A Desperate Hunt

It's one of the U.S. military's core beliefs. All soldiers carry it stamped into the metal dog tags around their necks: "I will never leave a fallen comrade."

On Sunday, 4,000 U.S. troops conducted ground searches in one of Iraq's most dangerous regions--looking for three Americans who went missing after their convoy was attacked the day before. The apparent ambush took place roughly 12 miles west of Mahmoudiya, a place U.S. troops can expect to find little sympathy. Lying about 20 miles south of Baghdad, it is part of the capital's continuous sprawl of workshops, stores and scrappy one- or two-story houses. It straddles a major highway and forms part of the belt of Sunni towns around Baghdad known to Westerners as the Triangle of Death. Last June, three soldiers were killed in the vicinity; insurgents released video showing the mutilation of two of them. The insurgents said they were avenging the rape of an Iraqi girl by U.S. troops who killed her family to cover up the crime.

The latest ambush came about 4:44 a.m. Saturday. According to the military, troops at an outpost heard a loud explosion and launched a surveillance drone that found two burning U.S. vehicles 15 minutes later. A "quick reaction force"--ground troops who stay at the ready for emergencies--was sent to the location and arrived there in about 40 minutes, according to Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman in Baghdad. He said the response team was slowed because it found and cleared a roadside bomb in its path. When the team arrived, it found five dead, including four Americans and one interpreter--a soldier in the Iraqi Army who was working with them.

But three soldiers are still missing. The military has not identified them or their unit in part because it could lead to the public identification of the dead before relatives can be notified. Wire services reported Sunday that the Al Qaeda-related Islamic State of Iraq issued a statement claiming that it holds some of the U.S. soldiers. Garver noted that the use of the roadside bomb to target troops responding to the attack is a common "Al Qaeda tactic." The area is cordoned off, and the military is sifting through tips from residents.

The U.S. military is famously dedicated to finding missing soldiers or their remains--as evidenced by the decades spent searching for soldiers who went missing during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Asked about the depth of that commitment, Garver showed his dog tags and a card he and other soldiers carry in their wallets with the "Warrior Ethos." In addition to the vow to never leave a comrade, they pledge "I will never quit" and "I will always place the mission first." The tags and cards carry one-word "Army Values" as well, including LOYALTY, DUTY and RESPECT.

But Iraq's complexities often confound both the Army's ideals and its overwhelming force. The military has already deployed helicopters, jets, drones and satellites to look for the missing troops in Mahmoudiya. But finding hostages requires precise, well-timed tips from locals--and those are often in short supply.

A case in point came Oct. 23 last year when Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, an Iraqi-American soldier in the U.S. Army was kidnapped after leaving the fortified Green Zone to visit in-laws in the nearby Karrada district of the capital. In contrast to restive Mahmoudiya, Karrada is a relatively small, stable and friendly area. Hours after the kidnapping, it was scoured by 2,000 U.S. troops and for a couple days the area buzzed with low-flying helicopters; roads were choked by checkpoints.

The Army reported receiving some 240 tips from locals and detaining 32 people in the first 10 days. Shiite militants later announced they had Taayie, and the military believes he was taken to the Sadr City area just a few miles away from where he was grabbed. He is still missing, and presumed alive.