September 3, 2003
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published September 4, 2003
HUSSEINIA, Iraq -- For Capt. Todd Mitchell, the difference between living and dying is measured in minutes.
A National Guardsman from Wichita Falls, Texas, Mitchell was trailing behind a U.S. military convoy last week when a bomb planted by the roadside suddenly exploded near one of the vehicles.
One soldier was killed and three others were seriously injured.
"It hits you especially hard when you know it could have been you," said Mitchell, an automobile insurance salesman. "It can be extremely scary at times. Any time you leave [the base] and return alive, it's a successful mission."
Four months after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, nearly 150,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country are facing a nerve-racking guerrilla war where the enemy is hidden and danger is everywhere.
The unpredictable dangers are only adding to the stresses of the Iraq deployment, which the Congressional Budget Office reported this week is stretching active-duty U.S. forces so thinly that they cannot be maintained at current levels beyond next spring.
That means Washington could hope to sustain the occupation only by activating more National Guard and Reserve units, or persuading other nations to contribute significantly more troops under a new United Nations resolution the Bush administration is now proposing.
Yet the list of perils confronting troops in Iraq is growing so long that some foreign governments are expressing reluctance to commit any soldiers.
Roadside explosives are placed beneath dead dogs, in cardboard boxes and, in one recent attack, under a case of Pepsi-Cola. Suicide bombers attack while riding bicycles, and passing motorists in pickup trucks stage drive-by shootings. Mortar rounds are lobbed into U.S. bases.
A bomb was even floated down a river on a makeshift pontoon, destroying a civilian bridge built by U.S. forces.
"It was terrifying," said Spec. Leigh Ann Dunn, a National Guard member from Pierre, S.D., who was guarding the bridge. "We had been mortared and taken small arms fire, but we had never been attacked like that."
While U.S. military commanders give the insurgents little credit for tactics and organization, they recognize the danger the guerrilla attacks present to their troops.
Lt. Col. Michael Mahoney, commander of Task Force Thunder, a 485-member force comprised of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment and other units, said he repeatedly reminds his troops to be alert.
"They are very safe in here," said Mahoney, speaking from his command post at a former Iraqi military hospital 12 miles north of Baghdad. "When they leave, it's full battle rattle and game on, and they know it. When they go out of the gate, it's very, very serious."
At least 68 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since May 1. But numerous others have narrowly escaped injury or received minor wounds and returned to duty.
Luck often plays a role in survival.
One U.S. soldier described how a rocket-propelled grenade skipped harmlessly off the hood of his vehicle. Others talk about bullets narrowly "zinging" past their heads.
Sgt. Shayne Thomas, a Texas National Guardsman assigned to Task Force Thunder, was riding in a convoy in June when an attacker lobbed a grenade into his Humvee.
The grenade exploded and sent shrapnel tearing into Thomas' legs, but he received only minor injuries because the explosive misfired.
"If it had fused right, three of us would have been gone," said Thomas, who is with the Delta Battery 2-20 Field Artillery.
Thomas, a correctional officer and a veteran of the Persian Gulf war, said the current conflict is far more difficult for U.S. troops than the 1991 war because this time it's hard to identify the enemy.
The insurgents don't wear uniforms, and they fire at U.S. troops from rooftops, outdoor markets or other heavily populated areas.
Gunmen shoot, abandon arms
The attackers frequently drop their weapons and flee rather than directly engage U.S. forces. Rocket-propelled grenades are sometimes fired by insurgents on motorcycles who scurry down alleys and narrow streets to evade pursuing U.S. tanks and Humvees.
At best, U.S. soldiers see a muzzle flash from a rifle or movement from behind bushes or a desert berm. U.S. troops say they "pick a spot and start lighting it up" with gunfire but often find nothing when the shooting stops.
"In the gulf war we fought in the open," Thomas said. "Here you don't see them. They melt back into the surroundings."
Many soldiers say they have learned to trust no one. Each day is unpredictable. Troops on patrol may encounter groups of smiling children giving them the thumbs-up sign; they could also find themselves pelted with rocks and bottles, or, worse, under fire.
The uncertainty forces troops to make split-second decisions with potentially lethal consequences.
Is the roadside vendor standing close to a U.S. convoy selling fruit, or is he rigging a bomb? Is the nearby gunfire directed at U.S. forces or, as is the tradition here, is it merely shots fired during a wedding celebration?
When an Iraqi recently ran a checkpoint and almost hit two soldiers, U.S. troops attached to Task Force Thunder said they fired warning shots and then opened fire on the vehicle. The driver, who was killed, turned out to be an unarmed civilian. But U.S. soldiers said they feared he could have been a suicide bomber.
"We don't know if he saw the checkpoint and panicked," explained Sgt. Tony Yates, a Chicago native with the 2nd Brigade Reconnaissance Troop. "It would have been really bad if he had weapons or explosives and injured one of our soldiers."
That everyone in Iraq seems to be armed adds to the difficulty of determining who is an insurgent.
U.S. troops say owning an assault rifle is a rite of passage for Iraqis. The countryside is littered with unexploded shells, rockets and other ordnance.
Mahoney, who called Iraq "the most heavily armed country in the world," said that only 2 miles from the base there are 10,000 tank rounds and 5,000 surface-to-surface rockets in an open field.
Sgt. Jason Campbell, a member of Alpha Company 1-67 Armor Battalion, described with shock how he discovered 3,000 grenades hidden in a giant haystack.
"We went out on so many different raids and it was a dry hole," said Campbell, who is from Calico Rock, Ark. "Then, we went out in the heat of the day and the next thing you know there are all these grenades. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack."
The evolving role of U.S. troops in Iraq has added to the burden of the war.
Instead of planning for set-piece battles, U.S. commanders in Iraq spend much of their time meeting local sheiks, organizing city council elections and figuring out how to provide reliable electricity and water service to residents.
For the average soldier, the war in Iraq often means going out on patrols in gritty urban neighborhoods, scrambling to capture individual gunmen as tracer bullets light up the night sky, or manning nighttime roadblocks to capture insurgents and weapons.
"It's frustrating," explained Lt. Rob Cathey, a platoon leader from Winston-Salem, N.C., who was manning a late night roadblock last week near Husseinia. "It's going to take a long time. But that guy with the gun today could be shooting at us tomorrow."
The primary danger to U.S. forces comes from artillery shells, mortar rounds and other devices hidden along roadsides and detonated by remote control. Soldiers in Task Force Thunder suffered three separate roadside attacks in recent weeks, though none caused major casualties.
Humvee drivers and others say they have memorized every bump and pothole along frequently traveled highways. Soldiers scan the roadside looking for men using satellite telephones because that is often how insurgents pass orders to detonate a device.
"Everybody is pretty jumpy," explained Sgt. J.J. Chapa, a National Guardsman from Austin, Texas. "You're constantly looking around. Your mind is shifting right and left everywhere you go."
Despite the risks, most U.S. soldiers interviewed in recent weeks said they believed strongly in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, whom they describe as a brutal dictator who slaughtered thousands and hoarded riches while impoverishing Iraq.
Many soldiers said they are less certain the U.S. can bring lasting peace and democracy to a country they describe as riven by violence and anarchy.
Others said their main concern is survival.
not here for George Bush's foreign policy," Chapa said. "I'm here because
they sent me. We all have wives and children and we do what we have to do to get