JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Five months after Iraqis elected a National Assembly, the violence there has only gotten worse. Since the government took power at the beginning of this month, insurgents have killed more than 500 Iraqis and nearly 70 Americans. Iraqi officials say they're launching a crackdown called Operation Lightning to seal off Baghdad and hunt down insurgents. NPR's Eric Westervelt is embedded with American forces from the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. And he joins me now from eastern Baghdad.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
LUDDEN: Have you seen evidence of this crackdown by Iraqi security forces where you are?
WESTERVELT: Well, here in eastern Baghdad, Jennifer, I have not seen any tangible signs of increased Iraqi security. US soldiers with the 2nd Brigade that I'm here with, for example, enforced 11 PM-to-dawn curfew along these main supply routes and busy highways that crisscross eastern Baghdad, and so far they have not gotten any additional Iraqi help doing that daily job. But I have to say just about every unit in this brigade works with Iraqi forces every day, either the Iraqi army or Iraqi police, conducting joint patrols and missions, and that has not changed because of this much-touted operation.
LUDDEN: It's Memorial Day weekend here, and a lot of thoughts are turning to the soldiers in Iraq. Can you give us a sense of what the troops with the 3rd ID are doing where you are?
WESTERVELT: Well, it's really just business as usual, just another day for many of these soldiers. I mean, you know, whether it's Saturday or Tuesday, they're doing the same thing. And they conduct their presence patrols in neighborhoods. They're responsible for security on these main supply routes, and that means, you know, a lot of hot, long hours in the sun parked on the roadside in their tanks or their Bradley Fighting Vehicles or their Humvees. It's tedious, dangerous work.
And there was a bit of good news for some of the soldiers here because Iraqi police at a checkpoint noticed that this 27-year-old kid was acting kind of strange. They searched his car, and in the back seat they found these remote detonators that are used to explode roadside bombs. This Sunni Iraqi, who lives just south of the area he was caught in, confessed to being part of a team that planted a roadside bomb that killed one of the soldiers from this forward operating base here last month. So a bit of good news for the soldiers here, who feel like day in and day out they're not entirely sure what they're doing is actually improving security. But on a day like today, they actually catch somebody, and he may be a small part of a larger cell, but they feel like it was a positive step.
LUDDEN: Eric, you've been reporting on the 3rd ID since the invasion of Iraq more than two years ago now. How do you find morale?
WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. I was talking to a soldier who I met during the 2003 invasion, and he was just about to leave to go on a two-week break back home. And he was quite happy to be heading back home, but he also said it's going to be tough 'cause he knows he's going to have to come right back here, and it's just going to be a very brief visit back home. And he knows how tough and dangerous it's been over here in Iraq. Most soldiers, you know, are trying to stay positive and focused on their mission, but it's difficult. The temperature's creeping higher; the conditions on the base here aren't great. Most soldiers I've talked with say the hardest times, Jennifer, are when they're sitting around with nothing to do thinking about the home front, so they try to keep busy as much as possible. Many tell me they prefer to go out on these dangerous patrols outside the base 'cause the days simply go faster when you're busy outside the wire.
LUDDEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt embedded with the US Army in Baghdad. Thanks, Eric.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
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