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Life in a remote US Army outpost in Iraq: IEDs, DVDs, and A/C

Doria, near Kiruk, is part of the new US counterinsurgency effort, where 110-degree heat isn't the only foe US troops face.

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On some days, Doria's soldiers carry out joint patrols with counterparts from the Iraqi Army and police. Their patrol-base commander, Capt. Jonathan Graebner, meets weekly with the mayor of Rashad, leaders of the security forces, and village leaders to help them persuade a reluctant population that the new Iraqi authorities are working for them.

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The US soldiers don't build the water projects or new schools the villages want, but they facilitate the visits of the civil-affairs assessment teams that come from Kirkuk to see what services are needed.

But Doria's soldiers are also hunting down "bad guys," the ones who pay local farm boys $100 to plant the IEDs.

As three US Humvees leave Doria on an afternoon patrol, they pass Rashad's modest high school, its classrooms silent and its windows shattered, abandoned after "terrorists" threatened teachers to either leave or be killed. They left.

The Humvees also pass under a giant elevated "wanted" poster with the images of three men sought for carrying out local terrorist acts. But the billboard also stands as an unintended symbol of the dangers facing Iraqis and foreign soldiers alike. Earlier this month, the four men from Kirkuk hired by the US military to hang the antiterror ad were ambushed and killed shortly after completing the job. Members of the Rashad police had tipped off insurgent friends that the billboard hangers had finished and were heading north on the highway, setting in motion the attack.

Plying the dusty roads that link earthen villages, the soldiers stop to discuss water needs and school supplies with village elders. Later, they assist the Iraqi police at a kidnapping scene on the highway to Tikrit.

Did the farmers plant the IED?

A three-hour tour of a few villages stretches into a seven-hour patrol after an IED misfires beneath the middle truck of the convoy. No one is hurt, no visible damage is done, and the initial assessment is that it was a small device. But the tension is suddenly palpable after an explosives disposal team arrives and reveals the IED was in fact a large, multiheaded device buried within many pounds of fuel and accelerant. It simply failed to function as designed.

"Once again, we missed our ticket home," jokes 1st Lt. Frank Walkup of Woodbury, Tenn., the patrol leader, initiating a round of tension-releasing black humor among his crew.

But the incident also sets eyes scanning the arid, deserted fields. Are the hands that planted these explosives in the ground now wrapped around a hoe or a shepherd's staff?

"It's like fighting ghosts out here," says Lieutenant Walkup. "We have a huge area to cover, and you may not see that much going on, but we have proof enough that they're out there."

Spotting a group of men and boys working on a field pump, Walkup's Humvee stops to investigate. "Is this where you came after you planted that IED in the ground?" Walkup demands. The farmers insist they know nothing.

The patrol's interpreter tells them that if they plant IEDs, they will be turned over to the Iraqi Army, "and they will torture you." The youngest of the farmers begins to cry. Lest the American soldiers see that as an admission of guilt, one of the older farmers hastens to explain: The boy is crying because his brother was recently killed by insurgents simply for selling bootleg gasoline on the highway. The farmers are allowed to resume their field work.

The patrol returns to Doria. Cumbersome body armor is stripped off, and the chow wagon beckons; The evening's fare of chicken burritos earns the cooks a little extra praise. Nightfall brings little relief from the heat, so the tents fill quickly.

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