A Sense of Satisfaction, Then Anguish

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 11, 2008

TAIYEH, Iraq -- The distress call rang out over the radio. In the midst of one of the largest current military operations in Iraq, Capt. Mike Stinchfield recognized this was, so far, his most urgent mission of the day.

A captured insurgent? A fallen comrade? Not quite. A local woman had gone into labor, and within minutes about 18 U.S. soldiers endeavored to help.

"That's a lot of men to secure a baby," said Stinchfield, 37, of Vancouver, Wash., the commander of Company H, 3rd Squadron of the Army's 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. "But that's what this war is like. It's slow and boring most days, and not much happens."

Thousands of U.S. soldiers are moving against one of the largest known concentrations of fighters from the group al-Qaeda in Iraq here in a 50-square-mile pocket of Diyala province known as the Bread Basket. Company H expected resistance from 40 to 50 fighters from the Sunni insurgent group, but most of them appeared to have fled by the time the unit rolled in.

In the end, Company H didn't fight a single person. What had been envisioned as a combat mission instead became a day of emergency-service work, hours of boredom and finally tragedy, as word of fallen comrades reached them over the radio inside their Strykers, eight-wheel armored vehicles.

"I'm sitting here eating Cheez Whiz and Cheez-Its, which I realize might seem weird," Stinchfield said. "But I'd rather be doing things like delivering a baby than shooting people."

It was just past noon Wednesday, Day 2 of this offensive in the fertile Diyala River valley. The soldiers had been given the location of a suspected local leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the village of Al Ali.

But when they arrived at the home of the man, known as Abu Ayeesha, he was nowhere to be seen. His wife refused to answer questions.

The village was quiet. A teenager rode past on a bicycle carrying a lumpy sack on the back. Stinchfield stopped him.

"It's flour! Just flour!" the boy pleaded in Arabic to the military interpreter.

Stinchfield didn't respond. He looked at the boy's black coat, with the name Oscar embroidered in gold.

"Is your name Oscar?" he asked.

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