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Reporters' notebook

IN THE MIDDLE EAST—In more than five years of flying, the F-117 stealth fighter pilot had never experienced such a pit in his stomach.

As he approached Baghdad on Friday night to bomb two "high value" command and control targets, he saw flashes of yellow, orange and white in the air and on the ground from Iraqi troops firing at the planes.

The pilot—a captain, interviewed by telephone at an undisclosed base in the Middle East—said he'd spent that afternoon thinking about what could go wrong. And the pilot, who would identify himself only by his call sign, Fo'ty, said he'd thought about his wife and their two daughters, ages 3 and 1, back at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Fo'ty hoped the air bursts wouldn't hit him, then made himself focus. He said he told himself this was what he was trained to do, squeezing the red button on his control stick and unleashing two laser-guided bombs. He tracked them for a few seconds, until they became fireballs. Bull's-eye.

"Mission accomplished," he thought. "I felt like I did my part."


NEAR THE IRAQ BORDER—For many military personnel on this air base at an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf, the greatest fear is not the impact of a missile so much as what it may be carrying: deadly vapors, toxic liquids, nerve agents strong enough to adhere to paint.

That's where the biochemical teams come in.

"Our job is to detect, warn and teach others how to survive and operate," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. "Stan," of Charles Town, W.Va. He asked that his last name not be used to protect the safety of his two teenage sons, one of whom, incidentally, is protesting the war.

"This is where we earn our money," said Air Force Master Sgt. Willie Johnson, 43, of Waldorf, Md., and a 25-year veteran. Johnson, a reservist on active duty for a year, was deployed out of Andrews Air Force Base to work on the "Readiness" team, a unit charged with "taking care" of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.

If a missile lands on the base, the biochemical teams fan out to specific areas of the base in SUVs equipped with vapor monitors, which have tubes leading to the outside air.

Keeping in contact by radio, the teams drive to sensors placed around the base that are designed to sound a shrill alarm upon detecting chemical weapons. The sensors are placed with wind patterns in mind.

"It's a pretty hard-core job," said Air Force Senior Airman Ernesto Portunato, 23, a Miami native deployed from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "But if we mess up any sample, it could affect war crimes prosecution against Saddam."

They see the work as essential, and gratifying.

"There is a lot of self-actualization knowing that you allow everyone on base a way to survive," said Johnson. "Everyone is counting on this."


HIGHWAY 1, Iraq—After pushing 100 miles through the desert, a company of Marine reservists driving amphibious vehicles wound up dealing with dozens of surrendering, tattered Iraqi soldiers.

"You can see them coming for a mile, in pairs across the desert," said Sgt. Shane Scara of Ocean Springs, Miss., a member of the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, with units in Mississippi, Virginia, Florida and Texas.

The docile prisoners have been kept in an enclosure made of white string hung on stakes, given water and questioned. Few have uniforms. One in four has no shoes.

The company of 27-ton amphibious vehicles, each carrying about 20 infantrymen, is expected to head for Baghdad on Sunday, joining a massive convoy.

Near the encampment of amphibious vehicles, a small group of Iraqis fired on U.S. troops and was quickly subdued by fire from helicopters. Another group surrendered without firing a shot. Few who show up at the camp have weapons.

Friday night, Marines on a broken-down vehicle were startled by voices in the darkness. "We were in the prone position, with our M-16s," said Cpl. Michael Black of Gulfport, Miss. It was a group of Iraqis, approaching to surrender.

The Iraqis fell to the ground in submission at the first shout from a Marine. No shots were fired.


(Peter Smolowitz, Sara Olkon and Patrick Peterson contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.