Lance Cpl. Michael Piacentini bends down, carefully removes a burlap sack and starts gently probing a mound of sand underneath with the blade of his six-inch steel knife.
In a country where one of the biggest threats to marines are hidden homemade bombs, dirt never looked so suspicious. The second leading cause of death among US troops in Iraq are improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Last Thursday, 10 Marines on foot patrol were killed and 11 wounded by a roadside IED near Fallujah, Iraq, in one of the deadliest attacks on American troops in recent months, the Marine Corps announced on Friday. They were hit by an IED made from several large artillery shells strung together, said a statement.
As a result, every patrol in Iraq includes a watch for IEDs.
In western Iraq near the Syrian border, Corporal Piacentini continues to probe the mound of sand, then calls out to his unit waiting on the road a few feet away: "It's good."
No IED this time.
For Marines trying to secure this stretch of the Euphrates River that pours across Iraq's border with Syria, Piacentini's method for detecting the bombs is often the standard, yet dangerous, operating procedure.
A 110-pound black German Shepard named Bingo works with Piacentini, sniffing suspicious holes in the ground, mounds of garbage, or debris placed a little too strategically.
"Beats me poking at it with a knife," says Piacentini, an East Hampton, Conn., native whose only eye protection is a pair of aviator sunglasses that he wears even at night. While serving in Afghanistan last year, he lost some vision in his left eye after an IED went off under a truck he was riding in.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams - equipped with signal-jamming radar, robots, and spacesuit-like protective gear - specialize in detecting and detonating IEDs. But most days there aren't enough Bingo's or EOD teams to go around. So, Marines on patrol tend to gently poke anything suspicious, and snip the wires of the bombs they discover themselves.
"We're a mechanized assault platoon. We've got to keep moving so we do it ourselves," says Gunnery Sgt. Jeffery Daniels, who commands a platoon that conducts the most patrols and so ends up handling most of the IEDs in New Obaeidi. "If there's an EOD [team] in the area, we'll call them and sit on it. [But] there's not enough EOD [teams] to go around."
The Marines of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Regiment have spent the last three weeks fighting insurgents in this area of western Iraq. The 500-pound bombs have stopped falling and the insurgent gunfire in the streets has quieted. But most marines say the slow stalking of IEDs is a far worse enemy.
With "the gunfire you know where the enemy is. Here ... you don't know where. You're just like, 'God, I hope I don't step on anything'. It's a real nerve-wracking job," says Sgt. Don Rueger of Detroit.
Insurgents continue to refine their bomb- making techniques. After marines started using metal detectors to find IEDs, which are often made up of old artillery shells, some of the insurgents developed wooden ignition devices with less metal. Pressure plates are one of the innovations.
When a vehicle or person steps on a box or long tube connected to the bomb, two metal plates - one on top, one on the bottom - meet and set off the bomb, which may be several feet away but is connected by wires.
"If it's a pressure plate, we cut the wires and take the battery off. We dig around looking for wires," says Sergeant Daniels. "Ninety percent of the time we just take care of it ourselves."
When wires or an artillery shell are discovered there is a scramble to find a pressure plate, and failing to find one, to get out of the range of shrapnel in case an insurgent is waiting nearby to detonate the bomb remotely. "We don't find too many remote-controlled IEDs. We usually find them when they explode," Daniels says wryly.
Most patrols include a combat engineer or assaultman who have some training in handling explosives. They walk ahead of the patrol, sweeping the street with a metal detector. "I'm not a good carpenter but I know what to do with explosives," says Cpl. Charles Ziegler, explaining why he's a combat engineer as he comes across a pile of dirt and rocks he doesn't like the look of.
The marines poke and pick up suspicious objects dozens of times during each hours-long patrol. Every day or two, a patrol turns up an IED and the discovery is a point of pride. The marines crow about their IED finds and compete for the most.
The marines quickly gain an eye for potholes that get filled in from one day to the next, suspiciously broken pieces of asphalt, or the tiniest piece of exposed wire that hint an IED has been planted. They look for so called "lollipops" - a thin line (buried signal wires) leading to a hole in the road (where a bomb or pressure plate is planted). On a bend in the road leading to their base, Ziegler's patrol spots one.
"It's a perfect lollipop," says Cpl. Sean Thompson, Seminole, Fla., as he jumps out of a humvee and begins poking his knife into a hole. Ziegler, the engineer on the patrol, looks on while waving his metal detector. He finds nothing.
"I'll never look at potholes the same again," says the Toledo, Ohio, native.