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Pvt. Tyler Branecky, an infantryman assigned to 1st Cavalry Division scouts, displays his war paint as teams of rocket spotters prepare to leave Camp Victory North, Iraq, at dusk. Branecky is assigned to Dark Horse Scouts — Troop D, 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Pvt. Tyler Branecky, an infantryman assigned to 1st Cavalry Division scouts, displays his war paint as teams of rocket spotters prepare to leave Camp Victory North, Iraq, at dusk. Branecky is assigned to Dark Horse Scouts — Troop D, 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

CAMP VICTORY NORTH, Iraq — During a night rocket-hunting mission, Pfc. Joel Puntiel reflected on how quickly and profoundly violence escalated in this 1st Cavalry Division sector.

“A week ago, we were handing out candy,” said Puntiel, 22, a scout with 2nd Platoon, Troop D, 9th Cavalry Regiment. “This week, it’s a war.”

Since early this month, insurgents in Baghdad’s far northwestern suburbs have become bolder and more sophisticated, say soldiers with the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cav. With the insurrection building, his soldiers are getting far less cooperation from nervous locals, said 1st Lt. Blayne Smith, 2nd Platoon scout leader.

In turn, soldiers are less patient, “not that we don’t want them to be on our side, but now we don’t have the time,” Smith said.

This 320-square-kilometer sector, patrolled by the 1st Cav’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, is a tough neighborhood. It includes the insurgent stronghold of Abu Ghraib, and other towns that preceding units never really penetrated.

From sparsely populated outskirts, insurgents fire Russian-made missiles at U.S. bases, and even into the Green Zone of the U.S.-led provisional authority. Though not under siege like Fallujah, 20 miles to the west, this sector is strategically important — a transit area between Fallujah and Baghdad, say scouts.

Early in their rotation, which began in February, brigade combat team soldiers and officers worked to recruit area leaders as allies. They spent a month learning the sector down to detailed demographic data including population density and neighborhood income levels.

That tack led to substantial weapons finds, Smith said.

But with the elevated violence, 1st Cavalry officers and troops are concluding that Iraqi adults tend to gravitate toward strength, Smith said.

“What they’re looking for is [proof] of wherewithal; proof we can keep them safe,” he said.

Early in the BCT’s rotation, insurgents weren’t particularly sophisticated. “There were plenty of bad guys, but 80 percent of them were knuckleheads,” untrained, undisciplined and unprepared, Smith said. Insurgents fired quick bursts from AK-47s, then ran into canals where cool water concealed body heat from soldiers’ thermal sensors.

Since April 1, they’ve become more organized and ruthless, the platoon leader said. On April 11, BCT scouts took on 15 or 20 Iraqis who helicopter pilots spotted digging in a palm grove. The scouts discovered the Iraqis were not the typical civilian-attired insurgents, but wore matching uniforms, boots or athletic shoes, as well as army-issue equipment such as ammo vests. They were, Smith said, clearly in it for the long haul, with scouts finding coolers full of food and water caches, along with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and binoculars.

A major brigade combat team initiative is using scouts to move into hostile areas at night.

The scouts surveil areas for firing flashes, locate those positions, then coordinate attacks with OH-58 Kiowas from the combat team’s aviation units. But with ambushes, traps and obstacles such as irrigation canals snaking through the sector, scouts rely on their knowledge of back roads and alleys to surprise insurgents via unpredictable routes, Smith said

Each night, small teams of 1st Cav scouts race through the sector trying to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes. Puntiel and other drivers — often driving without lights and using night vision goggles — manhandle 3-ton, armored Humvees, sliding through hairpin turns. Humvee commanders such as Sgt. Sam White alert crews as they approach hot spots.

“We’re gonna go through that one market area and hope to God nothing happens,” White yelled, his M-4 pointed out the passenger-side window.

Surveillance missions this week were relatively uneventful, though trouble is never far away. Puntiel and his teammates — Spc. Owen Starlin and Staff Sgt. Joseph Elliott — watched explosions flashing on the western horizon toward Fallujah, deep reports following seconds later. Scouts saw several rocket flashes each night, but insurgents disappeared before helicopters could attack.

That’s the exception, not the rule. Where the 1st Cav’s predecessors, the 1st Armored Division, had a relatively quiet inaugural period, the brigade combat team has come into a buzz saw, with Smith’s scouts in intense firefights during their first 60 days, sometimes more than one per day. Since April 6, scouts have killed or captured over 30 insurgents while suffering only one injured.

But even as they fight, Smith said, the goal still is to find “some middle ground between the iron fist and passing out candy, where we establish a trust and respect.”

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