BAGHDAD, Iraq—On Sunday night soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, hit the jackpot.
It began when a sharp-eyed, soft-spoken sergeant noticed a suspicious truck that appeared to be following his Humvee on patrol. By the time it was over, at 3 a.m. Monday, the soldiers had detained five men and seized the biggest cache of weapons they'd seen in their 10 months in the country.
It was a big success for the regiment, which typically spends its days driving along dusty streets hunting for insurgents with weapons, often finding nothing. And it had added significance coming in the midst of a string of violent insurgent attacks aimed at disrupting next Sunday's parliamentary elections.
But the night's captures were also a typically messy and incomplete affair that shows just how tough it is for soldiers to stamp out the insurgency. While they seized a startling array of weapons and explosives that could have killed hundreds of people, the men they arrested appeared to be bit players who didn't know or wouldn't reveal the source of the cache. Three other suspected insurgents may have escaped.
In their haste to exploit new information found on the raid quickly, the soldiers barged in on one family in the middle of the night by mistake, leaving a house full of sobbing women and children with only a cursory apology.
Still, these 1st Cavalry Division troops had disrupted at least one small corner of the insurgency's killing machine, a result of happenstance and luck—along with good soldiering.
From two nondescript houses they passed every day, the troops pulled out three 100-pound bags of plastic explosive, fertilizer and diesel fuel (which can be made into a bomb), 51 rocket propelled-grenade launchers, 16,000 rounds of ammunition, dozens of rifles and machine guns, and eight mobile phone-connected switches, which can be used to set off roadside bombs.
Perhaps the most chilling finds were a group of artillery shells fashioned into the kind of bomb that's routinely killed American soldiers; a pressure switch, used by suicide attackers; eight Iraqi police uniforms and several police radios; and several of the kinds of black ski masks worn by the people who've beheaded hostages on videotape.
The 1-8 Cav has uncovered a number of such caches in recent months, one reason, its soldiers think, that the frequency of attacks in their sector has diminished since November.
"The way I think about it, I may have saved my own life tonight, and hopefully a lot of other soldiers' lives as well," said Sgt. William Bowman, 29, of Fort Myers, Fla., who first spotted the truck that led to the weapons.
He was on a routine patrol with his squad, the kind they've been doing twice a day nearly every day since they arrived in southwest Baghdad last March. He noticed a white Nissan pickup pulling out of a driveway across from the city's largest Catholic church.
As it happens, soldiers had been on the lookout for a white truck that had been seen tracking American patrols. After a few minutes, they began to suspect the truck was following them, and they swerved in front of it, jumped out and pointed their rifles at the driver. He resisted, they said.
"He's a big dude—about twice my size—and he just wouldn't go quietly," said Sgt. Jason Ellis, 28, of Springfield, Mo., who split his lip in the struggle.
In the truck were three artillery rounds connected to make a bomb, six AK-47 assault rifles, eight hand grenades and a camcorder with a DVD of a man in a ski mask building a bomb.
Other soldiers arrived and took the slightly injured prisoner back to the base, while Ellis and his squad drove to the house where they'd seen the truck pulling out. On the floor in the house were machine guns, rockets, grenade launchers, silencers and bomb-making equipment.
It was only after other soldiers from the company arrived with metal detectors that they realized exactly what they had. Buried in the front yard were five barrels, with a fearsome array of rockets and explosive material inside them.
Such seizures happen frequently in this California-sized, battle-torn country, but for the company of soldiers it was a big deal. One of their buddies had been killed just a few hundred yards from the house during a November ambush.
"When I see this, I think of how many people have been killed by those weapons, and how many have been saved by us finding them," said the Iraqi interpreter, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Willy.
The neighbors, visibly frightened, said they never suspected anything amiss. The Americans wondered how so much armament could be buried in the yard without anyone seeing anything.
While soldiers searched the house, intelligence officers questioned the man they'd arrested. He told them he'd just been hired to transport weapons in the truck, soldiers said, and didn't know who hired him. The soldiers put him in a Humvee, and he led them to another house in the neighborhood, in which he said insurgents were living.
While the soldiers raided that house, three men appear to have escaped from the house next door, the soldiers said later. Another cache of weapons was found in that next-door house.
In the house the driver had led them to, the soldiers found a large collection of medical supplies, and detained the three men who'd been living there. They also arrested an Iraqi police officer who lived next door.
While this was happening, Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Rodney Schmucker, 30, of Latrobe, Pa., was leading a group of men to raid an address he found on a document in the first house, the one with the buried weapons. His men jumped the gate and ran into the structure screaming, rifles pointed. Within a few minutes, the Americans realized they had the wrong address.
"Hey, Willy, do the whole apology thing and whatever," Ellis said, as the men tromped out of the house. The interpreter told the family the Americans were only trying to help them be safe.
Later, outside the second house, four men were on their knees facing the gate, their arms bound behind them with plastic cuffs. One of the men turned to look at Willy, and the interpreter, who hides his identity to protect his life, kicked him and cursed him.
The soldiers say such incidents should be viewed in the context of the dark landscape they navigate every day, a place where a faceless enemy is trying to kill and maim them—and anyone who cooperates with them.
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RAID