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FALLUJAH, Iraq — Ghosts haunt Fallujah’s nights. Enemies come close, but their faces are never seen. Danger lurks everywhere.

It is, in short, a horrible place to learn to fight this war. Yet that is the daily task of soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Friday night, in an open stretch of sand between a giant brickyard complex and a residential area, about 35 soldiers from the 82nd sat invisible in the dark.

The soldiers searched the rooftops of two houses for snipers. Only a football field away, people talked and children played, utterly unaware.

At 6:51 p.m., the soldiers had left Forward Operating Base Mercury and headed about three miles north to scout out Fallujah Construction Materials Co., which U.S. soldiers suspect is a base and weapons stash for insurgents.

Minutes later — right at sunset — someone took a potshot at the convoy as it made its way along the north side of the brickyard. As soldiers hunkered down behind their Humvees trying to pinpoint the source, there was more shooting.

“Just another Friday night in Fallujah, fellas,” a soldier said as he dashed for cover.

As the darkness deepened, troops used infrared scopes and light-amplifying goggles to scope out people on the roof of a house. The soldiers weren’t close enough to be absolutely certain the people were armed.

The soldiers welcomed the gathering dusk.

“Daytime raids are not the 82nd style,” a soldier said in a whisper. “We like to work at night, on foot.”

With only five days of “boots on the ground,” Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division is learning what Fallujah is all about.

Everything is up to them.

———

In Iraq, each soldier is left to define “the mission,” “the enemy” and even “success.”

“We’re not here to do big-picture diplomacy, the change-the-world thing,” said 2nd Lt. Jim Ball, platoon leader of 2nd Platoon, Company B. “We’re here to make it safer.”

If they can accomplish that, they’ll be the first.

Saddam Hussein was scared to come to Fallujah, locals say. And since major combat operations ended May 1, things have only gotten worse.

The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment lost at least three soldiers in August and early September before it handed over responsibility on Sept. 15 to the 82nd.

On one of its first patrols, the 82nd was involved in a murky incident, during which its members killed eight Iraqis in an accidental shootout.

Two days later, one of their own, Spc. Trevor A. Blumberg, was killed by an explosive device.

Now the 82nd is racing to figure everything out — the terrain, the social dynamics, the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses — without losing more people.

It’s not easy.

———

On night patrols, Humvees get stuck in uncharted gullies. Radios don’t always work. Soldiers trying to recuperate from endless hours in the heat and dust have to go right back into battle rattle when cries of “incoming!” ring out.

Things are toughest after sunset. Explosions, mortars and small-arms fire are nightly events.

Just after 9 p.m. on Sept. 17, eight mortars hit Dreamland, one of three 82nd bases within two miles of one another. No soldiers were injured.

By the next day, stopping the mortars had been added to Company B’s already lengthy to-do list. Intel indicated those rounds probably came from Fallujah Construction Materials, and Ball got the job of doing a preliminary reconnoiter.

Three Iraqis at the front gate looked on indifferently as 34 soldiers jammed into seven Humvees to probe warehouses and outbuildings. They found nothing in a quick search, but Ball suspected it is a jackpot waiting to be hit. His instincts were dead-on.

The following day, scouts returned to the brickyard and shot it out with five Iraqis, wounding one, then collected 20 people for questioning. They found weapons, but a white Toyota pickup got away.

———

The Fallujah brickyard is one tiny corner of the Mercury-based units’ area of responsibility.

Before Ball’s initial reconnoiter at the brickyard, his men had put in a full day. Just minutes out of the gate, Staff Sgt. Michael Onstine spotted the barrel of a recoilless rifle in a load of scrap pulled by a tractor.

The patrol stopped two men to verify that the load was really scrap and not a load of weapons, then let the men go.

This is, Onstine said, what light infantry does best.

“We’re down on the street with the population,” not riding around in Bradleys and tanks, he said.

A half-hour later, soldiers were cruising a swatch of villages running along the Nahr Al-Karmah River, starting with the main village of Qaryat Albu Awadah.

As he scanned the horizon for shooters, Sgt. Scott Palmer was in awe of the greenery along the river, a setting he called “biblical.”

Beautiful, yes. Dangerous? You bet.

“This is no place for a pacifist to be,” he muttered while keeping his M-4 on the lush tree line.

Then, the mission abruptly turned into a walking tour, a meet-and-greet with village elders.

Through a translator, Ball’s pitch was consistent.

“We know people have been firing mortars out of the cement plant,” he said. “Can you help us get rid of the bad guys?”

Surprisingly, village men don’t hesitate to greet the young lieutenant, shaking his hand and chatting. Not surprisingly, they tell him nothing.

———

Iraq is worlds away from Fort Bragg, N.C., where the 82nd polishes the infinite facets of war fighting, from organizing ambushes to clearing buildings.

“That’s what we know,” Ball said.

Here, his men meet-and-greet, investigate and collect intel.

The funny thing, he said, is that if the locals would just let the United States get on with the job of rebuilding, they’d be rid of his troops sooner rather than later.

“I don’t think a lot of them understand that we’d rather be home with our families,” Ball said.

“If they stopped attacking us and let us rebuild the infrastructure in peace, we’d be out of here tomorrow.

“And we’d all be a lot happier.”


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