"Stay down real low" in the turret, Command Sgt. Maj. John Caldwell, of Elba, Ala., called to the gunner, Pvt. Joseph Knott. "Just stick your head out high enough so you can see."
"Roger, sir," Knott said. A gung-ho private fresh out of training, Knott, 21, had fought for the gunner's job. Eager to prove himself, he often asked the more experienced gunner, Dillard, to watch him on missions and point out what he did wrong. Known among his peers as a gentleman, the native of Yuma, Ariz., aspired to join the Special Forces.
Caldwell, 43, an imposing former linebacker from Alabama State who nevertheless has a soft touch, seemed almost fatherly toward his young charge.
"Watch out here. This is the mixing bowl right here. This is a big, dangerous area," he called to Knott as we moved farther south to a tangle of highways. Soon, we entered the town of Mahmudiyah, in the so-called Triangle of Death. The town lies in a stretch of northern Babil province bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The area courses with a loosely allied web of insurgents as complex as the network of canals that make this terrain so hard to navigate for U.S. forces. Ten-foot-tall reeds grow in the waterways, offering hiding places for triggermen. Yet relatively few American troops have been dispatched to the region, one of several critical gaps between major U.S. commands in Iraq.
"Already there were a large number" of insurgents in this region, McMaster said. "Then over time, as the insurgency coalesced, it moved its base to areas where there were not significant coalition forces. So I think that's one of the reasons why this area is a problem."
On Sunday, Caldwell and McMaster were on a mission to prepare plans to strike back against insurgents, who have stepped up their attacks in the triangle in recent days, wounding or killing about a dozen U.S. soldiers in complex ambushes and roadside bombings. So far, attempts at counterstrikes have been hampered by a shortage of U.S. forces -- as well as a lack of local Iraqi police and functioning governments. McMaster said the regiment is now conducting aggressive offensive operations across the region that have netted more than a dozen insurgents.
A Fateful Decision
On the southern edge of the triangle, Capt. Ryan Seagreaves, of Allentown, Pa., told McMaster that he needed engineers to reinforce and expand his austere base so that there would be room for more Iraqi forces. He said he also needed dirt to fill protective barriers. Iraqi contractors are so terrified to work in the area that a convoy of 10 earth-filled dump trucks recently refused to travel south to McMaster's base. One driver fainted when told the destination, he said.
The local government council has been in disarray since its leader was assassinated this month, and there are no Iraqi police officers in the town, Seagreaves said. His snipers and tank patrols are growing exhausted from spending days at a time on the streets and in observation posts watching for insurgents -- the only way soldiers can keep them at bay.
"These guys have done a good job sucking it up, but they can't suck it up forever," Seagreaves said. McMaster promised to ask for reinforcements.
Our convoy stopped at a spartan U.S. sniper outpost overlooking a bridge spanning the meandering, jade-green Euphrates. Both American forces and insurgents seek to gain advantage by blocking or destroying bridges and roads. Currently, U.S. troops have barred all traffic on three nearby bridges including this one, which is laced with barbed wire. Soldiers recently shot an Iraqi man who ignored warnings and attempted to cross.
As we prepared to leave, I switched to McMaster's Humvee, trading places with a lanky, gray-bearded interpreter from Michigan nicknamed "Uncle," who declined to be identified further.
Life Fades Away
Ten minutes later, we were hit. McMaster radioed the regiment: "Rifle X-ray, this is Rifle Six," he said. "We have contact IED [explosives] and small-arms fire. Request aviation immediately. I need medevac and air support," he said, his tone measured but urgent.
He looked up at his gunner: "Focus on security, Dillard!"
Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles carrying reinforcements came roaring down the road toward us and dropped their rear hatches. The infantrymen rushed out and crouched alongside a wall to direct their fire at a farmhouse adjacent to the bomb crater. One Bradley fired a few rounds, and the infantry squad swept into the house and detained five men.