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Iraq around the clock

International | WAR ON TERROR: The quickening pace of military operations in postwar Iraq is being determined in part by the political calendar, in part by Iraqi distaste for foreign occupation, and in part by intelligence suggesting a massive wintertime terrorist offensive. But is it fair to ask our war-weary soldiers to work any faster?

Issue: "Gay marriage backlash," Dec. 6, 2003

At midnight at Baghdad International Airport, in a small tent on the runway where air crews and armed soldiers come in out of the cold wind for a cup of coffee, a grim-faced officer approaches Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chris Willcox. He wants to know whether the secretary or any of his guests mind flying back with "HR"-military-speak for human remains.

The wind rattles the canvas and the roar of C-130s and Black Hawk helicopters is constant. Mr. Willcox nods assent and no one drinks his coffee for a moment.

It is a routine request these days in Iraq. One Defense Department officer says he would be honored to fly back with a soldier who gave his life for his country. The rest simply nod. There is nothing to say.

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The body of Sgt. Francisco Martinez, a 28-year-old man from Humacao, Puerto Rico, who was killed on convoy duty on Nov. 4 by a roadside bomb, is loaded into the back of a C-130 bound for Kuwait City. A small party of military officials, soldiers, civilians, and reporters troops aboard.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, traveling with Mr. Willcox, asks whether the plane's departure could be delayed. The archbishop, a priest since 1965 who has seen victims of combat, leads the group in a prayer for Sgt. Martinez. Then the rear cargo door closes with a groan and the plane lifts into the night sky.

Back home all the news about Iraq is body counts, car bombs, and poor intelligence. Senior officials are developing new techniques for safeguarding troops, including a new radar that can identify in seconds the location of incoming mortar fire. U.S. Army commanders insist counterintelligence is defeating more and more terrorist attacks.

That's one reason, the officials believe, that the enemy has shifted tactics. In June the enemy engaged in direct attacks. "But they could not compete against our night vision and thermal sights," said Brigadier General Marc Barbero, assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division's Taskforce Iron Horse in Tikrit. In July the enemy "moved back and used RPGs," he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades that can be fired hundreds of feet from their targets. "They learned they couldn't survive."

So in August, and ever since, the enemy shifted to roadside bombs crudely constructed from mortar rounds or artillery shells. These bombs are gradually becoming more sophisticated. But intelligence is improving as well. Of the 55 improvised-explosive devices (IEDs) discovered in the first week of November by the 4th Infantry Division, 19 were found before they exploded, said Gen. Barbero-"thanks to Iraqi help."

It's reasonable to expect more attacks on "soft targets." American military intelligence officers believe that the bombing of the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross was "unintentional" and that the actual target was an Iraqi police station some 100 meters down the road, said the U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.

But don't expect morale of the uniformed soldiers to fall. Based on half a dozen informal conversations with randomly chosen corporals and privates, it seems that U.S. soldiers accept the current level of risk. They understand that the life that they have volunteered for is dangerous. They are happy for small daily improvements, like recently arrived "real food" in place of packaged MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). The main complaint heard in mess halls in Baghdad and Camp Victory in southern Iraq is that they can't explain to their families why their deployment orders and return dates keep changing. One soldier stationed in the Green Zone in Baghdad explained: "You just can't explain to your wife why you can't plan your life."

While the "body count" seems to fascinate the Baghdad-based press corps, much as it mesmerized Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War, the military officers on the front line talk little about it. It is simply a fact of war. Instead, civilian and military officials are more concerned about a number of potential crises that could emerge in Iraq in the coming year. Largely overlooked by the media, these potential flashpoints could severely test America's resolve during a presidential election year.

These range from military to political, economic, and cultural. Some officials worry about a "winter offensive" of high-profile terror strikes. They fear that snags and delays in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction will erode public support, that the transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqis will prove more difficult than expected (especially if the constitution explicitly makes Iraq an Islamic state), that the Iraqi economy will collapse, and-without Iraqi tolerance for foreign rule-that constantly changing troop rotation schedules will sap morale or, alternatively, that a too-rapid evacuation of the bulk of U.S. forces will further destabilize Iraq.

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