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FALLUJAH, Iraq — Recent 82nd Airborne Division raids have hauled in an array of weaponry, from small arms to shoulder-fired missiles.

On Sept. 17, an old Russian-made anti-aircraft gun appeared in the middle of Forward Operating Base Mercury, part of a large arms haul.

The next day, it was clear just what sort of weaponry was still out there when eight mortar rounds hit Camp Dreamland, about two miles west of Mercury. The rounds did no damage, but did cause U.S. forces to summon AC-130 gunships and F-16s, or “fast movers,” in soldier jargon.

Scouts and Air Force liaisons were able to help soldiers communicate with the aircraft. But when soldiers on the ground thought they had the mortar’s coordinates, the word came down from the brigade tactical operations center: Hold your fire.

In Fallujah, it appears local insurgents have considerable might to bring to a fight with U.S. troops, but neither side seems confident enough yet for a showdown.

While commanders want to eliminate Saddam loyalists and criminal elements in the area, they have to do so while protecting soldiers and civilians.

That leads some soldiers to complain that insurgents are often free to attack with impunity. But battlefield discipline is crucial, said 2nd Lt. John Bradley, a Company B platoon leader.

“Sometimes, they want us to be the big, bad Americans and overreact,” Bradley said. “But if something happens, you have to retain battlefield discipline.”

Last Friday, for example, the battalion tactical operations center gave a unit the OK to return fire after being targeted repeatedly. But the Company B commander, Capt. Jeremy Gilkes, nixed the mission after his soldiers were uncertain where the shooters were in a densely populated neighborhood near Mercury.

Finally, an American helicopter fired missiles early Tuesday morning at a house in Al-Sajr, north of Fallujah, killing one man after insurgents in the area fired on soldiers.

Some soldiers say they are amazed that the insurgents are crazy enough to fire on them.

“Let’s say you were the greatest shot in the world, and you killed a whole platoon,” said Spc. David Villa, a forward observer with 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.

“Even if you killed them all, the helicopters are going to come for you. And if you shoot them down, they’re going to let loose the Specters [gunships]. And if you shoot them down, the fast movers are going to come.

“And nobody ever gets away from them.”

Soldiers may not be allowed to retaliate every time they’re shot at, but soldiers on the ground have daily victories of their own. The raid east of Al-Karmah that produced the anti-aircraft gun also yielded SA-6 surface-to-air missiles, 27 rocket-propelled grenades concealed in a haystack, a pile of anti-aircraft shells, 105 mm artillery shells, heavy machine-gun ammunition and 40 fuses for artillery shells, just the thing for making improvised explosive devices.

The man who turned in the weapons cache did so after criminals in his village had killed two of his sons, shot a third in the pelvis and injured his wife.

The likelihood that U.S. troops will ever get to face off with insurgents is remote.

To some extent, 82nd soldiers have to be satisfied with “little finds that make a big difference,” said Bradley, of Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

“People just have to realize there’s probably not going to be blitzkrieg,” he said.

“You have to be happy knowing that if you find 27 RPGs, that’s 27 less opportunities to fire against us.”


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