“It’s going to be a long fucking day,” a soldier from New Hampshire says as we walk down a dirt road surrounded by date orchards. Members of the Third Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, accompanied by Iraqi police and army units, are searching every house in the village of Kharnabat, part of a three-village sweep in response to a guerrilla attack on a nearby police station the night before. The Iraqi troops, many of them now among relatives, have given up on the house searches and are taking tea. “Usually they’re better than this,” one of the 3ID guys says. “But it’s hot.”
Most of the residents in the town are friendly and stand at their doors to invite the troops in. A few are less enthusiastic but try to accommodate, scrambling to unlock doors before troops knock them down or cut the locks. We have been walking through the town for more than six hours. By noon the temperature has reached 80 degrees, and the troops are grumbling under the weight of their sixty- to eighty-pound packs. Some of them appear ready to drop.
The mission often takes on a schizophrenic air–the unit’s medics try to help the residents wherever they can, offering care for a boy with a badly burned foot and a young child who’s head has been split open in a fall. Meanwhile, out on the street, a much-harassed soldier is threatening to arrest a local man who keeps asking the troops to return the assault rifle they have just confiscated from his home. The man says he is a doctor and needs the gun to protect his family. He was under the impression (many Iraqis are) that it is legal for him to have a gun in his house.
“You think I’m kidding?” the soldier shouts as he looks around for a pair of plastic handcuffs. “You think I’m kidding, motherfucker?”
The man relents upon seeing the cuffs. “See? ‘Motherfucker’ is a universal word.”
Back at the town’s main intersection, where Humvees have been posted along with Iraqi troops, the US soldiers are ringed by townspeople, who have come out to watch the operation after the troops arrested a man who was wounded in the previous night’s firefight. (Two others test positive for explosives.)
“At least they’re not throwing rocks,” says a soldier from Texas as he half clowns with the kids, half threatens them in an attempt to keep them back. “These people want us here, but the longer we stay…” the soldier from New Hampshire mutters.
Most of the troops on the mission are stationed at Camp Warhorse, a few miles south of Kharnabat and a couple miles east of Baquba, a city of about 300,000 that continues to be an area of guerrilla activity. Baquba is the capital of Diyala province, the 3ID’s area of operations. Two years ago the division led the charge from Kuwait to Baghdad. “We would have been in Baghdad even faster than we were if our supply lines could have kept up,” says Tarrol Peterson, who participated in the invasion as a scout and is now stationed at Warhorse as a first sergeant.