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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Darkness Hides Line Between Hunters and Hunted

Marines on night patrol, searching for insurgents on a key supply route, are extra vigilant in the battle against snipers, ambushes and mines.

June 24, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

IN WESTERN IRAQ — The Milky Way arcs overhead: a sweep of stars so vivid as to resemble glitter shot across the bone-dry desert sky. For all its dazzle, though, the galaxy offers barely a flicker of gauzy light to the sand and rock below.

In military terms, there is only 1% illumination of the battlefield.

Time to go hunting. Time to be hunted.

The impending transfer of governing authority over Iraq fades to abstraction for Marines pressing the relentless war against insurgency and terrorism in Iraq.

Marines preparing to strike "outside the wire" of their bases believe that insurgents especially prize the killing of a Marine as a way to bloody America's pride.

As midnight approaches, two thoughts gather in the mind of squad leader Sgt. Andrew Hewuse of Colorado Springs. The first concern is the men of his patrol -- his 17 young enlisted Marines. Hewuse, a fleshy, big-smiling, slightly rumpled man, served three years in Army artillery and has put in four years as a Marine infantryman. Preparing for combat patrol is a process of assembling weaponry and equipment, checking radio frequencies, plotting routes, rehearsing procedures, planning for the worst and psyching up Marines who have been in the fight for months.

The second thought in the sergeant's mind is personal.

"I hope to God I make it out of this patrol alive." He continues: "It's a roller coaster out there. You never know. You drive through town and people are waving. Why are they waving? Are they saying hello? Are they signaling to an ambush ahead?"

The primary mission now for Marines spread out across the desert and unstable cities west of Baghdad is to prepare police and civil defense forces for the return of Iraqi sovereignty Wednesday. The other half of the job is to hunt the insurgents.

It is a round-the-clock battle against ambushes, snipers, landmines and, most frequently, against those who almost daily plant 155-millimeter artillery shells, or bundles of shells, along supply routes.

At 12:56 a.m., weapons bristling and rounds chambered, Hewuse directs his patrol through the sandbagged gate. He rides in the first of three menacing turret-mounted Humvee "gun trucks." A troop-carrier Humvee fills out the patrol -- Hunter 3 squad of Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, from Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Hewuse reports via radio: "We have departed friendly lines." In the distance, towns and villages along the Euphrates River glow like distant campfires. Otherwise, darkness is as complete as the inside of a suitcase.

Five hours ago and only a few miles away, three Marines were wounded by a remotely triggered roadside bomb -- what is known as an improvised explosive device. In just a few hours, on the same road Hewuse will travel twice, another IED will explode and kill three Iraqis.

The terms of engagement against patrols are almost always the foe's to decide.

Marines vary their tactics against an enemy that is likewise fluid in the struggle for surprise and advantage. Tonight, Hewuse decides to run his lead truck with headlights on, as if he is a lone civilian traveling a highway. The rest of the squad follows at intervals in darkness, ready to pounce.

Hewuse sits in the front passenger seat of his dirty, beat-up truck. This is his 73rd combat patrol in Iraq. His driver is Cpl. Estefan Encarnacion of San Jose, Costa Rica, who has served 3 1/2 years in the Marines. In the backseat rides Pfc. Mike Sumner of Pekin, Ill. In the turret, behind a heavy .50-caliber machine gun, is Pfc. David Lara of Tehachapi, Calif. Sumner and Lara have exactly one year and a day in the Marine Corps. The last seat belongs to a reporter.

The names of each person on patrol have been recorded at headquarters, along with Social Security numbers and blood types. With dark humor, the Marines call this the "kill roster."

Hunter 3's route tonight covers a stretch of Highway 12, the primary road between Baghdad and the Syrian border. For the Marine Corps this is the main supply artery for the western reaches of the country; for insurgents it is a prime supply route and gateway into the country. At night, it is the front line in the fight over Iraq's future.

Hunter 3 will patrol the two-lane asphalt highway until dawn. Craters pockmark both shoulders of the highway and many of the small bridges. The good news is that most of these explosives missed their targets, or they were discovered and detonated before they had a chance to kill. The bad news is that insurgents are becoming more sophisticated.

The inside of a Humvee is cramped, claustrophobic -- more so in the dark. On the other hand, the hours after midnight offer respite from the searing sun. The night air along the Euphrates is mild. At another time under different circumstances, one would describe it as delightfully so.

Urgent voices.

Hewuse and his driver see a mysterious flashing light in the village just ahead. Is a lookout signaling their approach to men waiting in ambush? Stomachs knot.

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