TSR: The Diyala embed

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MILES O'BRIEN: And now let's travel to the heart of al Qaeda country in Iraq, a rural area northeast of Baghdad where insurgents run things their way. Now U.S. troops are trying to take it back, and CNN's Michael Ware has been out on patrol with them.

Here's his exclusive report.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A patrol through steamy palm groves, like Vietnam, but this is the Diyala River Valley, the DRV in central Iraq, lush farmland laced with small villages and an American battleground against al Qaeda.

While the surge in the Iraqi capital dominates public attention, the DRV is at the heart of al Qaeda's military operations. And in recent months, U.S. forces have been battling to take this valley. Flooding it with paratroopers, much of the fight for the DRV now rests with this man, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Poppas of the 5-73rd Airborne Squadron.

LT. COL. ANDREW POPPAS, U.S. ARMY: You've got some of the blacklist guys that they've moved out to.

WARE: Of his 300-plus men, 21 have been killed. Most here in the valley.

POPPAS: There had not been a coalition force in that region for some time.

WARE: Without enough U.S. troops in Iraq, the valley was long neglected, allowing al Qaeda to flourish.

POPPAS: The intel we found is they did have Sharia courts. They had a hierarchy both in terms of judicial, the political. They had a police force that maintained. They had transportation units. They had a military wing.

WARE: Lingering in the colonel's mind, this scene from an al Qaeda video seized in a raid.

POPPAS: The villagers themselves are all gathered to the center. Elements come forward. They're masked.

An al Qaeda element chants out. He goes through the list of crimes of this individual. It is a brutal murder. They're beheaded in front of public, and the population, they are all right there, children on bicycles, families, chanting along.

WARE: To end the executions and oust al Qaeda, the paratroopers launch a series of air assaults. It's about 1:00 a.m. this night.

Artillery fire paves the way, cutting off any enemy escape, relentless as the soldiers move among families. Searching for weapons and fighters, they mark each person with a number in a bid to sift villagers from insurgents, and they detain suspects on a blacklist.

As the operation unfolds, the cannons keep their beat through the night. With the daylight, the hunt continues as the Iraqi summer almost becomes unbearable, the temperature rising to more than 120 degrees, so intense the searchers must rest.

The search resumes with orders to enter a sweltering palm grove. The foliage intensifying the heat so much, a number of paratroopers are treated for heat stress.

In 48 hours, five suspected insurgents here killed, 10 captured, and two booby-trapped houses destroyed. It's an end to one more operation on just one of many Iraqi battlefields. Beyond the surge for Baghdad, America's true success against al Qaeda will be measured here in places like the DRV.

Michael Ware, CNN, the Diyala River Valley.