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Iraq Transition

Soldiers comb 'Triangle of Death' for comrades

Story Highlights

• U.S. troops navigate thick brush, search farmhouses for 3 missing soldiers
• Search comes nearly 1 year after similar attack in same area
• Commander vows: "We are not going to stop"
• Troops are constantly on alert for possible bombs hidden in brush
From Arwa Damon
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NEAR YUSUFIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- Exhausted soldiers tread carefully through the dirt looking and hoping for signs of their missing comrades being alive.

Battling 100-degree heat in full body armor, they also have to think of themselves -- aware that one wrong step could lead to an explosion in Iraq's "Triangle of Death."

They are among thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been on around-the-clock searches since three soldiers went missing Saturday and four others, plus a translator, were killed.

They have trudged across miles of fields and farmland and navigated the harsh terrain to avoid roads, possibly laced with roadside bombs. They even drained a canal parallel to where Saturday's ambush took place, slowly searching it for signs of bodies or anything else that could shed light on what happened.

The desperation etched on the faces of the soldiers looking for their own is palpable, but so is the determination. (Watch soldiers reflect on the disappearance of their colleagues Video)

"We are not going to stop searching," Col. Mike Kershaw, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, told CNN. "We are not going to stop until we find them."

He then added, "We will find them."

The intense search comes nearly a year after other U.S. soldiers were captured, then killed in a checkpoint ambush in the same area.

Every single part of the terrain is slightly different in the region, but it is equally dangerous.

There are interlocking canals and reed lines next to the canals that provide cover for insurgents. The troops do not use the roads unless they absolutely have to.

When soldiers are on foot patrol, they have to watch every step. Things like a piece of cardboard in the middle of a dirt path could be hiding a pressure-plate bomb. A heap of straw could be hiding a bomb.

They try to stay on pavement as much as possible. When they get to open farmland, they're moving on the run -- to avoid bombs detonated remotely.

Around the attack site, the vegetation is extremely dense, with a couple of farmhouses nearby. Sometimes, the brush is so thick you can't see in front of you. That makes it dangerous on two fronts: Insurgents can easily carry out an attack like they did on Saturday or lay roadside bombs. (Watch soldiers pick through undergrowth to look for clues Video)

And every single soldier in Delta company has a story of a roadside bomb. One young medic wears a bracelet in memory of one of his first friends who fell in Iraq. He said he had put it on last winter. But he said if he were to put it on now for everyone that's been lost, "I wouldn't have enough room on both my arms."

The search is a 24-hour nonstop rotation. Soldiers only get a couple hours of sleep, before going back out.

Military: Somebody knows something

All males 12-years-old or older in the region were detained and questioned. Most have been released.

About 40 percent of the homes in the area have been vacated. When people are home, it's often just women. The troops have begun returning to many of the homes -- two, three, four times -- to see if anything has changed or if they might have missed something.

The military believes somebody in the area knows something.

"We know that everybody is not the enemy, but there are people that have information that we need," Kershaw said.

He said the area, south of Baghdad, has a determined enemy. "They are very capable, they are very lethal," he said. "This sector historically has been one of the most lethal in Iraq. ... We do not underestimate them."

At the same time, Kershaw said his soldiers are determined to find the missing soldiers.

"To the families back home, we are not going to stop what we are doing," he said.

The U.S. military is offering a $200,000 reward for information about the location of the three soldiers or persons involved in their disappearance. The military is also dropping about 150,000 leaflets from helicopters near where the soldiers disappeared. (Watch how the U.S. military is trying to encourage Iraqis to help the hunt Video)

The leaflets -- in Arabic and English -- inform Iraqis of the reward money and urge them to call a tip line with information. The soldiers helping in the hunt don't need extra motivation -- they're fully aware of the serious situation their missing comrades face.

'We talk about the soldiers'

On Wednesday, soldiers searched around the Yusufiya power station, the same area where last year three U.S. soldiers were slaughtered. In that attack last June, one soldier was found dead at the scene and two others were abducted, their bodies found three days later -- mutilated and booby-trapped with bombs.

As the soldiers searched around the power station, the killings from last year were heavy on their minds. They were all aware of what happened, and what could be happening to those currently missing.

"All the motivation they need is what they are going after. We talk about the soldiers and, you know, they know who they are looking for. They know their names," said Capt. Daniel Hurd of the U.S. Army.

"That's as much motivation as they need. Every time they get tired they think of that, and they get going."

The troops have been battling temperatures in the 100- to 110-degree range for much of the week. But Thursday brought rain and slightly cooler temperatures.

The slain and missing U.S. soldiers are based at Fort Drum in New York, and all seven have been identified as members of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division's Second Brigade Combat Team. All of the soldiers are men.

The four killed were Sgt. Anthony J. Schober, 23, of Reno, Nevada; Pfc. Christopher E. Murphy, 21, of Gladys, Virginia; Pfc. Daniel W. Courneya, 19, of Vermontville, Michigan; and Sgt. 1st Class James D. Connell Jr., 40, of Lake City, Tennessee.

The three missing have been identified as Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Massachusetts; Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, California; and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Michigan.

Kershaw said the search must go on until everyone is found.

"This unit in particular takes a great deal of pride in its soldiers. We all have a responsibility for each other."


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