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BAGHDAD — Just before 10:30 a.m. Thursday, 1st Lt. Nicholas Bradley crouched next to an Iraqi boy, telling him he’s going to live. The boy, about 12, was bleeding from shrapnel wounds in his back, near his spinal column, and his arm.

The boy couldn’t move his legs, couldn’t feel anything as Bradley probed his feet. But the platoon leader kept talking to him soothingly as medical help arrived. Bradley held the boy’s hand while repeating, “Hey, buddy. You’re good. You’re gonna be all right,” sounding like he believed it, too.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

Bradley and his Company A platoon from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division’s 91st Engineer Battalion left Camp Blackjack on Thursday morning at 9:30 for a lightning daylight raid on a mosque in their sector of northern Baghdad. The brigade command ordered the raid after collecting intelligence from informants.

The mission was aborted after only a few minutes when soldiers saw the first roadside bomb and realized they were driving into a trap.

The battle for Baghdad, while not as sensational as Fallujah, is playing out on a much larger stage, with both sides refining tactics. It’s 21st-century urban warfare scale — ferocious, deadly and unpredictable, soldiers say.

Anything can happen anywhere, most of it bad.

The battlefield and the mission can change just like that. So, the raid turned instantly into a search for more roadside bombs.

Rolling through the Al Khadrah neighborhood just outside the Blackjack’s gates, Bradley, a 27-year-old from Salt Lake City spotted the fresh pile of dirt on the side of the road.

“The trash starts to look familiar, believe it or not,” Bradley said of the second nature scanning skills many soldiers learn.

So, his platoon pulled over to deal with a roadside bomb. With the area secure, bomb explosives soldiers from the 752nd Ordnance Company out of Fort Sill, Okla., arrived and prepared to detonate the bomb’s 155 mm artillery shell.

As they worked, locals gathered. Between turns at trying to unsnarl traffic, Bradley and his team — Sgt. Jeremy Lewis and Spc. Timothy Heim — talked about how this fit a recent pattern of attacks in which insurgents wait until bomb disposal teams arrive, then attack with mortars.

Seconds later, their fears came true.

Three mortar rounds landed only about 50 feet from their up-armored Humvee.

Miraculously, no soldiers were injured. But two small Iraqi boys lay dead. A third, older boy tried to drag himself to safety.

Bradley, Heim, Lewis and the rest of the soldiers somehow stayed almost supernaturally calm. Although they expected rocket-propelled grenades to follow the mortars, they rushed to check the bodies of the children, and to drag the wounded boy to safety.

“God, that’s horrible,” Bradley said quietly after the situation stabilized.

But from radio traffic, it became rapidly apparent that as bad as it was in Al Khadrah, worse attacks were happening simultaneously around Baghdad.

“They had us pegged,” Bradley muttered. “They had us [expletive] pegged.”

No matter how bad things get, soldiers don’t get to go home.

Hours later, as the team monitors yet another roadside bomb, Heim and Lewis reflect on staying calm under fire.

“There’s nothing you can really do,” says Lewis, a 25-year-old soldier from West Monroe, La. “It comes after being here awhile.”

Heim, 21, from Algonquin, Ill., finds a fresh hole in the rear of the team’s Humvee. He touches it and says simply, “That’s curious.”

Despite their outward nonchalance, Bradley, Heim and Lewis would like more than anything to fight the enemy straight up.

“We don’t want to hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve to be hurt,” Bradley says.

Insurgents lobbing mortars into a crowded neighborhood “shows they don’t care,” he says. “IEDs, RPGs and mortars guarantee civilian casualties,” he adds.

“If they really cared, they would wait till we were in an open field, and say, ‘Let’s do it.’ But they’re terrorists.”

If they didn’t have to fight, they’d rather be helping. Bradley talks about the school his platoon has adopted, and their ambitions for it.

“We’ve been helping a lot of people,” he says. “Then days like this happen, and it changes our focus to total combat.”

Thursday was an especially bad day around Baghdad. But on the positive side, they found and destroyed two roadside bombs.

“If there’s any good that came out of it,” Bradley says, “that’s two IEDs that won’t blow up convoys and kill soldiers.”

In the process, they somehow held onto their humanity and to their morale.

Even after a day like Thursday, Bradley believes the conventional war with Iraqi forces is won, and the war on terrorism here winnable. But in Baghdad, the war on terrorism clearly is escalating, he says.

“Today was very coordinated; a very coordinate effort to go get us.”


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