TIME: Hunt for the Bomb Factories

The car bombs that go off in Baghdad are manufactured in the relative quiet of an arc of Sunni tribal lands around the capital. That is the true heartland of the resistance, where it draws on massive weapons depots secreted in river valleys and deserts. The nationalist fighters who control the area supply Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's networks with the ammo they use for their deadly operations, according to U.S. military intelligence. Even as more attacks took place last week in the run-up to the election--including mortar rounds on the U.S. embassy that killed two Americans--the Iraqi government announced the capture of several key al-Zarqawi lieutenants, including an alleged "bomber-in-chief." U.S.-led forces arrested other significant insurgent leaders, the result of a monthlong sweep beyond Iraq's big cities. On a recent mission, TIME Baghdad bureau chief MICHAEL WARE saw the strategy at work.


Backed by Bradley fighting vehicles, the American soldiers of Coldsteel Company swarm into a clutch of farmhouses as a platoon of Estonian infantry closes from the rear. The Americans are part of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment's operation to seal off a stretch of villages hugging the Euphrates in the Jafr Sakhr region, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. "Go round 'em up," a U.S. officer hollers, and male villagers of military age--one with his crying 3-year-old clinging to his neck--are sifted out. A humvee approaches and stops in front of the lined-up Iraqis. From within, a passenger, face masked, raises or lowers a thumb as each man is singled out. It isn't clear who the masked man is, perhaps an intelligence source or an informer. Those given the thumbs-up are seated. Others, who get the thumbs-down, are separated and detained. In the meantime, the village mosque is secured. Its imam and congregation are known to be hostile to U.S. forces.

The raid's focus shifts to a building marked as House 69 on the soldiers' maps. The night before, a source, possibly a cell member who turned during questioning, gave up the names and locations of six suspected cell members. Among them are two brothers thought to be central players in nationalist attacks on U.S. soldiers. Also on the list is the leader of their Islamic Army outfit, a man known as Abu Ayesha. The brothers are found in their family compound in a nearby village. Abu Ayesha is a different story. One of the homes near House 69 is said to be his. But although spotters have been positioned to catch anyone running from the battalion's advance, Abu Ayesha is not to be found. "Everybody gave us a different story on which house was his, so they were well versed in not giving a straight story," an intelligence officer concludes.

Adjacent to House 69, in a small palm grove, the Estonians uncover a weapons cache: rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and an AK-47, its ammo hastily buried nearby. The weapon's magazines are wrapped in plastic and sealed in a tin ammunition box. "There's gotta be stuff all over the place," says 2-12 battalion commander Lieut. Colonel Tim Ryan. Two days later, one of the detainees would break during interrogation and betray the site of Abu Ayesha's main arsenal, which supplied the al-Zarqawi, Ansar al-Sunnah and nationalist cells blasting away at the U.S.-led coalition and the fledgling Iraqi government's security forces. The 2-12 spent a day digging into berms gouged from the flat desert, retrieving one of the largest weapons caches found in Iraq in the past year, including two suspected Scud-missile warheads. Says Ryan: "The member of the cell who gave up the information said that this is untouched, that it is a place where they've drawn their supplies from ever since the fall of the Saddam regime, and from which they're supplying activities in this part of the country, from southwest Baghdad over toward Fallujah and then down to Musayyab."

The weapons seizure underlines the diverse and fractured nature of the Iraqi insurgency. Al-Zarqawi's cells, mostly directed by non-Iraqi jihadis, often don't know where the arms caches are and so cannot function without the support of the Iraqi nationalists, mostly former military officers, who do. The proliferation of car bombs doesn't indicate a formal alliance between the two groups. But the ideological divide is bridged by tribal commerce. Within a single tribe, there can be a diversity of Islamist and nationalist strains--and genealogy can usually produce a cousin able to provide arms to a distant relative, perhaps via another distant relative. Insurgents from the Karghouli tribe, for instance, are principally led by a figure dubbed the Strawberry Sheik. One of his relatives, Abu Mustafa, heads a self-titled military "company" of the nationalist Islamic Army. Another of the sheik's kinsmen, Amara Adnan Hamza, is a fundamentalist Muslim. Known locally as Little Zarqawi, he commands a network loyal to the more famous al-Zarqawi that has prepared car bombs destined for Baghdad. According to American as well as insurgent sources, both Little Zarqawi and his nationalist relative Abu Mustafa have drawn weapons from their senior relative, the Strawberry Sheik. Ryan's battalion disrupted Little Zarqawi's cell and found two tons of explosives at its disposal.

So far, in an offensive that began in late December, the 2-12 has cracked an al-Zarqawi bombmaking cell and an Ansar al-Sunnah stronghold, and severely disrupted a nest of nationalist cells composed of former Republican Guard officers and Baathists upon whom the other organizations rely. That has led the insurgents to attack the 2-12 directly. At one point during the Jafr Sakhr operation, a report comes in from 2-12's headquarters. Insurgents are lobbing mortars on the bridge over the Euphrates where Ryan has positioned his tanks. He isn't dismayed. "I was waiting to see how long it would take the enemy to get mad enough about us being on the bridge before he started shooting mortars at us. If he's shooting at us here, he isn't attacking toward Baghdad. We have the bridge cut off, so now the bad guys on the east side of the bridge can't connect with the bad guys on the west side of the bridge." He adds, "The more [the enemy] has to turn and divert his attention to us here in his supply lines, in his safe havens, the less time he's devoted to attacking people in Baghdad." As a result, the car bombs made in the Jafr Sakhr area must now pass through Fallujah to the north or Musayyab to the south, running a gauntlet of U.S. checkpoints before they can reach the capital.

The insurgents in Baghdad claim to be unperturbed by the recent U.S. raids in the tribal heartland. The emir, or prince, controlling many of the nationalist cells in the capital and in the Jafr Sakhr region, which Ryan's 2-12 is targeting, told TIME that he knew of the seizures but declared his group could recover. Ryan concedes he is only disrupting those networks. If nothing else, he believes, it helps to buy time for democracy and a central government to take hold. But he is aware that the offensive will slow after the 2-12 leaves Iraq in February. It will take time for its replacement battalion to get up to speed with the strategy. And it's a daunting task. Abu Mohammed, an Iraqi guerrilla leader in Baghdad, told TIME, "If you dig anywhere in Iraq, you'll find one of two things: oil or weapons."

Ryan and his men already have recorded a chilling inventory of what has been available to the enemy. In House 71, for example, they find an array of weapons-- a crank-handle detonator, spools of detonation cord, dozens of mortars, thousands of rounds of 12.7-mm ammo, a sackful of yellow grenades and other bombmaking materials--buried in pits all over a yard in which a herd of sheep and goats graze. A pocket notebook inside the ramshackle dwelling proves to be a huge intelligence boon, listing weapons and the cell leaders to whom they were distributed. An Arabic-speaking Army specialist, born to Palestinian and Puerto Rican parents, scans the pages. "He's written everything here--who he gave what to. He's very stupid," the soldier says with a smile. The pages connect a lot of dots to insurgent bosses Ryan has been tracking.

At the 2-12's approach, the owner of House 71 had run to a neighbor's home and attempted to mix in with other civilians, disguising himself by adopting someone else's name. Ryan saw through it. "Take Mr. Turban here," he orders, referring to the scarf around the suspect's head. "All that s___ was right behind his house--he knows something," he says. Under interrogation the man identifies himself as the weapons dealer working under Abu Ayesha and supplying arms to a host of divergent guerrilla and terrorist cells.

Ryan decides to send a message, a "show of force," as he calls it. He instructs his engineers to pile the weapons caches in the front yard of House 71. "We got all this stuff in his house, I don't see any reason why we can't blow it up," Ryan says. His Estonian counterpart chuckles. "I don't mind; it's not my house," he says. By day's end, the message has been delivered repeatedly. Coalition troops destroy two vehicles and another house in acts of retaliation. At nightfall the battalion returns to its base, having uprooted a large number of insurgent weapons sites. It has produced a staggering array of antiaircraft guns, TNT, RPG warheads and launchers, machine guns, plastic explosive, grenades and bombs. Surveying the booty, Ryan tells a subordinate, "We're just scratching the surface."