BALAD, Iraq -- When the Iraqi troops arrived that morning, three American servicemen lay dead at the bottom of the Isaki Canal.
The body of a fourth, Sgt. Rene Knox Jr., 22, had been recovered from a submerged Humvee. Patrolling without headlights around 4:30 a.m., Knox had overshot a right turn. His vehicle tumbled down a concrete embankment and settled upside down in the frigid water.
Iraqi soldiers prayed Friday at a memorial at Camp Paliwoda for the U.S. service members killed the previous Sunday in a Humvee accident.
(Ramin Talaie For The Washington Post)
During the harrowing day-long mission to recover the bodies of the Humvee's three occupants on Feb. 13, an Air Force firefighter also drowned. Five U.S. soldiers were treated for hypothermia. For five hours, three Navy SEAL divers searched the canal before their tanks ran out of oxygen.
What happened then, however, has transformed the relationship between the Iraqi soldiers and the skeptical Americans who train them. Using a tool they welded themselves that day at a cost of about $40, the Iraqis dredged the canal through the cold afternoon until the tan boot of Spec. Dakotah Gooding, 21, of Des Moines, appeared at the surface. The Iraqis then jumped into the water to pull him out, and went back again and again until they had recovered the last American. Then they stood atop the canal, shivering in the dark.
"When I saw those Iraqis in the water, fighting to save their American brothers, I saw a glimpse of the future of this country," said Col. Mark McKnight, commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which had overall responsibility for the unit in the accident, his eyes tearing.
The dramatic events offer a counterpoint to the prevailing wisdom about the nascent Iraqi security forces -- the key to the Bush administration's strategy to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. U.S. commanders have said repeatedly that when the Iraqi troops are ready to stand and fight, American forces will pull out.
To date, the reputation of the Iraqis among American soldiers has been one of sloppiness, disloyalty and cowardice, even though thousands of Iraqi soldiers, policemen and recruits have been killed by insurgents.
Many U.S. soldiers say they fear even standing near the Iraqis because of their propensity to fire their weapons randomly. At Camp Paliwoda in Balad, where Americans from the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment are training a new Iraqi army battalion, the soldiers work at adjacent bases but are separated by a locked gate, razor wire and a 50-foot-tall chain-link fence.
Pfc. Russell Nahvi, 23, of Arlington, Tex., a medic whose platoon was involved in the accident, said he arrived in Iraq this month with preconceptions about the Iraqi forces. "You always heard never to trust them, to never turn your back on them," he said.
The actions of the Iraqis that Sunday "changed my mind for how I felt about these guys," he said. "I have a totally different perspective now. They were just so into it. They were crying for us. They were saying we were their brothers, too."
A Missing Vehicle
The tragedy on Feb. 13 began when 11 soldiers from the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, of the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, set out from Camp Paliwoda, 50 miles north of Baghdad, under a moonless sky around 3 a.m. Their four Humvees headed toward Balad's western outskirts, from where the Americans believed insurgents had fired rockets at the base. This account of what happened and what was said is based on interviews with the eight surviving members of the platoon, members of the Iraqi battalion and senior officers with the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
The platoon leader, Lt. Lamarius Workman, 30, of Brunswick, Ga., rode in the lead Humvee, code-named Blue 1. Behind him in Blue 2 were Knox, from New Orleans; Gooding, who manned the gunner's hatch; and Sgt. Chad Lake, 26, of Ocala, Fla., in the right passenger seat.
The convoy stopped at an intersection along a dirt road. Workman warned the platoon about the canal on the other side. He told the drivers to dim their headlights after making the turn and switch to night-vision goggles for stealth. But after Workman made the turn, he ordered the vehicles to turn around because he saw no visible escape routes in case of an ambush.
When the vehicles turned back, the second Humvee was missing.