(Click on thumbnails for larger versions of these photos.) Pfc. Anthony Shaw of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment watches over a field for suspected insurgents who try to escape during a raid on March 27 in East Tikrit, Iraq. Iraqi and U.S. soldiers get ready to enter a house during the raid.

Soldiers from Company D, 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, search a room for weapons.

A Comapny D soldier prepares to enter a hallway.

A man is questioned by an Iraqi and U.S. soldiers during a raid on Sunday (March 27) in East Tikrit, Iraq. (enw# 61p ml)

A soldier from Company D, 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment stands guard at the home of two Iraqi women during a raid on Sunday (March 27) in East Tikrit,

Iraqi women and a boy stand by while their home is searched.

Iraqi men are questioned by Iraqi and U.S. soldiers.

Photos by Charlie Coon / Stars and Stripes

EAST TIKRIT, Iraq — Mortars had been fired five days earlier into Forward Operating Base Danger, headquarters of the 42nd Infantry Division. A few people were wounded, but no one was killed.

About 10 miles south at FOB Wilson, soldiers from two platoons of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, acting on intelligence received from FOB Danger, embarked Easter Sunday on a pre-dawn raid to find the insurgents.

The soldiers drove down a dark road with lights out, parked their Humvees and scurried to the front of a small house. An old man and woman, a younger woman and baby were awakened and asked to sit outside on a cement slab. They were in bare feet or sandals and wore sleeping clothes. The air was so cold breath could be seen.

The soldiers searched the two-room house as its heat escaped through the opened door. Sleeping mats and blankets were on the floor.

“This is the wrong house,” 2nd Lt. Jeff Goulet, a platoon leader, said after the 10-minute search.

As the family went back inside, the soldiers drove to the correct house, a much larger home with a fruit orchard in back. The white gate at the end of its driveway was secured by a chain and padlock.

Iraqi soldiers who accompanied the Americans barked in Arabic for its occupants to come outside. After no response, they threw rocks against the side of the house.

A U.S. soldier was ordered to shoot off the padlock using his rifle. The muzzle flashed in the darkness and sparks flew. The lock didn’t budge. He took another shot. And another. The lock held.

The soldiers start chuckling. The company commander, Capt. Morgan Southern, stomped over and chewed them out for not covering their backs, and the soldiers scrambled into a defensive posture and took a knee, rifles pointed outward.

A Humvee pulled up and budged open the gate.

Iraqi and U.S. soldiers sidled up to the door, rifles at the ready, and an Iraqi soldier knocked. A light came on and the door opened. Inside were two old women who looked bewildered.

The women claimed no one else was inside. A U.S. soldier speaking through an interpreter told one of the women, “If anyone else is in there, they’re going to get shot.”

The woman yelled back: “If anyone else is in here, you can shoot them.”

A 20-minute search of the house yielded one AK-47 rifle wrapped in a blanket, which Iraqis are allowed to possess for self-defense. On the wall of a nearby chicken coop, a soldier found an old, tattered poster of Saddam Hussein.

An Apache helicopter crew hovering overhead reported someone near the farmhouse across the street. Some of the soldiers left the target house and trotted across the road as darkness started giving way to morning light.

As soldiers took their positions, an Iraqi soldier knocked at the door. Inside were seven females and six males, ranging in age from grandparent to toddler. They trickled outside still in their nightclothes; a few threw on robes or coats.

Inside, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers searched the upstairs and downstairs rooms. One Iraqi soldier aggressively rooted through a box of clothes.

Nothing was found in the outbuildings.

The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Gary Brito, had come along on the raid.

“Looks like a dry hole,” he said.

With an eye for safety — and a nod to respect

EAST TIKRIT, Iraq — They’ve been in Iraq for less than two months. But there’s hardly a soldier with 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment who hasn’t been attacked or known someone who has. Usually it comes from hit-and-run tactics such as roadside bombs or mortars launched at U.S. bases from afar.

The troops raid homes in the middle of the night searching for those attackers, weapons and information. But sometimes, the invasions end up being just an invasion of privacy.

“We do it in a respectful way,” said Capt. Morgan Southern, commander of the 1-15th’s Company D. “But it’s not respectful to get people up in the middle of the night and put them out of their house. We can’t help to think that they might be resentful.”

Unless the evidence is firm, troops try not to treat the residents as criminals. Southern said his soldiers explain why they are there, search without upsetting too much, and thank the residents for their cooperation.

“We approach this as, ‘How would you feel if someone had done this to you?’ You try to treat them as good as the circumstances allow,” he said.

Good intelligence is hard to come by. Some Iraqis don’t want to cooperate. Others are afraid to get involved. Information can be sketchy, and analyzing it can be an imperfect art rather than solid science.

“A lot of times you have to [obtain results] from doing random searches, instead of something that is intel-driven,” 2nd Lt. Jeff Goulet said. “The intel is one of your biggest struggles.”

It is now standard to bring Iraqi soldiers on the raids. Some wear ski masks to protect their identities. But they speak Arabic and can converse with the Iraqi people, Southern said.

Sunday’s operation wasn’t a total bust. According to the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Gary Brito, another platoon searching in the vicinity found a man who led soldiers to a site where three mortars were stashed.

“It’s still your job,” Goulet said. “Obviously you’re hoping to find what you’re looking for. You just have to regroup, do it again and get it next time.”

— Charlie Coon

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