Sweat-drenched U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were on the muddy concrete floor of a farmhouse, taking a break during the grueling search for three comrades kidnapped by al-Qaida in Iraq more than a week ago. Soon a radio call told of a soldier shot by a sniper.
The platoon commander bowed his head, ordered his men to their feet and they dashed off to help. The sniper victim's unit had no medic but those taking a rest did. It was the second hit of the day. A bomb buried in a field had already exploded under a foot patrol, killing one American and wounding three others. Two Iraqi soldiers also were hurt.
Nine days into the search, the military insists it won't quit until it finds the three men or knows what happened to them. The captives went missing after a May 12 ambush in which four other American soldiers and an Iraqi were killed.
But the search is grinding down already-stretched U.S. forces trying to restore calm in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
American soldiers with the Bravo Company, Second Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, and their Iraqi counterparts have spent days trudging through rough terrain - muddy canal banks lined with tall reeds, parched farmland and fields of sweet-smelling wildflowers.
The Iraqis took the lead in single file lines, often calling for a halt to inspect piles of rubble and the ruins of houses strewn with childrens' clothes and sandals, the remnants of Shiite Muslim homes bombed by Sunni extremists.
Shiites have fled sectarian violence in the largely Sunni area west of Latifiyah, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad.
The military searchers stopped to question a shepherd in a lavender Arab gown. He was patted on the back and returned to tending his flock once the soldiers found his name was not on their list of wanted men.
Capt. Aaron Bright said most of the troops have as much as 12 pounds as Iraq's weather has climbed above 100 Fahrenheit over the last week. The searchers spend hours patrolling on food only to return to base after the mess hall closed.
The complex search forced Bright to cancel a rest day for one platoon and send it out searching in place of the company that was hit by the roadside bomb. U.S. helicopters trying to land to take away the bomb victims had trouble landing to rescue the wounded, fearing a second bomb - a common insurgent tactic.
"I was going to give them a break today," the 29-year-old platoon commander said, leaning on one knee and examining a map. "But we're going to do the mission and we'll be as vigilant as ever."
The military has faced overwhelming obstacles in the massive search focusing on a 350 square kilometer (135.14 sq. mile) area south of Baghdad. Firefights erupt daily. Roadside bombs hit armored humvees. The troops have taken to walking but the fields are heavily mined.
Lt. Col. Randy Martin, a spokesman for troops searching for the soldiers, said he hoped the men were alive.
"We have as many reports telling us the soldiers are all dead, as we do reports telling us that at least some soldiers are alive. I choose to remain positive, but with each passing day with no evidence of life the likelihood of soldiers being found alive is less," he said in an e-mailed statement.
"We have not ruled out anything, and we continue to pursue every lead with all assets available. We will not stop until we find our fallen comrades."
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, told the Army Times newspaper in an interview Friday night that U.S. forces were focusing on an insurgent who is "sort of an affiliate of al-Qaida."
He also said he did not know whether the three missing soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division were alive.
But "as of this morning, we thought there were at least two that were probably still alive," he said. "At one point in time there was a sense that one of them might have died, but again, we just don't know."
Tips have poured in but most have ended in disappointment, with no sign of Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, California, Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Massachusetts. or Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Michigan.
Lt. Col. Robert Morschauser, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which works closely with a brigade of Iraqi soldiers, said troops acting on intelligence from a detainee had searched a cemetery on Friday "but it turned out to be nothing."
An evening raid on a Sunni mosque and houses in Latifiyah late Saturday turned up a weapons cache, some bundles of money but no troopers.
Some soldiers, returning from the raid to a dinner of cold peas and chicken, complained it was another wild goose chase. Still, they said they weren't ready to quit the search.
Bright's troops were debating how long they should rest in the two-story farm house in which they had taken refuge after three hours of searching when they got the call that a soldier had been shot through the forehead by a sniper.
Bright, sweat dripping from his forehead, explained the attack and Spc. Andrew Carbajal, a 20-year-old medic from Clinton, Iowa, who was on his first tour to Iraq, grabbed his bag and leapt to his feet.
Fellow troopers dashed behind over parched fields and through a date palm grove to reach the site of the attack, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). It took them 30 minutes.
The wounded soldier was evacuated in serious condition to Balad air base north of Baghdad.
Most of his comrades stayed with Bright's troops, preparing to clear one more area before nightfall.
"That whole thing about us not leaving a battle buddy behind still stands," Sgt. Carlos Taveras said.
One of the wounded soldier's friends, flew back to base carrying the wounded soldier's personal effects. He said through the flight holding his buddy's blood-soaked flak jacket, looking at the floor of the clattering helicopter.
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