Dozens of Iraqi humvees, backed by U.S. soldiers and Bradley fighting vehicles, streamed into the village of Buritz, in the second attempt in a week to flush out enemy fighters. The dusty streets were otherwise empty; the residents holed up in their homes.
The Iraqi soldiers went door-to-door, kicking their way in and questioning those inside. A few streets away, other Iraqi soldiers were fighting gun battles. Snipers opened fire on them several times.
The Iraqi soldiers surrounded the house of a suspected bomb-maker. At first hesitant to go inside for fear it was booby-trapped, they eventually stormed in and seized items used to build makeshift weapons. They blew up a car outside the house that they suspected would be used in a vehicle-borne attack.
Buritz is part of Baqouba, an ethnically mixed city 35 miles north of Baghdad. It's one of several villages U.S. and Iraqi troops are in the process of clearing. American commanders believe securing these communities is crucial to the goal of handing over control of the Diyala province to Iraqi security forces in the coming months.
But the operations have grown deadlier, complicated by what may be an influx of Sunni and Shiite fighters flushed out of Baghdad by the stepped-up security operations there.
One U.S. battalion has lost 17 men here since October, accounting for more casualties in four months than an entire U.S. brigade lost the year before.
"It's definitely not a friendly area to either Iraqi Security Forces or Coalition forces," said Army First Lt. Ryan Boeka, leading a foot patrol through Buritz earlier in the week. "A lot of people from the Baath party are in here, and there are some other groups that push in from other areas."
Boeka and the other soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, (which has lost five men since December), have been living with the Iraqis at the Buritz Police Station, which was recently over-run by insurgents and later re-taken by U.S. forces. Half of the building is collapsed from a U.S. missile strike during that effort.
This week, an Iraqi police checkpoint nearby also came under attack, and the police fled. When U.S. forces moved in and secured the area the Iraqis returned, only to flee again when more gunfire was aimed their way.
Iraqi checkpoints have been hit so many times by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, and the roads leading to them lined with IEDs to target Americans coming to their assistance that the U.S. military decided to dismantle many of them.
"They were getting attacked over and over again," said George. "It was just a point of reference for the enemy to go to, so what we decided to do was break down the checkpoints and go on the offensive."
The U.S. has set up a training academy near Baqouba, and Iraqi soldiers and police recently practiced defending a building from attack. But when George visits Iraqi commanders he urges them to "attack, attack" and then repeats the word in Arabic to drive home his message about the need to go after the enemy, rather than waiting for it to come to them.
That is part of what the Buritz operation was all about. The new Iraqi police and Army units are hesitant to leave their bases without U.S. support. But the Americans are insisting they take the lead in operations. U.S. soldiers often stand in the rear, advising the Iraqis on how to treat suspects they detain and how to search houses for weapons.
The Iraqis appear to have more confidence with the Americans behind them, but they are no safer from the IED threat. An Iraqi humvee was ripped apart by one during the most recent clearing operation. Two Iraqi soldiers inside were killed and three others walking behind the vehicle were seriously wounded. At the end of the operation, the Iraqis pulled the damaged humvee — nothing more than a smoking axle — from a canal and towed it away.
Roadside bombs are a major threat in this part of Diyala. Twenty were discovered during one recent weekend.
One U.S. patrol this week spotted men laying out bombs along a roadway the Americans use often. The men left mortars, an artillery shell, and a canister filled with explosives to form a "daisy chain", or a chain reaction of explosions.
It was a coordinated attack. They fired first on a nearby Iraqi checkpoint to distract the Iraqi police and stop civilian traffic from coming through. There were also men blocking the road from the other direction. When the U.S. soldiers spotted the suspects they called in U.S. military helicopters to give chase.
"God, I hope they get them," one of the U.S. soldiers said as he watched the helicopters trail the men.
The suspects vanished into the date palm groves lining the road.