MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Night after night, U.S. patrols pull out of a sprawling base in Baghdad to hunt for a weapon that is a constant threat in Iraq, the roadside bomb. The military calls them IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. It's a costly effort which uses sophisticated technology to counter a threat that requires relatively little investment on the part of the insurgents. And even with the American technological advantage, many bombs are found with nothing more than a soldier's memory or the location of trash along the road.
NPR's Corey Flintoff recently went along on one of those patrols and he has this report.
COREY FLINTOFF: Dagger Ironclaw rumbles along the lonely road in West Baghdad, four tall trucks, each in its own pool of bright light. Lieutenant David McPhail and his platoon are looking for minute changes in the landscape since the last time they were here, a patch of freshly turned dirt or a cardboard box. Anything that might contain a homemade bomb.
Lieutenant DAVID MCPHAIL (United States Army): Aw. You see that big bag up there?
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Lieutenant MCPHAIL: Okay. I'll stop. We're going to take a look at this bag over here.
FLINTOFF: Dagger Ironclaw is the call sign for McPhail's patrol, a unit of the Army's 9th Engineers that spends its nights combing the roadside.
Unidentified Man: It's all clear. Looks empty.
First Lieutenant CHRISTINA KESSLER (U.S. Army 9th Engineers Unit): The name of the mission is route clearance and they travel some of the most dangerous routes in our area of operations looking for IEDs.
FLINTOFF: First Lieutenant Christina Kessler is the public affairs officer for the 9th Engineers.
First Lieutenant KESSLER: Their whole purpose is to find the IEDs before they can hit other soldiers. Because they have the most survivable equipment, it's best if they're the ones that run into the IEDs.
FLINTOFF: What makes the equipment survivable is armor nearly an inch thick on all three trucks and a boat-like design that Lieutenant McPhail points out before the patrol.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: The underlying idea behind the route-clearance vehicle's V-shape is that if an IED goes off, it deflects the blast.
FLINTOFF: But not everything is deflected. The fenders of the truck are scorched and peppered with jagged shrapnel holes.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: All that is from an IED just yesterday.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: Yeah, these guys found one and it like kind of pocked it all up.
FLINTOFF: McPhail points to a spider web of cracked glass in the driver's side window, right where the driver's head would be.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: That's a sniper bullet that didn't go through. When we first got it, we were like holy crap. This is actually our vehicle that we'll be going with. The door weighs about 300 pounds.
FLINTOFF: Two of the trucks have snouts on their front bumpers that look like huge leaf blowers. That's essentially what they are, used to gust away debris and get a better look at potential hazards.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: Like if you had a bag, a lot of times the guys will put their artillery round in a bag and then you go out and you blow it. Well, the bag is going to take the shape of whatever's in it, right? So then you're like okay, there's something in there. Send the buffalo up. And then the buffalo has this big claw and it just claws at it and makes sure that it is what we think it is.
FLINTOFF: The buffalo is the fourth vehicle in the patrol, towering over the armored trucks. Rather than an animal, it looks more like a medieval siege engine with its row of small, thick-lensed windows and the iron-clawed arm folded on its roof.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: We call it the spork, kind of like the little, I don't know, lunch fork or spoon. But yeah, it's got the spike on one end and then the little fork and you can - I guess the best way to look for an IED if you think it's buried is just dig it and then kind of plop it out and then if it blows up, then that's better than having it blow up on a vehicle, you know?
FLINTOFF: In official military jargon, that process is called interrogating the target. In soldier slang, it's called sporking.
When it's patrolling on the dark road, the buffalo's spotlights cast a wide skirt of light behind its smaller escorts, throwing long shadows back among the heaps of garbage and debris in vacant lots and dimly lighted buildings. It's hard to imagine how anyone could tell if something in this landscape has changed.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: You'll see it. It'll be out of place. Like the garbage is garbage, but then you'll see something that just doesn't look right. These guys have garbage memorized. I have dreams at night about garbage.
Major DAVID RAY (U.S. Army): It's kind of like trying to catch an artillery round in flight.
FLINTOFF: Major David Ray is the battalion operations officer.
Major RAY: We want to be there between the time that the bad guys put it on the ground and the rest of our good guys show up.
FLINTOFF: Ray says that's becoming harder as the insurgents learn to adapt to the scrutiny they get from the Ironclaw patrols.
Major RAY: The enemy becomes even more, I don't want to say devious, but creative in terms of hiding these things from these guys.
(Soundbite of radio)
FLINTOFF: Among the things Dagger Ironclaw finds most often are the victims of sectarian violence in this border area between the Shiite neighborhood called Shula and the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah.
Unidentified Man: It's personal, saying it's here, you know, like dead bodies. I mean, it's a murdered person.
FLINTOFF: This one lies in the rubbish beneath the highway overpass.
Lieutenant MCPHAIL: No, that concrete thing, I don't see any wires or anything. Yeah, that's a small dude, too. Jesus. I hope that's not a kid.
FLINTOFF: McPhail calls in the corpse's location so an infantry patrol can come by and remove it. First off the infantry soldiers want assurance that the body isn't booby trapped.
Lieutenant MCPHAIL: Hey, Hilliard(ph), ask them if the frigging body looks like there's anything around it so if we need to spork it we can spork it right now so they know we checked it. I don't like sporking on dead bodies.
FLINTOFF: Before the night is over, Dagger Ironclaw will find one more corpse, dumped in plain sight on the median of a residential street.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: Roger. The body is bound behind its back. Its hands are bound behind its back. It's got sort of a V-shaped blindfold on and we have marked the body with two blue chem lights. We're going to continue mission. Over.
FLINTOFF: Major David Ray says it takes an unusual combination of qualities to keep at this mission night after night.
Major RAY: Most importantly is the soldiers have to be well trained and have confidence in their equipment and then, I don't want to say a little bit crazy, but at least that's how they're looked at by the other members of the brigade combat team.
Captain TIM RUSSELL (U.S. Army 9th Engineers Unit): These guys are special because their whole job is to go out there and find something that could potentially blow them up.
FLINTOFF: Captain Tim Russell is the unit's route planning officer.
Captain RUSSELL: We'll show up to briefings before a mission and we've had guys cheer for our guys when they walk in. You know, make platoon leaders just feel great.
FLINTOFF: Lieutenant McPhail stretches and checks his watch.
Lieutenant McPHAIL: Yeah, so we've been out for like five hours. You do about six hours, you're fried. Can't even look out the window at this. Everything starts going blurry.
FLINTOFF: It is disorienting to watch the long shadows flicker past, hour after hour. Burnt out hulks of automobiles start to look like the skulls of prehistoric fish. The only live things out here are the packs of wild dogs that look up from whatever they're feeding on, startled by the light. The only things out here tonight are the dogs, Dagger Ironclaw and the bombs. It'll be another hour before the patrol goes home.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.