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Searching tunnel complex, U.S. soldiers end up `chasing shadows'

BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT—Sometimes you pull a good mission in combat. Other times you pull a bad one.

A bad mission can mean you lose guys. It can also mean you end up chasing shadows.

First Platoon Apache Company 1-30th Infantry pulled a bad mission Sunday when it was sent to clear out a tunnel complex under the Baghdad airport's main terminal. The order came after a group of Special Forces guys reported hearing people moving around below them. Saturday, Iraqis had been spotted running into a tunnel entrance near the main terminal building.

"There could be 12 to 15 guys down there," a Special Forces officer named Troy said as he sketched a diagram in the sand during a briefing for 1st Platoon. "Nobody knows how big it is, or where it goes. If there's anybody down there it could be a mean fight."

An hour later, more than 30 men from Apache Company quickly went down an escalator to a basement dining room underneath baggage claim. Soldiers dropped to one knee, fixing night vision devices to their helmets. The tunnel was through a door that read "Staff only." A group of psychological operations specialists went in first and announced through a loudspeaker in Arabic that American soldiers were coming in. Anyone who was inside and surrendered would not be harmed.

A pair of 7-Up and Red Bull cans sat on a nearby table, evidence that someone was in the tunnel. The platoon was on edge. "We don't have much intel on what might be in there," said Pvt. Ryan Boyle, 19, of Pompton Lakes, N.J. Safeties clicked on and off and back on again as soldiers checked their weapons.

Five minutes later, a whisper came down the line. "We're moving."

The soldiers disappeared one by one into the darkness. Blue chemical glow sticks marked a trail on the floor of the tunnel. The tunnel looked like an area where vehicles moved from one area of the airport to the other underground, like a fuel delivery area. But no one knew what was there. Soldiers splashed through water as they hurried down the corridor. Commands were whispered in a low murmur of voices.

The corridor appeared to be about 20 feet high and 20 feet wide and stretched for hundreds of yards in either direction. The darkness was total, consuming and disorienting.

Ghost lights trailing from night vision devices flickered in the darkness. One soldier stumbled and fell. Machine gun ammunition clanged loudly in a box. The platoon moved from one room to the next in the next hour and a half. Each was empty. Suddenly they were back in the main corridor. Light fluttered in from one end, from the airfield.

"We're going the wrong way," said 1st Lt. Jerzey Matyszczuk, 29, of Jeleni Gora, Poland. "We're supposed to be going the other way. We're supposed to be going north behind the tower."

Apache's commander, Capt. John Whyte, of Billerica, Mass., pulled out a flashlight and swung it up at a sign, which pointed to a terminal marked DC. "Maybe one of these signs points to the tower," he said.

The soldiers doubled back. Soon they went past the last glow-stick chem light and turned into a narrow tunnel. They were engulfed in total darkness again. Gas pipes lined the walls. They stumbled in the darkness, and after a couple of hundred meters, reached a maze of scaffolding that was bathed in a shaft of light from the airfield above.

Matyszczuk, known as Maty, who has a thick Polish accent, climbed up the scaffolding and stuck his head up through the ground. "We're at the tower, sir," he called down to Whyte. "What a waste of time," Whyte said.

Maty yelled out at someone on the airfield, "Hey, we're friendlies over here. Don't shoot."

Soldiers in the darkness began to laugh. "Hey sir, maybe we ought to get someone up there who sounds like an American."

Outside Staff Sgt. Charles Newman, 25, of Gulfport, Miss., smoked a cigarette. "They really pulled the wool over our eyes with this one," he said.

But the day wasn't all bad. When 1st Platoon made it back to camp, they discovered someone had set up an impromptu wash area with a fire hydrant and a 55-gallon drum behind the airport's VIP lounge. The men of 1st Platoon immediately stripped off combat gear, grabbed clean uniforms, towels and soap. It was their first bath in a month.


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