Even by Iraqi standards Youssufiyah is a violent place. At first sight the well-watered farmland and groves of date palms look attractively green but then you notice the bullet-riddled hulks of cars. Iraqi soldiers and police appear more than usually frightened. The streets of the ramshackle and grimy town conveys a sense of menace.
I used to disguise myself with a red-and-white Arab headdress to pass safely though the lethally dangerous area south of Baghdad where three American soldiers are being held captive. I would sit in the back of my car hoping that the small boys selling cigarettes beside the road didn’t recognise me as a foreigner.
Thousands of American and Iraqi troops were desperately searching these towns and the land round about yesterday in the hope of finding a bunker or secret room where three abducted soldiers are being held. It may already be too late. The Islamic State of Iraq, the group which claimed yesterday to have captured them and to which al-Qa’ida belongs, may already have spirited them out of the area.
Here, at 4.44 am on, a US patrol in two vehicles was surprised and overrun by insurgents. The burned bodies of four soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were found on the road. Three others had disappeared. It was obviously a mistake for a small and isolated detachment to be in an insurgent-controlled area. Such is the fear of roadside bombs that a relieving force took an hour to reach them.
The capture of Americans – like the hostages in Lebanon in the Eighties or in the Tehran embassy in 1979 – has traditionally had a greater impact on the US public than the death of soldiers. It is the nightmare of American commanders, going all the way to the Commander-in-Chief, President Bush, for US servicemen to be in enemy hands. The loss of these three prisoners could prove to be even more significant this time, as the public is already firmly against the war. A drawn-out hostage crisis, that ends in tragedy, could be the final blow to President’s Bush’s faltering support amongst Republicans.
For the soldiers searching for the three men, the US faces the additional danger of losing even more because of booby traps and roadside bombs.
Even with drones and helicopters, it is difficult country to search. Broken by irrigation canals and small channels that draw their water from the Euphrates, it is heavily inhabited. It is only 15 miles from the insurgent bastion in south Baghdad and a little further from the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah. Paradoxically, this dangerous place, where even heavily armed US troopers cannot survive, is a birthplace of civilisation. Outside Youssufiyah are the ruins of the ancient city of Sippar marked by the remains of a ziggurat. Twenty years ago Iraqi archaeologists excavated a temple here and found a library of Sumerian clay tablets neatly laid-out on 56 shelves and classified by topic.
Ever quick to score a propaganda point, al-Qa’ida said the attack on the soldiers’ convoy was to seek retribution for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in the same area a year ago. “You should remember what you have done to our sister Abeer,” said a statement by the Islamic State of Iraq group referring to five American soldiers who were charged in the rape and killing of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and the deaths of her parents and her younger sister last year.
The crime in the city of Mahmoudiya was one of the most shocking atrocities committed by US troops in the war. Three soldiers have pleaded guilty in the case.
The war came early to this part of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had planted Sunni Arab settlers here to control the road leading to the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf. There was sectarian cleansing here early in 2004 and there have been bitter Sunni-Shia feuds, particularly in Mahmoudiyah to the east of Youssufiyah, where one side of the main street was Sunni and the other Shia.
The destruction of the small American patrol is another sign of how little the so-called “surge”, the 30,000 extra US troops sent to Baghdad, is having on security in Iraq. On Sunday alone 126 people were killed in Iraq. Sectarian killings are down in the capital but 20 or more bodies, tortured and mutilated, are still being found every day.
It is a measure of the lack of success of American and Iraqi government anti-guerrilla operations that the insurgent grip has never been permanently broken.
The red-and-white keffiyeh that I used to wear in this area turned out to be an extremely bad idea. One day, sighing with relief at having driven through what was deemed the most dangerous 15-mile stretch on this road, I took the road to the Shia city of Kufa on the Euphrates. We were stopped by a checkpoint of the Mehdi Army, the militia of the Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. One of them snatched off my Keffiyeh and shouted: “American Spy! American Spy!”
For some time the militiamen seemed to be planning to shoot us until they agreed to take us to their leaders in a green domed mosque nearby. A man close to the insurgents later told me: “We always look at people wearing keffiyehs more closely in case they are trying to hide their identity.”
The Islamic State of Iraq warned last night that the US searches might endanger the captives’ lives. In the past captured soldiers have apparently been killed because it was feared that they might be rescued.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.