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01-27-06, 03:25 PM
Embedded With U.S. Marines
AP Correspondent Antonio Castaneda is embedded with U.S. Marines in Ramadi, one of the most violent cities in Iraq. This is the first of his periodic blog on his experiences there.

FRIDAY, Jan. 27, 7:05 p.m. local


Ramadi — A portrait of a scorching Iraq made of oceans of sand, sagging and nondescript buildings has been etched into the public mindset. But there's another side of Iraq that slowly takes form over the winter: one of freezing nights and occasional rainstorms that turn swaths of the country into giant mud puddles.

Here in Ramadi, possibly Iraq's most violent city, weather should be the last thing on anyone's mind as the city endures urban shootouts and daily explosions. But weather is morale, remarked a colleague to me as he trudged through a mud landscape and tentatively tested the depth of murky pools of water with the tip of his boot. A usually annoying inconvenience took on new dimensions as tanks and multi-ton armored vehicles plowed down the narrow streets of this military base, creating ravines hidden by sheets of cold, standing water. The mud stuck on boots, socks, jackets, hair, mattresses and brought a dull chill to everything.

"Everything else isn't so bad but it's the mud that gets to you. Look, you've only been here two days and you're already packed in it," said Sgt. Rich Scaricaciottoli as he escorted me through Camp Ar Ramadi, which looked mostly the same since my last visit in May. I wondered how Korean war veterans had endured tours through similar weather — and more casualties — over longer periods of time.

For as miserable as the weather was, it still didn't halt the violence. Early in the morning I headed out with U.S. Marines and soldiers searching for an Iraqi contractor accused of using a large generator — purchased with U.S. reconstruction funds for a local school — for about 20 homes, including his own and those of several relatives and friends. Instead, the unit was initially diverted to look for gunmen who had decided to spend their Friday morning taking potshots at a U.S. position beside a major highway.

Things were surprisingly calm in the small cluster of homes where U.S. troops said they saw the gunfire originate. While semis and cars traveling from Syria and western Iraq to Baghdad sped in the distance, with flapping tarps smacking against speeding trucks hauling various goods, the residents said they knew nothing about the attack. It was an all too familiar — and frustrating — predicament for U.S. troops in Iraq, who regularly met Iraqi residents who either supported insurgents or remained too afraid of them to disclose any valuable intelligence.

And then there, in one family's front yard, was the mud again — but this time partly covered by red pools of blood harbored within fresh, round footprints. U.S. troops had fired back and shot one man in the rear, sending him sprawling into the mud lake that was this family's front yard. The family claimed their son, who had been taken away for medical treatment by U.S. troops, had simply been walking to the outhouse when the bullets came flying by. U.S. troops countered that their son had tested positive for gunshot residue and questioned a "MAM" — or military age male.

The family of the injured man was surprisingly calm and quiet for a group that had just seen a relative crumple on their front yard from a gunshot wound. They mostly watched the Americans and gave short answers to questions from the commanding officer, Lt. Jason Secrest, a young officer from York, Pa., assigned to the 1st Battalion, 172nd Regiment. The middle-aged Iraqi produced an ID badge that said he once worked at a nearby U.S. base. The troops moved on to the neighboring house.

There were no men at the next home — only a middle-aged woman wearing a blue headscarf and dark dress who waited to be questioned as several restless children milled around. As she held her baby girl, she said she knew nothing of the gunfire but said her husband had left to buy a new car and had gone missing.

"He left for Baghdad one month ago and he's disappeared," she explained as roosters crowed and ran around in the mud of her backyard. Violence was nearly impossible to escape in this tortured part of Iraq.

"Can you check his name in the computer to see if he is dead?" she calmly asked. "If you find anything, please let me know."


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