AL-MASHRU, Iraq — The U.S. soldiers checked on a clean-water project and then went to a clinic to see if it needed medical supplies. It was noon on April 4. The village buzzed with people and chatter.

Many of the people smiled and seemed happy. Some looked disinterested and a few just glared. One defiant-looking boy looked at the U.S. soldiers and made a slashing gesture across his throat.

The soldiers climbed into three armored Humvees and left for their next stop. As they drove down a country road, a man standing in a field lifted a rocket-launching tube to his shoulder. He aimed and fired. The small rocket screamed 200 meters in an instant, struck a dirt bank between the second and third Humvees and blew up.

The soldiers sped a quarter-mile up the road, stopped and assessed the damage. Neither the soldiers nor the vehicles had been hurt. The soldiers doubled back in their Humvees to the “kill zone.” The rocket-shooter had vanished into the woods.

“That’s just the way they are; they aren’t going to fight us up close,” said Spc. Brian Hill of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, who saw both the flash of the launcher and ensuing explosion from his gunner’s position atop the second Humvee.

After they dismounted, the soldiers spread out along the road. They stood with rifles at the ready and stared at nature. They listened to silence.

A loud boom sounded in the distance, followed seconds later by an explosion over the woods. There was a second boom-and-explosion and a third. The soldiers had been lured into a mortar attack. They began running back to their Humvees for cover.

“Hang on, hang on, hang on,” shouted a commander, who leaned on a Humvee with a radio to his ear.

“It’s ours,” he announced.

The booms were not from enemy mortars but from U.S. artillery cannons located at a base about five miles away. After the original rocket-propelled grenade was reported, the artillery had turned its aim on the rocket-shooter’s sanctuary and fired.

Soon after the artillery fire, two Kiowa OH-58 helicopters arrived and began circling above.

“We love the Kiowas,” said Capt. Andy McConnell, of the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, whose charity-carrying convoys had been attacked before. “They’re our best friend.”

Pilots reported seeing two people in the woods near the suspicious area. A small group of soldiers left the roadside and headed into the field and for the woods behind it. The others took off in the Humvees for a service road into the woods, which led nowhere. They then doubled back and parked alongside yet another small village.

People from the village started coming out of their mud homes. They watched as Bradley fighting vehicles roared up. Rifle-toting soldiers poured out of the back of the Bradleys and walked into the village. More helicopters arrived and buzzed the sky.

Two hours after he shot his rocket, the rocket-shooter was still on the loose.

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