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MUSSAYID, Iraq — Word went out among soldiers patrolling this small city just east of the Euphrates River they had lost the one soldier they thought they’d never lose.

Sgt. Bruce E. Horner, 43, was the one who always said hello, who always made time for fellowship, the one — along with his wife, Erin — who hosted cookouts for his unit, the 127th Military Police Company out of Baumholder, Germany.

Horner was a victim of an upsurge of violence in Mussayid, a small Shiite city that lies at a crossroads of sectarian violence, militia soldiers and coalition forces south of Baghdad. He was shot by small-arms fire while on a mission to find three Fort Drum-based soldiers who went missing in early May after an early-morning ambush south of Baghdad.

The military police unit works alongside the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, and when the regiment first arrived in the area last fall, the mood was quiet.

But as the Mahdi Army has grown stronger and Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared, the battalion has fought back with raids and detentions. That effort has turned those warring factions toward a common enemy in the area: U.S. soldiers, officers with the battalion say.

It’s also highlighted the control that the Mahdi Army has in the area. The Mussayid town council is run by Mahdi members. The Iraqi police in the area run checkpoints, but they never find anything, says Capt. Eric Lawless, 34, of Xenia, Ohio, the commander of Company D.

The people in town are friendly, but they never give up information, Lawless says. His soldiers recently searched the house of a suspected Mahdi member and found a special pass, basically a get-through-a-checkpoint-without-any hassle card.

“They kill the [police] who take action against them,” Lawless said. “But we’re their favorite target.”

The increase in violence in the area also comes as the surge of American troops in Baghdad happens, said Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team Airborne, 25th Infantry Division, which oversees the 501st paratroopers. As troops focus on Baghdad, insurgents have spread north and south, straight into the unit’s patrol area.

“They own the city council,” says Maj. Craig Whiteside, 38, of Silver Spring, Md. “Some of the worst guys are on the city council.”

Lawless, the company commander, agrees. He went to a few city council meetings last fall, when the battalion first came to the area. Finally, he was asked not to come back. Last Saturday, he tried to make a surprise visit to the Saturday afternoon meeting. He found the municipal building empty; a nearby Iraqi police officer said the council has stopped meeting regularly.

There was an encouraging point a few weeks ago, though one full of tragedy for the Americans. A group of local residents found the body of Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, Calif., one of the missing U.S. soldiers.

“It was awful,” Lawless said.

The Iraqi men took the body to a local hospital and called the Iraqi police, who then called the U.S. soldiers. The local men thought they had seen two other bodies; there are still two soldiers missing from the attack. The police and the local men used their own boats to comb the river, but they found nothing.

“I thought they were respectful of the whole thing,” Whiteside said.

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