Iraq Journal: Guns in the Desert

Michael J. Totten is an independent journalist reporting on the war in Iraq. Here is a portion of his latest journal entry provided exclusively for

Click here to visit Michael J. Totten's Web site.

The Humvee slammed to a halt on the desert road between Fallujah and the town of Al Farris. I peered around the driver's head from the back seat and tried to figure out what was happening.

“Why are we stopping?” I said.

“IED,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

I swallowed and took the lens cap off my camera.

“Where?” I said.

All five Humvees in our convoy had stopped and pulled to the side of the road. None had been hit.

“We think there's one buried off the road around here.”

Two soldiers, including Sergeant Guerrero, stepped out of the vehicle. “Can I get out, too?” I said. I had no idea how long we would stop or if they would even let me out of the truck.

“Sure,” Sergeant Guerrero said. “You can get out.”

All IEDs are dangerous no matter how much body armor you're wearing if you're standing anywhere nearby when they explode. Some create small explosions that are merely intended to harass convoys. Others are formidable anti-tank mines. A smaller number create explosions as big as air strikes and will absolutely destroy you if you're not inside a heavily armored vehicle. The term IED, short for improvised explosive device, is used to describe just about any explosive that isn't discharged from a weapon.

Below is a video of a gigantic IED explosion that looks as big as a monstrous daisy cutter bomb. Imagine standing anywhere near that when it went off.

Click here to watch the video.

I slowly pushed open the vault-thick up-armored door and stepped out into the desolate countryside of Al Anbar. An Iraqi Police truck was parked in the desert a few hundred feet to our right. I hoped there wasn't an IED trigger man lurking somewhere who was waiting for all of us to expose ourselves.

An Iraqi Police officer joined us and led us to a group of his colleagues standing around with shovels in their hands.

“It's actually a weapons cache,” he said. “Not an IED. It's out here somewhere.”

Most of the American troops in the Fallujah area are Marines, but these were regular Army soldiers and Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. They and the Iraqi Police officers have forged a straightforward agreement with the civilians in the area: we'll protect you from insurgents if you'll identify them and lead us to their IEDs and weapons caches. Someone from the nearby village of Al Bahuri had just called in a tip to the Iraqis. Their job was to find the cache and destroy it in a controlled detonation. No one had a metal detector, though, and they weren't sure where, exactly, the cache was buried.

“The Blackhawk guys ought to come out here,” Sergeant Guerrero said.

We joined the Iraqis with their shovels. Several shallow holes had been dug into the ground. They were looking for the cache, but didn't know where it was. The caller who phoned in the tip told the Iraqis he saw insurgents burying a gigantic crate the size of a shipping container, but he could only narrow down the location within 100 meters. The same source had earlier reported a cache of rockets. The Iraqi Police found those rockets, so they figured the source was reliable.

I looked for freshly dug dirt. If this cache were really the size of a shipping container, there should be a large area where the ground was disturbed.

Our Iraqi interpreter Karim found a small section of soft dirt, retrieved a shovel from an Iraqi Police officer, and started digging.

I kept scouting the ground. I wasn't a part of the Army unit, obviously. I'm a journalist. But I felt useless just standing around while Karim worked the shovel. I might as well help out a little and occupy myself in some way. And besides, it was cold outside. I needed to walk around to stay warm. Iraq's climate is a ferocious blast furnace during the summer, but winter is hardly warmer than it is in my native Pacific Northwest.

There was a small amount of trash laying around. I looked carefully for piles of cigarette butts and spit-out sunflower seeds which might suggest insurgents had been there.

“The insurgents are very good at hiding caches,” Sergeant Phillips said.

“What do you suppose is in this cache?” I said.

“It's hard to say exactly,” he said. “Probably AK-47s and RPGs. Maybe some artillery shells.”

I walked over to Sergeant Guerrero.

“Are you going to ask the locals what they know?” I said.

“Nah,” he said. “That's their deal. The Iraqi Police have their sources. We're their liaisons, their trainers. We're not in charge anymore. We're just here to help them become police officers instead of paramilitaries.”

Click here to read the full journal entry by Michael J. Totten.