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Routine mission turns into hunt for missing comrade

From John Roberts
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Fifteen tired soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment were on a routine mission Monday afternoon when the call came in that a U.S. soldier was missing and had possibly been kidnapped.

The troops didn't know anything about the soldier at the time, just that it was their job to look for someone who might be abducted or could be AWOL.

Any time a U.S. service member is reported missing, particularly in Iraq , it is a matter of grave concern. A captured U.S. soldier could be used very effectively as a political tool by insurgents.

The day had been "typical" for this unit, which was ready to go home in August 2006 but had its tour extended for four months.

There was a car bombing at a market that killed four people. There was a visit to a police station, which included a spot visit from Gen. George Casey, who came to check on the status and effectiveness of the Iraqi authorities.

The 911 call came around 5:30 p.m. and the mission went into high gear. The commander of the unit was given coordinates where the soldier might be. The troops raced to a neighborhood, where they cordoned off the area and began to search homes, one by one.

The soldiers went from house to house, finding some abandoned units, which are ideal for insurgents to use for hideouts. One was locked up tightly, until seven shotgun blasts knocked the lock off.

A CNN crew went in as they conducted a search of each room, but there was no sign of the missing soldier.

The troops left no location unchecked, going at the search with a high degree of professionalism and enthusiasm.

In the neighborhood, there was a television station owned and operated by the leading Shiite political coalition. The soldiers were cautious about approaching the building because, like many Baghdad businesses, the TV station has a private security detail -- this one with 40 men armed with AK-47s.

The U.S. soldiers would be outmanned and outgunned if the confrontation got out of hand. There was only a very slim chance that would happen, but still the Americans were a little worried.

It never really got tense. The U.S. troops got all the security guards together and then searched the building, finding many more weapons than guards -- probably more than 100 guns.

The search touched off diplomatic alarm bells. The U.S. troops decided to call in the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Al Kelly. He came down from Camp Taji, about 30 minutes to the northwest, and tried to work things out.

After a discussion, the U.S. troops confiscated 33 unpermitted AK-47s, a couple of heavy machine guns and a bunch of ammunition.

As they were loading up the weapons cache, the station manager and a party official pleaded that they needed the arms to protect the station. We'll be vulnerable to Sunni militias, they said. How can this be democracy, they asked, adding they were using the station to spread democracy.

The U.S. troops left with the weapons, but only got a block away before being ordered to return and give the weapons back.

Just as the weapons were being returned, the country's national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, arrived. He questioned Kelly about the raid and made sure the weapons were returned.

The soldiers, very frustrated over the situation, returned to their base, wondering how other units involved in the search were doing.


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CNN correspondent John Roberts is embedded with U.S. troops who are searching for one of their own.

SPECIAL REPORT

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