A breaking story

Conventional armies are a sledgehammer to crack a nut when it comes to fighting guerrillas.

It's hard to describe the noise when a whole cabinet of crockery is emptied on to the floor. Even harder not to shout in indignation when the American soldier who intentionally tipped it forward, until the plates and dishes slid smashing to the floor, says without regret, "Whoops!" and crunches over the shards past the distraught owner. "Cordon and search" they call looking for Sunni insurgents and their arms and explosives. But at what cost to the battle for "hearts and minds"?

The sweep was a co-operative action between Delta Company of the 2nd Battalion 12th Cavalry and the Iraqi Army's 246th Battalion. The plan was for the Iraqis to lead and the Americans to provide security and back-up. With engines throbbing, the force waited for 45 minutes at the start line for the Iraqis to arrive.

"And you think they haven't been calling their buddies in there to tell them to shift their sorry asses?" growled Sgt Penning in disgust. By the time we rolled into the middle section of the Baghdad neighbourhood of Ghazaliya, there wasn't a single shot being fired in our direction. Any insurgents were long gone. But the hapless residents were not. They watched, almost impassively, the random violence of the searching troops, too frightened to object. Some of the houses, whose Christian or Shia owners had fled, were empty. Occupied or not, if no one quickly answered the demands to open up, gates, doors and windows were smashed down or blown open with shotguns.

Inside, damage was done to anything breakable. Living-rooms became a jumble of furniture. Beds were overturned, cabinets thrown down, shelves emptied on to floors and beds: an orgy of destruction and arbitrary searching.

And yet the soldiers sometimes missed the obvious. In one house, no attention was paid to two computers. Just the day before, the platoon had received intelligence that someone in the area was using the internet to co-ordinate insurgent activities.

In one home, while I filmed upstairs with a couple of soldiers and the son of the house, on the ground floor an Iraqi soldier helped himself to $400 and the mother's identity papers. As the search progressed, several blocks later, the parents and their son pitched up and tried to retrieve the ID papers. The Iraqi commander shouted at them, incensed that they called his soldiers thieves, yelling that they were lying because they were insurgent sympathisers. Only when I showed him the footage of his soldiers turning over the house, did the colonel admit his men may have been responsible.

It was an extraordinary example of how such operations can exacerbate the problem in a Sunni neighbourhood not infested with insurgents, but definitely used as a transit area and a place to stash explosives and weapons. The population, borderline in support for the government, becomes further alienated and more likely to engage with the jihadi fighters.

Conventional armies are a sledgehammer to crack a nut when it comes to fighting guerrillas. With the US military's emphasis on "force protection", what is important is the recovery of weapons or the capture of insurgents who can kill US soldiers. Breaking up people's homes is an unfortunate by-product, the "collateral damage" of war.

This time they did get lucky.

A local resident, angry with the insurgents for some reason, shopped them to the soldiers searching his house. The fighters had occupied a house down the street, he told them. Sure enough, a few houses away they discovered a secret door, plastered over to look like a wall. Inside were a dozen rusty old mortar bombs, 20 or so rocket-propelled grenades, loads of small arms ammunition and an "improvised explosive device". Three warheads were primed for attachment to the IED and the Iraqi soldiers triumphantly carried them away to their truck. In the face of protests from the US Captain Fowler, the small pick-up bounced dangerously off down the street.

"Dammit! You know they're just gonna sell them back to the bad guys!" exclaimed one sergeant.

Tim Lambon of Channel 4 News is embedded with US troops in Iraq

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour