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thedrifter
07-18-06, 01:08 AM
July 18, 2006
On Patrol With Marines, Iraqi Soldiers Get a Lesson in War’s Danger
By MICHAEL R. GORDON

BAGHDADI, Iraq, July 17 — Anbar Province is a violent and unforgiving region. It takes constant vigilance, and a measure of plain dumb luck, to survive here.

On Monday, both were tested along an isolated stretch of highway under a scorching sun. The morning began with the standard battlefield rituals that try to impose order on war. An Iraqi Army officer had given a briefing about the day’s mission for the joint Iraqi Army and United States Marine Corps patrol.

The patrol was to screen a two-lane highway between the towns of Baghdadi and Haqlaniya. It was, in effect, filling a security gap for a larger operation that took place elsewhere.

It was not expected to be an exciting morning, and the patrol was not looking for danger. This reporter and a photographer for The New York Times were taking a firsthand view of how a team of Marine advisers was training the new Iraqi Army, specifically the Second Battalion of the Second Brigade of the newly formed Iraqi Seventh Division.

The evening before had been relaxed and even festive. The marines were invited for kebab by Col. Shaban B. al-Ubadi, the police chief of Baghdadi. His force had taken up quarters in a military housing complex formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein’s air force. It is nestled close to a forward Marine base occupied by a weapons company.

At dawn the patrol set out in its Humvees. The Iraqis led the way, searching cars and even some houses along the route while the Americans backed them up. It was all according to plan and uneventful. The Euphrates flowed past the palm trees — almost a postcard scene.

The next phase of the mission was to “overwatch” the highway by driving onto a series of hard-packed sand mounds. The patrol of eight Humvees split up to drive up the hills.

An Iraqi Army Humvee led the way up the hillside. Capt. James Beal, a Tennessean on his second tour of Iraq, drove behind. In his young military career, Captain Beal had already fought as part of the Marine push to Baghdad in 2003 and had been on the first Marine deployment to Afghanistan.

A white pillar of smoke and a black plume smeared the cloudless sky in the distance. The white smoke, as it turned out, was a telltale sign of a phosphorous artillery shell. The significance of the black spiral was immediately clear: a vehicle was on fire. A red flare soon followed, a standard military distress call. It was clear that one of the patrol’s Humvees hit an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., as the roadside bombs are known by the troops.

Captain Beal’s Humvee had the only medic on the patrol: Daniel Mayberry, a 22-year-old Navy corpsman from Gaithersburg, Md., who is thinking about becoming a math teacher when he leaves the service. Captain Beal needed to get him to the scene fast. The hill was rugged and rutted with tracks from previous monitoring missions.

Staff Sgt. Lamont Ellison, 25, started to drive forward to proceed down the mound when Cpl. Jeff Globis, 23, who was in the turret, screamed to stop him. The corporal, from Winthrop Harbor, Ill., had spied a fresh mound of dirt just a few feet ahead of the Humvee.

Captain Beal, who was standing outside the vehicle, rushed to take a look and ordered Sergeant Ellison to put the vehicle in reverse. The sergeant had come close to tripping a “pressure plate” I.E.D., connected to two artillery shells. After backing up, Sergeant Ellison rumbled down a different slope. The Humvee reached the road, zoomed forward and came on a horrifying scene.

An Iraqi Army Humvee, its Iraqi banner rent to shreds, was burning furiously on the hill to the left. Three wounded Iraqi soldiers were sprawled across the road. One was trapped in the vehicle.

The corpsman ran out to attend to the stricken Iraqis. One had burns on his leg and was moaning in pain. Another had been hit by shrapnel. One seemed to have a twisted or broken leg and was raised on one elbow. Frantic calls went out for a medevac helicopter.

On the hillside across the road, Lt. Col. Owen Lovejoy, the commander of the Marine training team, ordered his team and Mr. Wilson to take cover behind their Humvee. Rounds from the burning Humvee across the highway were exploding.

The team’s gunnery sergeant, Louis Simmons, muttered quietly, “They should have cleared.” In their enthusiasm to get to their overwatch positions, the Iraqi troops had driven up the hillsides without first getting out to inspect the area for bombs or mines, and the Americans had followed.

It was now apparent that the insurgents had been monitoring the Americans’ movements and had sabotaged the mounts with mines and I.E.D.’s. It was an unmanned ambush: virtually risk-free for the insurgents, but deadly for the Americans and their Iraqi allies. Walking ahead of his Humvee, Colonel Lovejoy guided it down the far hill.

A purple smoke flare was popped so the medevac helicopter could find the site. The chopper landed on the highway and took off with the three wounded Iraqis. There was no way to extract the body of the Iraqi in the Humvee until the fire burned out. Colonel Lovejoy walked to the wreckage with a fire extinguisher, but the blaze was too intense.

The Iraqis were distraught at the loss of their comrade but maintained their composure. Lt. Col. Jebbar Abass, the commander of the Iraqi battalion, was with the patrol to supervise and stayed at the scene. He used a satellite phone to call in a casualty report to his command about a “fallen angel,” as the Iraqi Army calls its dead.

Colonel Lovejoy told the Iraqi officers that they had learned a painful lesson: it is vital to clear the terrain first before driving off-road. “Some lessons are learned the hard way,” he said. “The Americans have learned this lesson through painful experience as well.”

But there was still work to do. An explosive ordnance team from the vast Marine base at Al Asad arrived and examined the scene. It was worse than the marines had thought. In addition to the pressure plate mine that had almost been set off near Captain Beal’s Humvees, two antitank mines were found.

There was some nervous laughter among the marines when they discovered that the danger had been greater than they had realized. Corporal Globis, who had been the first to notice the pressure-plate mine, quipped that he had a new series of numbers to play in the lottery: 7-17-10, the month, day and time when the fates smiled on him.

Sgt. Christopher L. Kelbaugh, 21, a marine from Westminster, Md., who had been in a different Humvee at that same location, described the good luck charms he carried each day: a letter from his father and one from his girlfriend, a St. Christopher medal blessed by the pope, a memento from the memorial service for Cpl. Eric R. Lueken, a young marine who had been killed by an I.E.D.

After the flames died down, the body of the Iraqi soldier was retrieved, put into a body bag and placed in the trunk of a Humvee. Soon a huge flatbed military truck arrived. The twisted metal from the Humvee was hoisted onto the truck by a huge crane.

The patrol drove back to the camp at Baghdadi, where the body of the Iraqi soldier was transferred to a Red Crescent ambulance. Then the Marine training team, the ambulance and the Iraqi colonel left the camp at Baghdadi to drive to Al Asad so the “fallen angel” could be delivered to the morgue. Apart from the radio traffic, we drove in silence.

Ellie