In Ramadi, Steel Nerves Needed for Night Ride

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq -- A red sun sinks behind a dusty row of tents at Camp Ramadi, and another shift begins for the dogged crew of soldiers and Marines who nightly scour this city's streets for bombs.

Finding them is never a problem -- the trick is to make sure they don't blow up first.

Insurgents planted more than 240 bombs on Ramadi's roads over 30 days from mid-June to mid-July. Half of the bombs were spotted and destroyed; the other half found their targets. Across the country, the devices are the biggest killer of U.S. forces.

Many streets in this insurgent stronghold in western Iraq are so laced with hidden explosives that American troops are routinely ordered not to drive on them. But it is imperative for the U.S. military to keep open the main highway running through the city. So as darkness descended one night last month, a few dozen men readied their gear and steeled their nerves for the ride down Route Michigan.

"Did you shake off what happened last time?" a Marine commander asks the men huddled around him.

"Oorah," they reply.

On their previous mission, four Marines were wounded when a suicide bomber in a black BMW detonated his car beside one of their vehicles. That was considered fortunate.

"Maybe it's all your hard work. Or maybe someone's looking out for us. Bottom line, we got lucky," the commander says. He pauses to look around at the faces of his men. "Who has a prayer?"

A Marine steps forward, and everyone bows their heads. "Dear Lord, we come before you as your humble servants. This night, once again, as we go out on your business, bring us home safe."

No one says a word as the convoy lurches forward. Weapons are loaded, with the cold ring of metal on metal, and at 10:45 p.m. the vehicles growl out the gate.

Crawling ahead are the monstrous bomb-clearing vehicles of the Army's 54th Engineer Battalion, with their long robotic arms and powerful light beams. Just four days earlier, three soldiers from that battalion were killed and another fatally wounded when a massive bomb ripped into their vehicle along this route.

Marines from an artillery unit, Tango Battery of 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, follow in Humvees to provide security and fight off any attackers. Lately, they say, violence has spiked as U.S. troops push deeper into Ramadi and insurgents lash back. "We've just knocked the beehive out of the tree," explains 1st Sgt. Jeff Barnett, 38, of Oceanside, Calif.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company