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Troops 'roll the dice' with push into Triangle of Death

By Arwa Damon
CNN
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.

YUSIFIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- In the distance, explosions are heard -- it could be anything. The American soldiers don't even look up.

Their focus is on reading the land. To the untrained eye it looks benign. But for them it is filled with clues and potentially deadly traps.

Sgt. Joshua Bartlett, 24 and on his second tour here, hacks through weeds with his machete. A few yards away, two other soldiers with sweat pouring down their faces dig away dirt with their knives. (Watch troops comb weeds looking for weapons -- 1:46 Video )

"It's like an Easter egg hunt, only you roll the dice every time you do it," 24-year-old Sgt. Frankie Parra says. He's half-joking as he stands over a pile of 60 mm mortar rounds freshly dug from underneath weeds in the fields and farmlands just south of Baghdad.

His deployments aren't getting any easier. On his third tour in Iraq, he's operating -- along with the men of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division -- in an area known as the "Triangle of Death."

Four soldiers from this battalion have been killed on this volatile patch of land, just outside Yusifiya and 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Baghdad, in the two weeks since Operation Commando Hunter began, and another 20 have been wounded.

The troops are pushing into fields and farmlands where there had been no regular U.S. presence for the better part of the last three years. In this same area, two American soldiers were kidnapped in a checkpoint attack in June and then murdered. (Full story)

The insurgency here has literally dug itself in. The soldiers are finding a gold mine of weapons caches 3 to 6 inches below ground. Intertwining canals lined with tall reeds offer insurgents plenty of cover ideal for snipers and ambushes.

"It's OJT -- on the job training," says the 30-year-old company commander, Capt. Shane Finn. On his second tour of duty here, he peers into the tall reeds looking for telltale signs that the enemy may be lurking nearby.

"I know that there is going to be something right around that corner," he says, pointing to the opposite side of the canal where some of the larger caches were found in the last two weeks.

Sure enough, carefully hidden in the weeds, the troops first find an AK-74, slightly smaller caliber than an AK-47, and magazines. "This looks like a spotter's position," Finn says.

Within minutes and a few yards away, the troops uncover mortars. Across the road, they find wiring, an array of crude triggers and, nearby, a "poor man's EFP [explosively formed projectile]." Basically a tube with plastic explosives, the directional charge is lethal.

"It looks like we interrupted someone planning on laying more IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," Finn says.

What they find on this day pales compared to what's been uncovered during the last two weeks. The troops are working on clearing an area no larger than 4 square miles (6 kilometers) and already they have found more than 100 weapons caches with enough material to make at least 1,000 roadside bombs.

The soldiers also discovered anti-aircraft machine guns (the 101st Brigade that previously operated here had at least two helicopters shot down); half a dozen sniper rifles, some with night vision capabilities; crude rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar launching tubes; and 55-gallon drums filled with liquid explosives.

All these men -- from the seasoned veterans to the fresh-faced privates -- display an upbeat attitude. One would never think they were operating under circumstances in which a wrong step, an unlucky jab with a knife into the ground or an insurgent attack could cost them a limb or their lives.

In these fields, the troops say they are able to see the difference they are making -- each weapon found is a step in the right direction, each returning family and reopening shop offers hope.

As night falls and the relentless mosquitoes come out, the soldiers head back to their patrol base, a dismal two-story building they now call home.

They dine on MREs (meals ready to eat), read magazines by flashlight and sleep any place they can find a cozy spot on the ground. Sorry, no shower.

They joke, give each other a hard time, and don't complain. In the morning, they will head back out again.


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CNN's Arwa Damon is embedded with U.S. troops south of Baghdad.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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