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Despite handover, U.S. troops battle insurgents with no end in sight

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq—While President Bush trumpets the June 28 handover of sovereignty to Iraq's interim government as ushering in a new era of promise in Iraq, men like Kamil Sztalkoper are still in the middle of a combat zone.

Sztalkoper, 26, a 1st Lieutenant in the 1st Infantry Division, was scheduled Monday to take a 50-minute ride with a convoy north from a base outside Baqubah to another base near the town of Muqdadiyah. The young lieutenant, wearing a crisp uniform and glasses that made him look a little bookish, was thinking about war and death.

"You get taught to do symmetrical fighting, but here in Iraq it's a guerilla war, where it's not just in front of you, it's behind you, it's on the rooftops, it's below you in the sewers," said Sztalkoper. "You never know, we may be on this convoy in a few minutes and get hit by a (roadside bomb) or maybe a (bomb), five rocket propelled grenades and a squad-sized group of fighters."

About an hour later, he was riding down the road when a low boom and a cloud of dust kicked up in front of him. A roadside bomb had hit a humvee. Some of his men were hurt, and the day was going to be a bad one.

The number of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq dipped on June 28-29, falling to 20 to 25 a day, but they soon kicked back up to the recent trend of 35 to 45 a day, said a top military official in Baghdad.

"We are probably not going to be fighting much different on July 15 than we did on June 15, and frankly, possibly not much different on August 15 than we were on May 15," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The bottom line, the official said, is that while the creation of a new Iraqi government with sovereign power has created a sense of goodwill among many Iraqis, guerilla-style ambushes and fighting are going to be around for a long time to come.

"It's not going to take days nor weeks, it's going to be months and years," he said.

Since coming in March to the Diyala province, where the brigade is based, the 3rd brigade of the 1st Infantry Division unit has had 18 soldiers killed and 141 wounded. In June alone, 3rd brigade soldiers were hit by 88 roadside bombs.

The bombs are a good indicator of the insurgency's ferocity, said Maj. Craig Schnell, an intelligence officer for the brigade. They are effective, he said, both in terms of casualties and in making a point to the community at large: "If you hit a truck (with a bomb), you can see us dragging soldiers out."

During one day of fighting on June 24 in the town of Baqubah, the brigade killed at least 60 men and wounded at least 60.

"I don't know what the right answer is for how they're able to keep coming back," said Lt. Col. Keitron Todd.

The bomb Monday appeared to have been caused by a couple of artillery shells wrapped with explosives. The shrapnel tore through a humvee's doors and smashed its windshield.

One burst of gunfire sounded like an AK-47, then another sounded like a U.S. military .50-caliber machine gun. Sztalkoper jumped out of his truck. People were yelling "Medic! Medic! Medic!"

Soon Sztalkoper was standing in the middle of the road holding a saline bag. Two soldiers were on the ground in front of him; one a staff sergeant with shrapnel wounds to his lower legs who was able to talk, another a sergeant whose legs and feet were badly mangled and who was slipping in and out of consciousness.

The staff sergeant moaned and whimpered.

Sztalkoper, his face pale, leaned down and ran his hands through the man's hair, saying "You OK? You're doing good, you're doing fine."

The afternoon sun beat down; it was above 110 degrees, and curious Iraqis stood in doorways and watched.

A medic tore through her bag, looking for the right bandages.

"Talk to me baby, talk to me baby, you're doing good," said a solider crouched by the more seriously wounded sergeant.

An officer standing to the side filled out field-report slips—small, white pieces of paper—listing the time of attack, the place, the mens' names and a description of their injuries. The slips were pinned to the buttonholes of torn, bloody shirts.

The wounded soldiers were taken back to the base near Baqubah. The two humvees that escorted the ambulance stayed at the medical center for only 10 minutes, then raced back to join the convoy. The soldiers at the gate saluted them as they left.

A pair of Kiowa helicopters were flying back and forth over the scene, skimming the tree line of a palm grove, looking for the insurgents who detonated the bomb.

Looking at the Kiowas, Sgt. Andrew Cunningham shook his head and said the guys responsible were probably long gone.

"The Iraqis want us to leave," Cunningham said, "but (stuff) like this isn't going to make it happen any quicker."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq

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