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Mideast edition, Friday, September 21, 2007

ABU SAYIFI, Iraq

The helicopters landed in a dusty field around 2230 hours. The objective, in a collection of farms known as Abu Sayifi, about 12 kilometers south of Baghdad, lay about a kilometer away.

The walk in was supposed to take an hour, maybe less. That might have been the case if the troops had stayed on dry land. Instead, they found themselves a half hour later slogging through a swampy tangle of undergrowth, fruit orchards and cow paddocks. They sank in water that was almost up to their waists in places, the mud sucking at their boots. A soldier slipped and fell, slipping sideways in the muck. He came up with one whole side coated in mud.

They reached the first house in the objective area past midnight. Their uniforms were slick with mud, their boots caked in goop and straw, heavy and enormous like clown shoes.

“So what’s up with the trip through the Mekong Delta?” asked Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Robertson, 33, of Ashton, W.Va.

“I don’t know,” said 1st Lt. Willard Hayes, 24, of Missoula, Mont. “But we’re definitely taking a different way back.”

The soldiers with 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Richardson, Alaska, detained seven men that were wanted by coalition forces for insurgent activity. Another four were detained on suspicion of being insurgents.

They also discovered a storehouse full of 40-kilogram bags of laundry detergent, which they said was likely intended for use in homemade explosives, which Sunni insurgents are using increasingly against U.S. forces. They also found a house and car they believed to be rigged with explosives. The grid coordinates of each were recorded, so that they could be hit later by airstrikes.

Taking a break in a house that was being searched near the end of the mission, Robertson lit a cigarette and complained of his aching back.

“I’m getting too old for this [expletive],” he said.

On the way back to the pickup zone, the column took a route that avoided most of the swamp and undergrowth they’d tramped through earlier. The walk back took less than an hour.

The helicopters picked them up at 0430 hours. As they were waiting, Apache helicopters flew overhead, launching missiles at the sites that had been marked for airstrikes. Explosions rocked in the distance.

The mission passed without incident. Several soldiers said they were looking forward to breakfast when they got back to Forward Operating Base Falcon.

Highway patrol dutyRAMADI, Iraq — Watching cars doodle along on the highway is not as boring as it sounds.

“It is what you make of it,” says Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Hayes, 34, of Rome, Ga., who is based at Camp Blue Diamond.

He is part of “MSR Security” — basically, patrol of a 35-mile stretch of a six-lane highway that is the main supply route between Baghdad and Syria.

This means a lot of driving — not only on the highway itself but also the myriad, dusty roads that feed into it. One such patrol led to a village that has now become a monthly stopping point to see the “Mister! Give me!” kids.

The children swarm the Humvees with upstretched arms, yelling "Mister! Give me!" They want the toys and candy sent in by soldiers’ sympathetic family members.

The road has changed from their arrival nine months ago, soldiers said. Daily road bomb attacks and heavy firefighting has slowed to a trickle, they said.

Now they might find themselves changing tires, they said.

“There’s not a lot going on because we’re doing it every day,” Hayes said. “And that’s the way we like it!”

And gradually, the stores along the roadside are reopening, he said. They may get their Slurpee stop yet, he said.

“Soon it will be a regular American highway,” said Hayes. “Just wait till the 7-Eleven moves in.”


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