RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The expanding U.S. presence in Iraq is fed by a massive supply center north of Baghdad. It's called Anaconda. To get there, supplies have to travel from Kuwait across much of Iraq.
NPR's John McChesney traveled that hazardous road with the 875th Engineering Battalion of the Arkansas National Guard.
JOHN MCCHESNEY: The sun is just coming up at Anaconda as soldiers climb up on their armored vehicles and carefully wash the windows with Windex. Sharp eyes and clean windows are critical to this mission.
Lieutenant Paul Burns gathers the men of Alpha Company for the morning briefing. He tells them of an attack that occurred the day before on the route we'll be taking.
Lieutenant PAUL BURNS (U.S. Army): Right after they got off and turned south on Tampa they got hit. Once again, it's normally fairly quiet, but it's been busier lately. So the long and short of it is, we're seeing a lot, okay? We need to be on our toes today.
MCCHESNEY: The attack he mentions involved an IED, small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade. Over the past three weeks, this area has been heating up. Three soldiers and this reporter climb a ladder into a buffalo, a monstrous Mack truck slabbed with half-inch armor. High off the ground, with a V-shaped belly to deflect blasts, it also boasts a long mechanical arm to grapple with explosives.
We roll off the base with an escort of RG-31s, essentially gunboats on wheels bristling with 50-caliber machine guns.
Sergeant Michael Smithson, a fireman at home, is the commander of the Buffalo. He's from northeast Arkansas, like most of this battalion called the Flying Razorbacks. Smithson has had five IEDs explode near his thick-hided Buffalo.
Sergeant MICHAEL SMITHSON (U.S. Army): When it hits, it's just loud and rough. You get such an adrenalin spike, that's just pretty much - after that you get kind of pissed off that you didn't find it, and then that they blew it on you.
MCCHESNEY: The potential deadliness of the area stands in stark contrast to the pastoral landscape: fields of soft-tufted reeds sway in the breeze; small boys herd flocks of goats; women in black and scarlet robes shoulder bundles of firewood.
Not long after we swing onto the divided four-lane highway, one of the armored escort vehicles radios the Buffalo about a downed power line at the roadside.
(Soundbite of radio transmission)
Sgt. Smithson: Someone noticed that just around the wire leading down into it, there's dry earth. And of course, everything around it is wet mud.
MCCHESNEY: It's just a small patch, and only trained eyes could have noticed it. But it's a false alarm. The wire is hot, and it's parched the soil.
The convoy grinds on down the highway at just 10 miles an hour, blocking both sides. Turret gunners wave cars aside. Some lone cars are carefully watched.
(Soundbite of radio transmission)
MCCHESNEY: Traffic piles up, and as we drive by, a few passengers wave, but most just stare impassively. On this stretch, the roadside and muddy median strip are regularly punctuated by blast holes - reminders of the daily IED attacks designed to disrupt the supply convoys. Sergeant Smithson stops at one of the holes and manipulates the Buffalo's long hydraulic arm.
Sgt. SMITHSON: Whenever you see something different in those little blast holes, we'll just use the arm there, we'll dig around in it a little bit, see if there's anything in there.
MCCHESNEY: There's nothing in this one, but I asked why the insurgents would keep returning to the same hole over and over again.
Sgt. SMITHSON: Since it's all loose and everything already, they can place another IED in there quick, hopefully not get caught.
MCCHESNEY: It wasn't long before we came to a trench that had been ripped across all four lanes of the highway.
Sgt. SMITHSON: This culvert right here, there was a Stryker got hit here with, they estimated two to three thousands pounds of explosives; blew up the whole road.
MCCHESNEY: Miraculously, no one in the Stryker armored vehicle was seriously injured, but the road is still so damaged, even after repairs, that a large convoy truck would have to crawl over it at two or three miles an hour. It's perfect for an ambush. We stop as a radio command comes in.
(Soundbite of radio transmission)
MCCHESNEY: A command wire is a hair-thin bare copper strand that only the sharpest eye can see. Insurgents use them in pairs to trigger an IED when they're not using a wireless device like a cell phone. So there may be another IED right here.
Driver Stephen Moore swings the Buffalo across the median where the wire was spotted. He and Smithson scan the area with binoculars. Moore spots it.
Mr. STEPHEN MOORE (U.S. Army): Yeah, there's a command wire going towards that bank, right as the grass meets at the dirt.
MCCHESNEY: Moore maneuvers in close, where the wires lead to, and Smithson unlevers the Buffalo arm. Then he turns to me.
Sgt. SMITHSON: Do you have earplugs?
MCCHESNEY: I can't get the case open.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sgt. SMITHSON: He'll do it. Rainey, help him open his case.
MCCHESNEY: Okay, plugs are in.
These are blast earplugs, to keep you from losing your eardrums. Medic Michael Rainey and I put on fire-resistant gloves, and then Sergeant Smithson stares intently at an image sent from a camera out on the arm and he deftly pulls the wires away from the mud. Then he begins the tricky part: digging. A few minutes later he mutters, I got it.
Sgt. SMITHSON: Here's the IED right here. We just got it dug up; we're going to finish (unintelligible) a little bit here.
MCCHESNEY: (Unintelligible) nerve-wracking.
Sitting on Smithson's fork is an ugly, dirt-covered, two-foot long mortar round which he teases for a while, cleaning the mud off it. Then he gently rolls it off and marks it with a plastic bottle. We back off a couple of hundred yards and an explosive expert detonates the round. Hardly a sound penetrates the thick-skinned Buffalo, but a big black mushroom of smoke billows up.
Back at the base, Lieutenant Burns, a man of few words, compliments the company on the find.
Lt. BURNS: It's always a good day when we find them without having someone blow them after we find them, which happens quite a bit. So you know, we found it and we cleared it.
MCCHESNEY: But still, it's not easy for the 411th Engineering Brigade, the Flying Razorbacks mother organization, to keep up with repairs on this vital supply artery as the attacks increase. And the soldiers of the 875th worry that the renewed pressure on Baghdad may push more insurgents up their way, bringing with them high-tech bombs which can penetrate even the thickest armor.
John McChesney, NPR News, Anaconda, Iraq.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We can feel confident Iraq will be one of the subjects on Monday when NPR News has an interview with President Bush, his first since the State of the Union speech.
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