A man with his hand blown off. A soldier’s equipment strewn across a field. A child’s vague recollections. They are pieces of a puzzle that U.S. military officials are working with as they search for three missing soldiers and the people responsible for their disappearance.
By Thursday, the sixth day of the hunt, the wear was showing, not just on the soldiers obsessed with finding their comrades but also on the hamlets that dot the region southwest of Baghdad, which is blessed with groves of elegant date palms and riddled with pro-Al Qaeda insurgents.
Hundreds of local men have been detained for questioning, leaving women, children and legions of ferociously barking dogs in charge of Iraqi towns such as Rushdi Mullah, a community of 86 households under a virtual siege by troops looking for their buddies. At the U.S. military posts throughout the region, thousands of soldiers have vowed to hunt until the missing are found, even though the task has diverted troops needed to enforce a U.S.-Iraqi security clampdown in Baghdad.
“It’s not about resources. It’s about an ethos. It’s about who we are as people,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, commander of a Stryker brigade that has been drawn into the search. “It’s about never leaving a fallen comrade. That may sound cliche, but it’s true.”
Smiley was speaking from a patrol base in Yousifiya, a market town of about 5,000 people 10 miles south of Baghdad. The small base has become the staging point for the search and is struggling under the weight of hundreds of extra troops flying in by helicopter and devouring food as quickly as cooks in the mess hall can dish it up.
Day and night, they head out by air or road, passing through a town whose charm vanished long ago behind blast walls topped with razor wire and piles of broken concrete and trash.
Beyond Yousifiya lie the bucolic farming villages that are the focus of the search.
This region, known as the “triangle of death” because of the high level of insurgent activity, has a sinister past. A year ago, in a case grimly reminiscent of the current one, three U.S. soldiers were ambushed in the area. One was killed, and two vanished. The bodies of the missing were found mutilated and booby-trapped three days later on a riverside road dubbed Route Malibu by U.S. soldiers.
Col. Michael Kershaw, the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and the man leading the current search, said the victims of last year’s ambush had been paraded up Route Malibu before being killed. An insurgent group loyal to the Al Qaeda terrorist network claimed responsibility for the capture and slayings.
Route Malibu also was the site of Saturday’s ambush. The military says attackers hurling explosives and firing guns assaulted eight soldiers in two Humvees as they manned a position beside the road, watching for insurgents placing roadside bombs. Four U.S. troops and one Iraqi soldier working as an interpreter died in the attack; the remaining three Americans disappeared.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni Arab insurgent coalition linked to Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility but has offered no proof it has the men, or that they are alive.
None of that matters to the troops looking for them.
“You have to put yourself in that situation,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Begley as he tramped through a driving rain in Rushdi Mullah, along narrow muddy roads lined with small concrete houses. “The guys who are missing right now are probably scared and alone, and for us there is no alternative. We’ve got to find them. One way or another, no one gets left behind.”
The patrol approached two young men leaning against a wall. A soldier ordered them to face the wall and gave each a swift pat-down search. Nearby, a woman in a blue housedress filled a metal bowl with water from a nearby stream, then balanced it on her head and walked into her yard. She was either oblivious to the sight of heavily armed Americans frisking people outside her garden wall, or too used to it to be interested.
“They do this every day, sometimes once a day, sometimes two or three times a day,” said one of the men, Hussam Ali Khaban. The 26-year-old farmer said he did not mind being frisked or having his town visited by soldiers, because it made him feel safer. “But for the last four days, there has been no power, no water. You can’t go anywhere,” he said.
However inconvenient it has made life, though, the decision to blanket this area with checkpoints and limit movement has had results.
Kershaw said at least two men believed to have been directly involved in the attack were in U.S. custody. “They were up there involved, throwing a weapon,” he said. “They knew enough of what happened up there that they had to have physically seen it. It was dark. They had to be close.”
One of them had three fresh gunshot wounds when he was caught at a checkpoint established outside Rushdi Mullah a few hours after the assault, the colonel said.
The man said he was shot during an altercation outside Qaraghul, a nearby village in the Euphrates River valley where high-ranking members of the late Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus once lived in shaded villas, Kershaw said. Since Hussein’s ouster, Qaraghul has become a stronghold of Al Qaeda loyalists, and it is where Saturday’s attack took place.
The man was taken into detention and disclosed information indicating involvement in the ambush, Kershaw said. The military is also holding a man whose hand was blown off. The colonel described the man’s injury as “very recent” and said he, too, had information that could be known only to witnesses to the assault.
Two FBI agents specializing in interrogations joined the search almost immediately and produced some of the earliest tips by questioning children, away from adults. Two brothers were among those interrogated. One said he saw nothing. The other remembered seeing something that provided early leads on the direction in which the attackers might have fled. Later information corroborated that, Kershaw said.
One of the biggest challenges to the search is the terrain, a floodplain laced with wide, deep canals and smaller irrigation ditches. Early in the week, a soldier drained nearly 20 feet of water from a canal after finding military equipment in a nearby field, strewn in the direction of the water. Nothing was found in the canal.
Kershaw said searchers would drain other canals and were chasing down additional leads based on discoveries of military gear. But troops have been stationed in the area for several years, making it unclear whether the equipment belonged to the missing men.
“If someone dropped a kneepad or someone dropped a watch, we can’t assume that’s not new,” said Capt. Chris Sanchez of Los Angeles, acknowledging the frustration of devoting time to testing evidence that turns out to be unconnected to the missing men.
Like most soldiers based in Yousifiya, Sanchez knows at least some of the missing troops. He is with their brigade and used to patrol with some of them. Like everyone else involved in the search, he started working 18-hour days. Recently, he has ordered his men to cut back to 13- or 14-hour days to preserve energy, even as he admits being fixated on the mission.
“I can’t stop thinking about this,” he said. “It really consumes you. You want to just ... with every ounce of your being, get them back.”