( AP ) - Barely out of a four-day battle, the soldiers scanned palm-dotted farmland from the roof of a small house, kneeling to avoid a sniper's bullet. A pair of Apache gunships hovered above and the occasional thud of artillery shells shook the ground.
This front line in the U.S. military's fight against al-Qaida in Iraq lies just 10 miles from the heart of the Iraqi capital.
"This is a road we had not traveled on in nearly a year," declared Lt. Col. Mark Solomon, the area's U.S. commander, standing on a dirt lane a dozen yards from the one-story house taken over by his 3rd Infantry Division soldiers. "We are going after the enemy and we are eliminating him," said Solomon, 40, of Burlington, Mass.
Less than a week ago, men from Solomon's unit captured Zambaraniyah, a farming community southeast of Baghdad, after the four-day battle that left one of his soldiers dead and 10 wounded.
Underlining the potency of al-Qaida's threat in the area - a patchwork of Sunni and Shiite farming communities and towns known as the "triangle of death" - the military unleashed some of the Iraq war's heaviest airstrikes Thursday, dropping 40,000 pounds of explosives on al-Qaida targets just to the east and southeast of Zambaraniyah.
Al-Qaida has long been entrenched in the Sunni hinterland south of Baghdad, but its strength there weakened when allied insurgent groups changed sides in recent months to join the Americans in the fight against the terror network.
But al-Qaida's presence continued in safe havens like Zambaraniyah until a 100-strong force of U.S. infantrymen along with 60 Iraqi army soldiers pushed the terror group out in this month's battle. The troops were backed by Bradley fighting vehicles, helicopter gunships, artillery and rare gun runs by low-flying F-16s.
Solomon, a West Point graduate, said he believes about 30 al-Qaida militants were killed in the battle, but that at least two or three dozen more were holding out, expecting reinforcements of weapons and men to resume the fight.
"They are off balance now, like a boxer punched hard in the head," said Pedro Maldonado, a 23-year-old native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He peered through his binoculars from the roof of the house.
"I never thought it could be this tough," Maldonado said of the recent battle. Some of the militants were so close by that the Americans could see the flash of their rifles firing.
That a major battle against al-Qaida should take place so close to the capital and nearly a year after the U.S. military began a large-scale offensive to calm Baghdad and its suburbs suggests either that the insurgents are elusive or that they are deeply entrenched.
U.S. commanders say al-Qaida militants have in recent months fled to the north and northeast of Baghdad to escape stepped-up security operations in the capital, where U.S. commanders say violence is down by more than 50 percent though devastating attacks persist.
But Solomon said al-Qaida's continued presence south and southeast of Baghdad was largely inconsequential, arguing that taking on the militants had always been planned as the next step after Baghdad became safer.
"It's true that Zambaraniyah is only a few miles away from Baghdad, but al-Qaida there has not been able to project its influence to Baghdad," he said. "Now that Baghdad is safer, we are going after them. Progress has been made but there's much more to do."
Just how much work ahead was evident in Zambaraniyah.
Solomon sternly warned a small group of reporters he took there that the area remained infested with roadside bombs and they must walk on ground only which already has foot or track marks.
"The enemy is a 100 yards from where we stand and snipers have taken position in the houses you see some 200 or 300 yards away," he said.
"I believe they are looking at us now," he said after going up to the roof. His soldiers, wrapped up in heavy jackets and ski masks, burned wood in a metal wash basin to fend off the bitter January cold.
Bradley fighting vehicles prowled in the vicinity, where soldiers torched some of the shrubbery to deny al-Qaida militants cover if they attempted a sneak attack.
Suddenly several of the soldiers spotted what they said was a head popping up and down in a field near the house. Tensions rose and the soldiers scrambled to firing positions. Three soldiers, rifles on the ready, rushed out of the house and into the fields behind in pursuit.
They found nobody.