- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

BAGHDAD — Under the cover of darkness, soldiers from Alpha Company, 91st Engineer Battalion, creep up a narrow alley to their target, ready to scale the front wall of a small home and seize the men who tried to attack their platoon.

First, they knock. When the gate swings open, they ask for the men in question and detain four of them. A field test reveals that the men have traces of explosives on their hands.

“This is how it’s supposed to go,” says 1st Lt. Nicolas Bradley, 27, of Salt Lake City, who led the pre-dawn raid. “This is the best part of our job, going to get the bad boys.”

The Alpha Company of the 91st Engineers has raided neighborhoods in western Baghdad every night this week.

It is searching for terror suspects and insurgents. Soldiers say every arrest they make will reduce the number of attacks against Iraqis and the multinational forces.

But with Monday’s transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government, the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division fear that their aggressive pursuit of insurgents will have to end.

“We’ve been told that after the [transition], we’ll need a warrant or something just short of a warrant to go in,” says 1st Lt. Brian Stone, 24, of Pittsburgh. “We won’t be able to do it just off suspicion anymore.”

Raids have netted so many suspects that the detention facility in Baghdad is filled to overflowing.

The detainees are suspected of attacking coalition forces with homemade bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Some are accused of dealing in weapons or organizing against coalition forces and the people who work with them.

During a routine patrol through the “valley of death” — a pair of highways that intersect in western Baghdad, where many bombs, grenades and mortars strike supply convoys — Lt. Stone gets a call to respond to reports of three potential car bombs still parked at a nearby home.

After a search of the house, three men, including one tribal sheik, test positive for traces of explosives. They are handcuffed and taken for booking.

“If we find something like we did today, then we get another bad guy off the street,” Lt. Stone said. “If we go in and we don’t find anything and it happened to be a criminal, hopefully we scared them into rethinking what they were going to do. Either that or we scare them enough to leave town and not attack us.”

As Lt. Stone’s convoy makes its way back to base with the three detainees, it receives another radio call. The crew is dispatched to pick up more men arrested by U.S. troops.

An hour later, six men in plastic handcuffs slide into an already packed Bradley Fighting Vehicle. One of the men, another sheik, is today’s “big fish.” He is known as an anti-coalition agitator and terrorist.

“Those guys want to kill me,” says Spc. Clarence Adams, 27, of Richmond, who swabbed three men for traces of explosives. “I’ve got seven kids. I’m glad we got them.”

The job is dirty and dangerous for the soldiers, but often the insurgents miss their targets and kill Iraqis.

On April 29, a mortar attack aimed at an Alpha Company patrol in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad missed its target and killed two Iraqi boys standing near the convoy. Shrapnel also severed the spinal cord of a 14-year-old boy standing nearby.

Saturday morning culminates a nearly two-month search for the men responsible for that attack. Three men are detained after a carefully planned raid that includes borrowed elements of the Navy SEALs and military intelligence.

Eight Humvees and Bradleys set out after midnight, switching off their headlights as they roll into the tight alleyways of a densely packed Ameriya neighborhood.

Soldiers knock on the front gate, and as soon as the door is opened, fill the home, taking names of everyone in the house and checking them off against their list. While the women are taken into a sitting room, a Navy SEALs team goes through cupboards, cushions and shelves, looking for items that can be used to make bombs.

Meanwhile, military intelligence soldiers begin questioning the men. They are lined up, photographed and swabbed for traces of explosives.

Sgt. Jimmy Robles, 25, swabs the hands and faces of the men with paper from an Expray kit, which detects explosive chemicals.

“Next,” he calls as he motions that he is ready to test another man. “What’s up, man? How are you doing? Nervous?”

As he sprays reactive chemicals on the test strips, a pink blush spreads across the paper. The man has tested positive for TNT.

“Alright, buddy, it’s not looking so good for you. Welcome aboard.” Questioning continues in the kitchen as more soldiers comb through the house for evidence of bombs.

“They’ve all been pitted against each other, and everybody’s lying,” says Lt. Bradley, who led the raid.

After filing a seven-page report for each of the men arrested, Lt. Bradley stays awake long enough to visit Salwan, the boy who was paralyzed from the waist down after the April mortar attack.

He and Sgt. 1st Class Sammy Sparger, 34, from Killeen, Texas, deliver $800 for a new wheelchair and bed for the boy, whose story so moved the soldiers that they persuaded 2nd Brigade leadership to donate the money.

“We’ve been perfectly content in helping Salwan,” Lt. Bradley says. “Everything else is gravy.

“We basically take away from the bad people and give to the good people.”

For every raid that yields an arrest, other visits produce nothing more than awkward apologies for waking a family in the middle of the night.

Soldiers rely on data from informants, who can be tainted by personal feuds or motives of retribution.

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