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.
Half an hour passes as the convoy inches along Michigan. Then it suddenly halts. The Army crew has spotted a pressure-plate bomb ahead -- an improvised explosive device that is detonated by the weight of a passing vehicle -- and decides to destroy it in place.
"The insurgents like to place IEDs out here, and when we stop to clear it, they like to attack," says Sgt. Peter Maningat, 28, of San Diego, who commands the last Humvee in the convoy.
Five minutes later, a voice crackles over the radio with a warning: A nearby patrol saw two men planting a bomb and shot at them, but they ran off.
The tension mounts as 45 more minutes drag by with no movement. By now, everyone is drenched in sweat.
"Stay low in the gun," Maningat calls up to machine gunner Lance Cpl. Jason Harley, 21, of New York. Then a yellow light flashes, illuminating the pockmarked buildings along Michigan and a street strewn with glass and debris. The sound of a deep thud is heard. "That was pretty big," Harley says of the destroyed bomb.
"They're rolling," Maningat calls.
"All right, we're rolling," says driver Cpl. Samuel Trebino, 21, of San Diego.
It is midnight. A full moon, reflected in wide, black pools of raw sewage in the street, makes it easier for insurgents to see convoys, reducing the advantage of U.S. troops wearing night-vision goggles. The silhouettes of palm trees sway eerily in the breeze. Intently focused, the Marines exchange few words -- their silence, as is often the case, commensurate to the danger of the mission.
Another radio call warns of three men in the vicinity, two carrying AK-47 assault rifles and one with a possible rocket-propelled grenade. "The building to the right, is that someone crouching down?" Maningat calls to Harley.
Ahead, the Army vehicles look like creatures from "War of the Worlds," their gangly arms probing the road as their search lights scan the windows and rooftops of abandoned buildings for triggermen. They near the hulking Saddam Mosque.
Suddenly, with a loud boom and flash of lights and smoke, an undetected bomb explodes under the engineers.
"We just got hit!" Maningat yells to Trebino. "Pull to the right. Stop," he says, positioning the Humvee to defend against an attack from the rear. Harley, swiveling his .50-caliber machine gun in constant motion, spots a tracer round but nothing more.
Insurgents lying in wait had detonated the bomb, which damaged an engineer vehicle but caused no casualties. A short while later, the convoy limps on.
Two hundred yards to the right, a red star cluster shoots into the sky -- a signal used by insurgents. But within moments, the convoy enters a protected stretch of road lined with concrete and earthen barriers.
"The next 500 meters or so is a safe zone," says Maningat. After a nearly three-hour slog to cover a few miles of road, the last Humvee crosses into the military camp at the far end of Michigan.
The Marines lean back, visibly relieved, and Trebino says what's on everyone's mind: "We made it."