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Insurgent Search Like 'Chasing Ghosts'

By Staff Sgt. Rebekah-mae Bruns, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2004 – A tiny 2-year-old boy stood silent and alone in the early morning darkness as he watched U.S. soldiers file past, one by one, to his small farmhouse located just outside Taji, Iraq.

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Army Sgt. Thomas Thornhill, left, and Sgt. Josh Walker check out a shotgun found in an Iraqi house. Army Spec. Loran Smith (in the back) moves up the stairs to search the second level of the house. Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebekah-mae Bruns, USA

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"What's up little man? ... What's up?" asked Army Spc. Jason Freeman, of Jacksonville, Ark., as he moved through the small, fenced-in, deserted yard with his rifle.

Dawn was beginning to poke through the sky, and the boy, seeming a little out of place, was the first thing stirring in the run-down, Iraqi neighborhood.

The Arkansas soldiers, who had awakened for their mission at 2 a.m., were doing a "cordon and knock" in the area to search for possible bomb-making materials. The search was in response to the sharp rise in roadside bombings that have occurred over the last three weeks on an important segment of the Army's main supply route between Baghdad and Taji.

The 39th Brigade's Company A, 3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment, is responsible for securing a portion of the Army's valuable supply route. The unit's soldiers patrol the long stretch of highway daily, making sure convoys are able to deliver much-needed supplies to soldiers positioned north of Baghdad.

The job isn't easy, and more times than not it is an annoyance, due to the high volume of calls pertaining to suspicious materials on the road. "We do a lot of ghost chasing," said company commander Capt. Joel Lynch, of Shreveport, La. "They report something in the road, and we go check it out."

But what's in the road isn't always clear. Sometimes the only information they receive is that there's "something" in the road. So the soldiers jump in their vehicles, drive up and down the supply route, and look for "something" just in case.

"On one occasion, 3rd Platoon went up there to find a bag of dead chickens," Lynch said.

Over the last few weeks the calls have grown more serious and the stakes higher. With Ramadan, a month-long Muslim religious holiday in full swing, intelligence of increased threats in the unit's area has trickled down from higher levels. The Army's supply route appears to be one of insurgents' the main targets.

In the past, the soldiers have seen very little resistance on this stretch of road they call Route Senators, but the number of roadside bombs has taken an unnervingly, sharp upswing. "There have been at least four in the last week and a half," said Lynch. "Two were found, and two were detonated."

A mere two weeks prior, three vehicles from the company's 3rd Platoon were hit by improvised explosive devices. Upon moving their Humvees 300 meters down the road, they were struck yet again with a fourth IED. No one was injured.

"I had a busted fuel tank and holes in my truck," said Staff Sgt. Michael Crowsen, of Hamburg, Ark. "It rocked my gunner."

Some of the other vehicles in the convoy lost their windows, while yet another driver had to wrestle his Humvee back to base with three flat tires.

A week prior to that incident, a member of the brigade's 2nd Battalion wasn't so fortunate. While making a supply run from Baghdad to Taji, the vehicle was hit with an IED in the same area. It killed the gunner instantly.

"We were lucky," said Crowsen. "For six months there was nothing, no contact, and then we started getting hit."

The company did a raid of the neighborhood across the street from where the platoon was struck by IEDs that same day, and it paid off. They found a man with rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, blasting caps and other bomb- making materials.

Still, the IEDs have continued, Which led to the cordon-and-knock mission.

After knocking on a large wooden door, soldiers stood patiently in the dark. Lights flickered on in the house, and a man dressed in traditional Arabic garb answered. "We need to search your house," said Army Sgt. Thomas Thornhill, of Monticello, Ark., in Arabic.

Soldiers quickly moved past the doorway and began to look through drawers and closets. While they searched the residence, Thornhill asked the man of the house if he owned any weapons. The owner motioned to his wife, and she hurriedly retrieved an AK-47 assault rifle from a sprawling wardrobe cabinet that ran the length of the bedroom wall.

Thornhill, an infantryman, has taken on the role of Arabic speaker for his team when an interpreter isn't available. He had no real knowledge of the language before he deployed but vowed to learn as much as he could while in Iraq. "I didn't want to sit here and just vegetate," said Thornhill. "I wanted to learn something."

His newly acquired language skills have become a great asset in searching houses. "If you try to holler at (the Iraqis) in English, they don't know what you're saying," said Thornhill. "I've learned that if you use basic Arabic terms, they're more comfortable with you. If nothing else, they are surprised enough to let you search."

A short time later the man pointed at his wristwatch irritably and raised his arms in the air questioning. He then turned to his wife and began speaking in a frenzied, animated manner. "He wants to know why you search our house," said the woman to Thornhill in broken English.

"Bombs," said Thornhill. "Tell him there have been bombs and explosions on the road not far from here that are killing American soldiers and Iraqi citizens."

The soldiers finished their search, thanked the couple for their cooperation, returned the AK-47, and left. Iraqi families are allowed by law to have one AK- 47 in the house for protection.

The area the soldiers were searching is generally a peaceful place, but in an effort to deter terrorist activity, the company goes on "fishing expeditions" in neighborhoods surrounding their supply route to search for anything suspect. "We're trying to beat him [enemy] to the punch and knock out some of those stockpiles," said Lynch.

The soldiers moved to another house and began the knocking process all over again. Here there were no flickering lights and no answer. After a few moments they turned the doorknob only to discover what they had already thought, it was locked. As a last resort, they decided to kick in the door.

Army Spc. Loran Smith, 21, of Tillar, Ark., gave a running kick at the rusted metal door. His foot collided with a heavy thud leaving a dent but the door didn't open. "Kick it at the hinges," yelled a soldier in the darkness.

After the first month and a half in Iraq, the company, for the most part, quit kicking in doors in order to gain more cooperation. "We'll just be polite and ask you to open your door," said Smith. "But if you don't [open your door], as a last resort, we'll kick it down."

Smith took another running kick at the door, but this time at the hinges. The old metal door came off, along with the frame, as dust bellowed up in the air from the force of the blow. Once the soldiers moved in, they found the house abandoned. No one was living there, but they continued the search for weapons.

Since their arrival seven months ago, the soldiers have learned an intricate tap dance in dealing with Arab culture. They have changed many of their tactics to accommodate local sensitivities and avoid problems within the tribal communities. For example, the soldiers have quit handcuffing detainees in front of relatives and refrain from using head sacks or blindfolds. These tactics seemed to cause more of problems than they momentarily solved.

"Here, if you disrespect a man in front of his family, his children, his wife, you've damaged his honor," said Thornhill. "More than likely he belongs to a tribe or large family. They'll want revenge and they'll kill American soldiers."

Soldiers quietly moved through a fenced-in dirt yard, filing past a small Iraqi boy and into his house, where other soldiers are already awaiting their arrival.

After a marathon of searching houses, the soldiers were meeting up with another team that started their search on the other side of the neighborhood. There were over 35 houses to search, so the two teams split from opposite ends to rally in the middle.

In the house, the waiting soldiers had found over 8,000 rounds of ammunition, mostly still boxed. They also found two batteries for American single-channel ground-to-air radio systems, commonly called SINCGARS.

Lynch pulled aside the individuals of the house one by one and questioned them with the help of an interpreter. "They said they got the batteries after the war," said Lynch. "They all pretty much have the same story."

SINCGARS batteries can be thrown away if they are no longer any good. So the story was plausible.

While soldiers dug through haystacks looking for weapons in the back of the dilapidated house, Lynch continued his questioning to see what information he could get about the ammunition and possible terrorist activity in the area.

The sun had broken through the sky, and the cover of darkness was now gone. On the move since 2 a.m., it was now time for the unit to return to base for a small breakfast, followed by their patrol of the main supply route.

Their cordon-and-knock mission had netted eight pistols, 18 AK-47's, four Russian military carbines, four Russian-made submachine guns, and over 8,000 rounds of ammunition, but no IED-making materials.

Said Smith, "The best part for me is knowing that if we find anything, we know it won't kill another American soldier."

(Army Staff Sgt. Rebekah-mae Bruns is assigned to the 39th Brigade Combat Team.)

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Related Sites:
Multinational Force Iraq

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSoldiers search through haystacks looking for weapons after finding more than 8,000 rounds of ammunition in a dilapidated farmhouse. Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebekah-mae Bruns, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Thomas Thornhill searches through drawers during a cordon-and-knock mission while an Iraqi child sleeps. Surprisingly, the child didn't wake. Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebekah-mae Bruns, USA  
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