NEAR THE TIGRIS RIVER, South of Baghdad — In this confusing war colored by the question — who is the enemy? — the objective on this morning was simple enough: to raid a growing al-Qaida stronghold in the tribal farm country 30 miles south of Baghdad.
As one soldier put it to us, "At least this time we're going after an enemy positively ID'd as the enemy. And in this phase of the war that's been a rare set of circumstances."
We were with a squad from the Third Infantry Division assigned to search houses that seemed to have been suddenly abandoned.
Sure enough, a farmer told us al-Qaida terrorists had forced many of his neighbors from their homes, and that he and his extended family had gathered in a house up the road.
At that house, the obligatory search turned up ammo clips and then a spool that a soldier described as "some command wire... for detonating IEDs."
The coil of copper wire is used almost exclusively to set off the improvised explosive devices that have been the greatest danger to American forces.
The wire was found in a man's truck, and though he wasn't an al-Qaida import, he was ordered detained, sending his mother into uncontrollable anguish.
Capt. Phil Denton had seen it before, but it's still difficult.
"Yes, it is," he says. "Unfortunately, nobody likes to see their relatives leaving."
But Denton also knew IEDs have been the scourge of the war here — so his suspect and two others were brought in and we began the slow return back to base.
As night fell our convoy rolled into a nest of IEDs. Apparently the enemy we never saw clearly saw us, wired those IEDs during the hours of the raid, and set them off as we drove by. One explosion totally disabled a 37-ton Bradley tank — blocking our narrow dirt road escape route.
The vehicles summoned to help were hit by more IEDs. We counted seven in all, and we had to spend a long tense night in al-Qaida country — easy targets for mortars and long range sniper fire.
"We're like (bleep) sitting ducks," said one soldier.
It took fully half a day to check the road for more IEDs and get a tow vehicle into position, and another half day to get back to the base. We were lucky — a few soldiers injured but no one killed — a near disaster netting a few marginal suspects and little else.
One of the suspects told the U.S. military if he gives up any information, they'll kill him.
"It's a constant thing with these guys," said one soldier. "They say, 'Yeah, I may have information,' but then they turn right around and say, 'I'm scared, I'm not going to give you any information.' And that's pretty much how we end up with everything."
This is the war away from the headlines — days of routine, grave danger infused not so much by boiling rage or pointed politics — as by sadness and deep frustrations.
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