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Soldiers of Company B, 1st Battalion, 185th Armor, a California National Guard unit, search a house in Al Shahabi, Iraq, early Friday after taking into custody a man who lives there and is believed to be involved in planting roadside bombs.
Soldiers of Company B, 1st Battalion, 185th Armor, a California National Guard unit, search a house in Al Shahabi, Iraq, early Friday after taking into custody a man who lives there and is believed to be involved in planting roadside bombs. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

AL SHAHABI, Iraq — Using the pre-dawn darkness as cover, about 50 soldiers from the 81st Brigade Combat Team on Friday took into custody five men believed to be behind the mortar attacks and roadside bombs that make life dangerous in and around nearby Logistics Support Area Anaconda.

Company B, 1st Battalion, 185th Armor, part of the 81st BCT’s Task Force Tacoma, grabbed three of the men in two separate raids. No shots were fired and no one was hurt in the raid.

“It was routine,” said Sgt. Biff Yelensky, while the men were being identified and their homes searched. “We got the two targets we were looking for.”

At another house 100 yards away, other soldiers from the company grabbed a third man, the final person in the company’s game plan.

At the same time, another platoon from Task Force Tacoma was about 1,000 yards away taking two more men into custody. They are also believed to be behind the deadly activities in the area.

“We had enough information, we’re going to put these guys away for a while,” said 1st Sgt. John Larson.

They were described by 1st Lt. Rodolfo Hall, company executive officer, as “HVTs” — high-value targets.

The men, now being held at Anaconda, are believed to be involved in hijacking and kidnapping for ransom. The money they gain is then used to fund efforts to kill Americans at the base, the largest support base in Iraq. They’ve also been involved in murder, the Americans believe.

The 81st BCT is a National Guard unit from Washington state, augmented by a battalion from California and a company from Minnesota. Its main mission is force protection. Company B is from California.

The troops rolled out in the freezing darkness of early morning Friday, reaching the target — which was only a few miles away — before 6 a.m. The convoy of nearly a dozen vehicles included two M1A1 Abrams tanks and a field ambulance.

They perform these types of raids frequently, whenever intelligence has the goods. But the risk of each mission still creates a nervousness.

“Especially here. These guys are hijackers and murderers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Puentes, who teaches high school English in Los Angeles.

He said the winner of any fight is not in doubt, but the worry about the first shot is always there.

“You don’t know what to expect when you go in there,” said Larson, 37, who is on permanent duty with the Guard in California.

The soldiers didn’t kick the door in and barge through. They knocked. When the door was opened, they quickly moved inside and began an accounting of every person there. One man ran, but was found in a nearby house.

At one house in Al Shahabi, the target lived with his wife and four young children. The soldiers made sure the children were warm while they began a search of the house after taking the father into custody.

The children, all quite young, looked on in wide-eyed wonderment, seeming puzzled at the activity of the nighttime visitors.

“I have three children myself,” said Yelensky, who is a full-time military member. “I’m a little sympathetic to the children.”

After the targets were grabbed and secured, soldiers began searching the houses, room by room. They looked for contraband, which could be anything from illegal weapons to large sums of cash. Soldiers took a handful of audio tapes from one house in case something important is on them.

They also took away shell casings, which, Larson said, can be used to make fake roadside bombs. While dealing with a fake bomb, he said, they can be caught by a real one.

After the soldiers’ presence was known, two OH-58D Kiowa helicopters from 1st Squad, 17 Cavalry Regiment were called in to provide cover from the air and search for any approaching threats. The unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., recently arrived in the theater.

Staff Sgt. James Heaney, who manages a Home Depot in Port Orchard, Wash., was in the platoon nearby that grabbed two men. He said the intelligence that led to this raid came from someone grabbed in an earlier mission. “We should be working our way up to the big guy,” he said.

The soldiers were happy but not jubilant after their early morning success. They were back at the base in time for breakfast. And they may have put a dent in the effort to harm Americans.

“For the soldiers,” said Heaney, “this is a big morale boost.”

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