MUSAYYIB, Iraq—Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Cremer listened carefully as Army Capt. Irvin Oliver described the upcoming mission. They'd raid a compound of houses the next morning; a map was sketched on the ground in chalk lines of yellow, blue and white.
Oliver looked at the soldiers bunched around him and reminded them that aerial photographs had showed at least 17 people in the compound the night before, and that they were looking for just one—an insurgent cell leader suspected of orchestrating roadside bombs that'd killed American soldiers.
Be careful, Oliver told his men, not to get shot. And be careful, the company commander said, not to shoot any unarmed civilians.
Despite those warnings, last Thursday's mission would serve as a reminder that counterinsurgency is among the most complex forms of warfare, and sometimes the wrong people are killed.
While outrage gathers over the reported killings of 24 civilians by U.S. Marines in the western Iraqi town of Haditha, U.S. military units such as Oliver's Delta Company quietly go about the daily task of patrolling a very complicated battlefield.
As part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, Oliver's soldiers are responsible for an area south of Baghdad where there are Sunni Muslim insurgents who kill U.S. soldiers, Shiite militiamen who kill Sunni families, Sunni insurgents who kill Shiite Muslim families, and an assortment of smugglers and criminals.
Most Iraqis are caught in between, just trying to make it to the next day.
Cremer's job on this mission was to make sure that Oliver, 31, from Sierra Vista, Ariz., and his men had the clearest possible picture of the line between friend and foe. He is, in military jargon, a Joint Terminal Attack controller—the front line of the U.S. Air Force. Cremer (pronounce CRAY-mer) rides into missions with Army soldiers and, by watching real-time video streamed down from F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, looks for insurgents on the run and signs of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The 29-year-old from Modesto, Calif., can call for a barrage of 500-pound bombs, and he can call for illumination rockets to be sure innocents aren't killed.
It's often a gray line, said Staff Sgt. Francis Lott, who works with Cremer.
"They (the jets) look for anything suspicious, but everything's suspicious around here," said Lott, 25, of Clarksville, Tenn. "It's a big game of hide and seek. You're fighting people where you can't tell who's who. You can't tell the good guys from the bad guys in Iraq."
The convoy rolled out of its forward operating base just after 1 a.m., a line of tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees.
As the tires and tracks crunched across the ground, dirt flew in the night air, making it hard, for a moment, to see the headlights. The air was cooler than the afternoon had been—around 110 degrees—but it was still hot.
Cremer was talking with a pair of F-16 pilots and a surveillance plane higher up. He cradled a receiver in each ear, going over the final details of the mission.
As they got closer to Musayyib, a small group of Humvees, including Cremer's, peeled off and rode into town. They were going to pick up a truckload of Iraqi police who hadn't been told about the operation in advance because of fears of insurgent sympathizers in the police force.
Insurgents have left their mark in the town: A suicide bomber blew himself up next to a fuel tanker last July, killing almost 100 people in a shower of fire and shrapnel.
Less than five minutes after arriving at the police station, Cremer got a call on his radio: "Be advised, the lights just went off in that area."
The pilot, watching the insurgent leader's compound, had seen every light in the group of houses get turned off.
Cremer shook his head. "These (expletive)—someone made a phone call," he said, motioning toward the police station.
The convoy left, a pickup truck of police now with it.
A few minutes later, the tanks blocked the road in and out of the compound. A sniper team set up in the distance. The Bradleys began to rumble toward the houses.
The buildings, separated by a couple of courtyards, were in a thick grove of palm trees, where a series of dirt roads ran parallel to canals fed from the Euphrates River. The dirt roads would make it easy for insurgents to dig a hole and plant a roadside bomb. The palm trees would provide better cover for insurgents trying to escape.
The Bradleys stopped and soldiers began to pour out.
The light of Cremer's computer flickered in the darkness, and he stared at the video feed, in which dark spots—soldiers—circled and entered the buildings.
It looked, he said, "like a video game."
The radio crackled with a report of one shot fired, then a second, third and finally a fourth. Soldiers called in as they cleared rooms of the seven houses. They'd come in expecting about 17 people; there were 27.
Time passed. Cremer kept watching the screen. The radio squawked: Two men and a woman were dead. The details were vague. A soldier had seen the woman and said he thought she had a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on her shoulder.
A sergeant's voice boomed on the radio: "I need to know what the (expletive) that rocket (expletive) ended up being."
Cremer called in for illumination rockets, and the white balls bounced in the air, turning night to day. The soldiers didn't find a rocket-propelled grenade or its launcher. They scoured the compound and found only two AK-47 assault rifles, common in Iraq.
The insurgent leader wasn't there. The soldiers detained a man who intelligence reports suggested was an associate.
Cremer and the rest of the convoy didn't get back to the base until after 5 a.m. They ate breakfast, did some paperwork and then passed out in their bunks.
At the mess hall later that day, Oliver said he would have to return to the compound to give the family compensation payments for the woman and probably for the two men as well, depending on whether intelligence officers determined they were insurgents.
Oliver wasn't looking forward to the trip.
Cremer's boss, Capt. Jason Earley, said there would be plenty more missions to come—bringing the chance to stop insurgents who've killed and maimed innocents, but also bringing the risk of killing the innocents themselves.
"We're trying to give these people freedom, which I think is an incredibly noble thing," said Earley, 32, of New Buffalo, Mich. But, he added, "it's complicated."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RAID