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For Searchers in Iraq, a Peerless Mission

Blackened asphalt and debris show where insurgents ambushed two Humvees, killing four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter and capturing three American soldiers.
Blackened asphalt and debris show where insurgents ambushed two Humvees, killing four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter and capturing three American soldiers. (Photos By Maya Alleruzzo -- Associated Press)

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On Sunday, al-Qaeda in Iraq-linked radicals claimed on a Web site that they had abducted the three soldiers, but they have provided no proof.

The manhunt has involved an extraordinary array of resources, including helicopters, drones, manned aircraft, forensic experts, FBI interrogators and dogs that can sniff for bombs and bodies.

"There is no force I cannot call on," Kershaw said.

Speaking at a U.S. military base in the nearby town of Yusufiyah on Thursday, he said his soldiers were following plenty of leads and performing DNA and other tests on recently unearthed equipment that could belong to the missing soldiers. His troops had searched both sides of the Euphrates, at times in rubber boats. They had drained one canal and were planning to drain another one later in the day.

When asked whether he still had hope his soldiers were alive, Kershaw replied: "Hope is not a method in this operation. It's our duty."

A few moments later, his voice choking slightly, he said: "These are my soldiers. I would be lying to you if I did say this doesn't affect me emotionally. I'm responsible for them and accountable to their families."

The brigade's soldiers worked 24-hour shifts the day after the attack to find their comrades. Many have since insisted on taking multiple shifts to search some of the most challenging terrain in Iraq. Others are constantly monitoring their radios, hoping for signs of progress. Cooks are providing midnight meals to sustain the operation round-the-clock.

"Motivation is not the problem. Fatigue is a problem," Kershaw said.

He added that the soldiers who are pushing the hardest are the ones who arrived at the scene first. "They feel like they didn't get there in time," Kershaw said.

He added that the manhunt could play a role in boosting troop morale. "You ask these guys and girls to take a lot of risks to come out here and do stuff they may not personally agree with," Kershaw said. "They've got to know that we'll do everything we can to get them back."

As he trudged down a muddy, unpaved street in Rushdi Mullah, Sgt. Zachary Garner, 21, said the attack was every soldier's biggest fear. But "seeing how big an effort we're making helps soldiers to feel more comfortable that if they were in this situation, they will be found," said Garner, who is from Indianapolis.

"At the same time, the fact that it happened scares soldiers, too. . . . I think for some it scares them to not want to come back," he continued, referring to soldiers who have finished their tours in the military and have the option to reenlist.

But others wonder, " 'Why them and not me?' So they want to come back so they feel they can make a difference."

Garner said he relies on his faith to cope, praying every time he thinks about what happened to his comrades. Lately, he's been praying 10 to 20 times a day, he said.

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