The three-day mission I mentioned in the last post was to clear a route into the area of interest, nestled within a loop of the Euphrates river near Amiriyah. Following us was a combined force of Army, Marine, and Iraqi Army troops, who would then seal off the area and fan out gathering intel, "making face" with the villagers, and searching for caches.
We staged out of a small Combat Outpost (COP) near Amiriyah. This COP was one of several constructed just a few months ago in a largely successful effort to secure the main route from Falluja to Amiriyah. Amiriyah had been the scene of much fighting between the local al-Qaeda and Iraqi Police; American patrols happened rarely, as the nearest major patrol bases were separated from the community by long stretches of dangerous roads. Now, the situation in Amiriyah and the nearby neighborhood of Feris is largely under control in the hands of the Iraqi security forces, and Coalition efforts have begun to focus on the surrounding villages.
Our mission for the first day was mainly spent clearing alternate routes out in the desert that the unit were were working for had used in the past and would use again in the future.
Investigating an IED
We finished our mission for the first day by midafternoon, and pulled into the COP for the night. The weather was hottest I had felt yet- when we got back to Camp Falluja, someone told me that the thermometer had hit 131 degrees in the shade.
Even collapsing on the roof provided little relief.
Evening shade on the roof of a COP
We had some small visitors drop by, wishing to share our shade and perhaps a few nuggets from the MRE crackers that some of the soldiers were snacking on.
After a restless night spent in the heat, we were up at 0400 to prep and lead out on the next mission- the actual operation on the river. Soldiers racked weapons into their places atop the trucks; others stocked water and MREs in anticipation of a long day. No one really knew what kind of environment we were moving into: the villages and farmland could be quiet and peaceful, or they could be alive with fighters and minefields of IEDs. Both scenarios have played themselves out in other nearby villages, and no one had spent enough time in this particular area to predict the outcome. Our only resource was to be prepared for the worst case.
A gunner preps his battle bag
The first half of the second day was largely uneventful. The troops following us in had little to report- some men who tried to dodge to cordon, an extra AK-47 in a house. We found nothing in the roads.
A infantryman of 3/6 Marines patrols alongside a "Gator"
Later on, one of our vehicles ran over a sharp piece of metal, flattening a tire. Towards the end of the tire change, two more vehicles starting taking single rifle rounds from a building off in a grove of palms in the distance. Some of our Marine security contingent tried to chase the shooter down in their Gator, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.
A "Gator" chases down a sniper
We moved on out of the area, after notifying the force commander of the small arms fire, and proceeded down the route. Just down the road, an alert Gator crewmember noticed some things that seemed out of place at a small shop by the roadside- possibly connecting the men there to the recent gunfire. We stopped to talk to the owner to ask him a few questions and look through his car. He seemed happy to allow the search, and tried to tell us, in a mixture of broken English and Arabic, where we should look for the shooter. We thanked him for his time and help, passed the information up, and moved on.
With Day 2 over, we went back to the COP for another long night in the stifling air. I went to sleep listening to feral dogs growling around the camp's burning trash pit and watching their moving shadows dance with the flames. Day 3 began early, again, and beautifully. We were treated to a postcard-perfect sunrise as we moved through Amiriyah towards our area of operation.The sun rises over a peaceful Euphrates, near Amiriyah
One last bit of excitement remained- one that underlines the difficulties we face in Iraq. The picture below is of a bridge construction site, spanning the Euphrates between the Zaidon region and Amiriyah/Feris. Look carefully at the photo.
A bridge in progress from Zaidon to the Amiriyah region
The three trucks closest to the river are VBIEDs that are under construction. Southern Zaidon receives little attention from American patrols- as with Amiriyah just a few months ago, the roads leading in are long and dangerous. A local villager on the Amiriyah side of the river pointed these trucks out to a Marine patrol. If it weren't for the relations we have built on this side of the river in recent months, the first sign we would have likely had of these VBIEDs would have been their detonation, probably in the midst of a crowd of innocent civilians.
It will be Zaidon's turn soon enough, though- and for now, Amiriyah is looking good.