Dispatches From Iraq: Hunting Al Qaeda, Part II of III

Michael Yon is an independent journalist and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. Here is a portion of his latest dispatch exclusively for FOXNews.com.


Click here to read the full dispatch.

When we dropped ramp in the “Mechanics” section of Baqouba, and linked up with Iraqi soldiers, I heard my danger chimes peal. Minutes after we hit the ground — POW! — a shot was fired close by and dust kicked in the air. An Iraqi soldier had managed to accidentally fire a shot from his AK-47.

They are getting much better, but not there yet. I am not sure what tipped me off that this particular group of Iraqi soldiers wasn’t entirely squared-away, but that shot only underscored the feeling. Back in 2005, I would seek cover whenever Iraqi army approached. It’s not like that in 2007; they are becoming a real army, but there is still room for improvement.

Back at the COP, Capt. Morris is quick to make soldiers laugh, but out here he’s all business.

Capt. Morris spotted an oxygen factory.

“Hmmm …," he said (which made me laugh), but then he closed in to have a look. Morris was clear that his job was to accomplish the mission and secure the population even if it meant losing himself or his people. Mission comes first.

We walked and walked, and soldiers kept asking me if I was OK. Especially one soldier named Staff Sgt. Chuomg Le, who kept asking if the heat was getting to me. I kept saying I would be carrying him before he would be carrying me. He just laughed.

Other soldiers said Le is a physical animal. But one of the tricks to combat reporting that I’ve learned is you don’t have to be tougher than all the soldiers, just tougher than one. When the first one collapses, and they stop to stick an IV into him, you also get a break.

In fact, the next day three soldiers would collapse from the heat during some fighting, and two of them were so dehydrated that their veins collapsed, proving once again that you don’t have to be tougher than everyone, just the guys who don’t drink enough water. If you can beat those guys, you are like the Lion King of reporters.

Soldiers say, “I can’t believe the photographer is still standing when Sergeant So-and-So face-planted.” It’s all smoke and mirrors. I drink water like a fish and dive for every sliver of shade, thinking of the body like a battery that gets drained quickly by the heat and sun. With only so much juice, taking every sliver of shade, even if it’s only for 30 seconds, and pounding that water continuously, all adds up to a longer charge.

Al Qaeda still lurks in the area, so the farmers were happy to see us. One woman said that seeing the army out there was a blessing from God, which made the soldiers happy. There’s not a lot of happiness to be had here, but the soldiers respond when people show gratitude. It charges their batteries.

And they really love those cards from home where kindergartners and first graders ask all kinds of funny questions like, “Is it hot in the desert?” Yes, a little bit.

But along the waterways in Iraq, such as here next to the Diyala River, it’s hot and humid. Practically steaming. Even the mosquitoes must sweat here.

I watched during the Senate hearings on Sept. 11, 2007 as some senators attempted to corner Gen. Petraeus, insinuating that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the fight against Al Qaeda. It was clearly that during the initial invasion, but not today.

These photos were taken at the center of what Al Qaeda claimed to be their worldwide headquarters. Listening to some of the senators’ questions, the true magnitude of the gulf between what is happening in Iraq and what people in America think is happening in Iraq became apparent.

Some senators clearly had been doing their homework and were asking smart questions — if negative at times — but others seemed completely ignorant of the ground situation here, which adds nothing meaningful to the debate.

Click here to go to Michael Yon's Web site.


Independent journalist Michael Yon’s dispatches from Iraq appear exclusively on FOXNews.com. Click to read Yon's online magazine MichaelYon-online.com.