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On Patrol with the Army in Rural Iraq

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On Patrol with the Army in Rural Iraq

Iraq

On Patrol with the Army in Rural Iraq

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to Iraq. Last night, President Bush touted the success of the military surge. Although it's brought relative quiet to Baghdad in many rural areas, insurgents are trying to regroup. The U.S. Army recently launched an offensive against al-Qaeda fighters.

NPR's Corey Flintoff was embedded with the unit.

(Soundbite of flying helicopter)

COREY FLINTOFF: The helicopters circling overhead are a reminder that this is a big operation, nearly 300 Americans plus units from the Iraqi army. They're backed up by armored vehicles and air support to clear the village of Vishigan(ph), a farming community on the Tigris River.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

FLINTOFF: Nine men have already died on this day in another part of the battlefield - three of them Americans.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FLINTOFF: But for the 132 Cav's Bravo troop, the picture is a lot smaller, hemmed in by thick brush among neglected orange groves and towering date palms. They're following a young Iraqi man who was arrested just this morning on suspicion of working for al-Qaeda. He says he knows where there's a weapons cache, but when he gets to the site, he tells the interpreter that he's not so sure.

Unidentified Man #1: He doesn't know where exactly they put it, but they come through in this farm.

Unidentified Man #2: Start out, and start searching that way.

FLINTOFF: The prisoner looks to be in his late teens, not much younger than some of the soldiers who guard him. He moves clumsily through the brush because his hands are bound in front of him with black plastic handcuffs. The dog handler follows him.

Unidentified Woman: Good boy. Come on.

FLINTOFF: Her explosive sniffing dog, a furry German shepherd mix, is the only one who looks happy to be here. After much walking, the search turns out to be fruitless.

Another team had better luck. Sergeant Manuel Bias Jr.(ph) from Bravo's 3rd platoon was part of a patrol that found an insurgent campsite and weapons cache near a farmer's house.

Sergeant MANUEL BIAS, JR. (Bravo 3rd Platoon, U.S. Army): So we went to this little wooded area back there, about 200 meters back there, and I just began searching. So that's where we came up with this cache. Found a tent - a campsite, some mortar rounds, about 22 of them, and just a lot, a lot of bad stuff.

FLINTOFF: Specialist Lucas Frasier(ph) shows the burning remains of the campsite.

Specialist LUCAS FRASIER (U.S. Army): What's left of it, I guess. It's all on fire and burnt up. We destroyed it with thermite. And that's the crater, as you can see the - not much left of the cache.

FLINTOFF: Frasier says his fellow soldiers pulled camping gear, weapons and bomb-making material from the tent.

Spc. FRASIER: They were finding machine guns, ammunition, hand grenades, det cord, all IED-making paraphernalia. We pushed out, we found some motors, a motorcycle that was cached in the woods, kind of like a, you know, escape vehicle, I suppose.

FLINTOFF: It goes against the grain for young American men to blow up a motorcycle, even if they can't ride it themselves. But their mission is to destroy anything that the insurgents could use against them.

Air Force explosives experts planted charges on the motorcycle and on a thick spool of copper wire the insurgents had evidently planned to use for setting off roadside bombs. The soldiers crouch behind a mud-brick wall, waiting for the cry.

Unidentified Man #4: Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole.

(Soundbite of explosion)

FLINTOFF: The only thing left of the motorcycle was a charred tire, but the spool of copper wire had erupted into a giant slinky that the soldiers had to drag back with them.

The Army's 132 Cav will go on to search more houses and more farms. The doubt remains about what they may not have found and what else the returning insurgents may hide there while the Americans are away. The soldiers have promised to visit the area frequently over the next year, but for now, every visit is a costly and dangerous operation.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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