there is a safe environment for the people to vote. So we're committed to achieving that."
In the final days before next Sunday's election, the disruption phase will be wound down and massive numbers of US troops ñ their numbers in Iraq swollen to a post-invasion high of 155,000 ñ will construct defensive cordons around polling stations.
Once the locations of the polling stations, which are being kept secret until the last moment, have been announced, the soldiers will lift concrete screens and sand-filled "Hesco" barriers into place to protect voters. Curfews and a ban on the use of civilian vehicles will also be enforced in most towns.
US soldiers have been issued with cards reminding them to "appear completely neutral in all matters relating to the Iraqi Elections" and not to "gather near registration or polling centres ", where Iraqi forces will be posted.
American aircraft and military vehicles are being used to transport ballot papers both before and after the election. "There'll be an incredible [American] force out there," said Lt Col Leith. "It'll be tough to do anything.
"We want to knock them off balance. Then they can't mount the kind of spectacular attacks they would like. If we can make it through to 13.00 hours on election day, then I'll consider we have won."
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.



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