Stepping carefully in Saddam’s town

Sgt. Gilbert Nail fires at the IED in Tikrit using an M-16 modified with a laser scope.
Sgt. Gilbert Nail fires at the IED in Tikrit using an M-16 modified with a laser scope.
/ Source: NBC News

This weekend’s killings of Japanese and Korean representatives to an Iraq rebuilding conference in Tikrit were a reminder of how dangerous Saddam Hussein’s ancestral homeland remains for coalition partners.

BUT THE SOLDIERS of the 1-22 Infantry don’t need any reminders. They have lost lives and they have taken them in this slowly twisting war of attrition. They patrol the danger zone daily — looking out for a long list of targets that the Army has reduced to a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms.

Their eyes are always peeled for HVT No. 1 (high value target), in other words Saddam, and other FRLs (former regime loyalists) — but what they seem to find more often than almost anything is IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or homemade bombs.

Army officials in Tikrit say they discover an average of about seven a day, although the number has risen as high as 20.

They can be deviously simple, even primitive: explosives emptied from mortar or artillery shells into a wooden box filled with nails, C4 plastic explosive stuffed in pipes and remotely detonated with a garage door opener when a convoy passes.

They’ve been hidden in everything from dead animals and cardboard boxes to building blocks and tin cans —often with deadly results.


One night last week, Spec. Michael Bressette was one of the squad leaders in a three-Humvee convoy patrolling downtown Tikrit.

It was the end of Ramadan, the monthlong period of dawn-to-dusk fasting for many Muslims.

The night began with a bang — literally. An IED exploded just outside the north gate of the 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters. The patrol headed out to investigate. Shop windows had been shattered and a portion of the curb turned to rubble, but no one was injured.

As Bressette walked back to his Humvee with the 1-22’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, he noticed something strange along the curb — wires protruding from a loose concrete block.

“Sir, we better back up,” Bressette said, already doing the moonwalk away from the block. “We’re standing next to an IED!”

The Humvee shot forward away from the bomb, while everyone else backed up. The concrete block was packed with enough plastic explosives to kill them all.

Russell wanted to destroy the bomb without releasing all of its explosive power in this downtown neighborhood. Shooting it — they’ve learned — can make it burn rather than detonate.

The soldiers backed up even farther from the IED, all except Sgt. Gilbert Nail, armed with an M-16 modified with a laser scope. He moved into a firing position about 150 feet from the block and hit it dead on. “It’s burning, sir,” he said.

Plastic explosives require both heat and pressure to explode. Minus the pressure, this block — already a bright white ball of fire — now seemed set for a long, safe burn. After a few minutes, a small explosion. Just the firing cap Nail explained, the small charge that’s used to detonate the plastic.

The soldiers thought it was probably over, but 40 seconds later— a second, huge explosion sent a shower of concrete raining down over a 200-foot area.

They cheered, however, relieved that they were the ones responsible for detonating this IED, not some Iraqi insurgent.


Dozens of American soldiers have been injured or killed by similar IEDs, hidden along roadways everywhere from Baghdad to Mosul.

InsertArt(2082828)U.S. commanders say they find 80 percent of IEDs before they explode, but even so, their deadly simplicity creates a climate of danger where almost no stone can be left unturned.

So the soldiers on this night spent the rest of their shift turning over stones — and shooting them.

They also took aim at symbols they believe fuel the violence; pulling down photographs of Saddam and banners celebrating those who have died attacking coalition forces.

“They talk about so-and-so the martyr for killing Americans, like he’s some kind of hero or something,” said Russell as he cut a banner tied to a fence. “Well, now he’s dead!”

Russell stuffed the banner in a nylon sack he calls the martyr bag.

NBC’s Kevin Sites is on assignment in Tikrit. More photographs and observations from Iraq can be found on his personal blog,