OUTSKIRTS OF BAQOUBA, Iraq – The convoy of U.S. armored vehicles creeps down the rural roads outside this central Iraqi city at nightfall, soldiers peering through the windows to spot the preferred weapon of terrorists — the roadside bomb (search).
The 18 U.S. soldiers know that as they study the heavily used routes for anything that seems unnatural, they also are being watched by insurgents hidden in dark desert.
Just the night before, gunmen fired a grenade at a convoy in the same area, and two days earlier they planted bombs along this road.
"Especially at night time, we know they're watching us," said Spc. James Acker, 25, of Worcester, Mass. He is the driver of the lead armored Humvee (search) in a patrol of soldiers from the 467th Engineering Battalion, 42nd Division, based in Millington, Tennessee.
Two years into the war, hunting for roadside bombs remains a major task that consumes both time and manpower.
The bombs — called Improvised Explosive Devices (search), or IEDs, in military jargon — have been the most lethal form of attack on U.S. soldiers, killing hundreds of the more than 1,500 service members who have died since the invasion of Iraq. Two men from Acker's division were killed by IEDs last month.
The bombs help level the playing field for guerrillas outmatched by U.S. firepower. All it takes is for someone to plant a bomb along or under a road and to pull the trigger — touching two wires together or making a cell phone call. Most attackers slip away unnoticed.
"IED is still the weapon of choice," said Maj. Ed House of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.
House said he thinks the bombs are planted by locals but are built by more organized insurgents.
"This isn't your regular Iraqi building an IED in his garage," he said.
In the region around Baqouba — a city of 300,000 people and an insurgent hotbed — more than 1,400 IEDs have exploded or been found since November 2003, according to U.S. military statistics. Since their arrival about two months ago, Acker's group has found six — five detected before detonation and one that exploded but caused no injuries.
Major roads are searched several times a day. Acker's team crawls along its assigned roads at 30-40 kph 20-25 mph.
One hour into a recent 80-kilometer (50-mile patrol), the sun dipped below the skyline, leaving a moonless night sky. Night vision goggles are helpful but often cannot locate attackers in the surrounding bumpy terrain, full of shrubs, palm trees, burning roadside garbage and abandoned buildings.
The lead Humvee's headlights revealed a dark lump in the center of the road — a dead, black dog, similar to the carcass in which the group found their first bomb. It lay precisely in the center of the road, suspicious enough to hush the three soldiers. They called in "the Buffalo," a 22-ton armored mine-clearing vehicle in their convoy.
The mammoth vehicle rumbled to the front to inspect, stopping local traffic in both lanes. Twenty minutes later the vehicle lowered its large mechanical arm and harmlessly tossed the carcass aside.
The lead Humvee then drove by a dozen idling cars, with the gunner carefully monitoring movement. Most of the Iraqis in the cars stared straight ahead without any expression.
As the convoy went down its route, Iraqi drivers were forced onto the shoulder.
Acker suddenly hit the brakes. "Tracer, right to left," he said, alerting them to gunfire off the left side of the road.
Night vision goggles were thrown on and the soldier scanned for follow-up shots. After several minutes, the shots were dismissed as celebratory gunfire, a common occurrence in the country, and the convoy cautiously proceeded.
Then a loud thump caused everyone in the Humvee to tense up.
Acker's boot had inadvertently hit the side of the vehicle.
"Scare the hell out of you?" asked Acker.
"Yes," said his gunner Jose Santiago, a 26-year-old from Kerman, California.
Several people walked down the side of the road, some waiting for taxis, others casually walking home or elsewhere before the 11 p.m. curfew.
The convoy passed through four Iraqi Army checkpoints. Initially, all were manned by several soldiers who waved the U.S. troops through, but on the return trip two of the checkpoints only had one Iraqi soldier visible each.
"Well, they could be sleeping. You just don't know, you can't ever tell," said Sgt. Dallas Bryan, 50, of Pittsburgh, the senior soldier in the patrol.
"But they're around here," he quickly added.
The danger to the Iraqi soldiers is clear — about 12 hours later, some 20 insurgents attacked a nearby Baqouba checkpoint and killed five soldiers.
Just a few miles from completing their three-hour patrol, Bryan searched for the dog carcass that had been moved at the beginning of the patrol.
"It's gone. I can't believe it's gone," said Bryan.
After a pause, Santiago said the insurgents may have carried away the carcass for use in a future attack.