Mike Manhatton recently spent time in Iraq, mostly Baghdad and Tikrit, to bring us a firsthand look at life on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Two thousand American military personnel have died in Iraq since the war began. The latest, Third Infantry Division soldier Staff Sgt. George Alexander, based at Fort Benning. He was wounded last week when a roadside bomb blew up in Samarra and he died over the weekend.
Those bombs are one of the most dangerous elements American soldiers have to worry about in Iraq these days. We rode along on several patrols while in Iraq, and one of the first was a lot like riding along with the police here at home. But the stakes, and the risks, are a lot higher.
They hope these trips do as much to make friends as to catch enemies in the community surrounding the base camp just outside Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
"It's building community relations," said Sgt. 1st Class Leo Rachmel. "We work with them, they work with us. Try to make sure that they're happy, taken care of, and they take care of us."
Not everybody is happy to see the American patrol, like one man they stopped walking across the sand. A quick search, a few questions, and a bottle of water from the Americans ended the encounter.
"We're just denying the enemy the terrain," said Sgt. 1st Class Rachmel. "We ride out here so much that they can't come. Just the fact that we're here deters a lot of aggression.
"We do random stops of vehicles out here. You know, farmers driving around, just to make sure they're legitimate."
One stop of a pickup truck yielded only "empty barrels. They go out and refuel generators and things like that."
While the desert is mostly empty, it is home for some. But being isolated can be dangerous. Especially for Iraqis who've befriended the Americans.
"This one's abandoned, so nobody's taking care of it," said Sgt. 1st Class Rachmel, inspecting a building. "But from what I've seen, all the houses around here are very well taken care of, the yards are clean, you won't see this stuff laying around. They take a lot of pride in their homes out here. We check these daily just to make sure there are no caches or hiding places."
Another stop on the patrol, at a railroad station under repair, and the troops weren't taking any chances. But the reception was warm, the guards very happy to see the Americans.
"Ali Baba?" asked Rachmel. "No Ali Baba?"
"Ali Baba" is the slang the troops and the locals use talking about insurgents. No news is good news. Done talking business, it was time to share.
"A lot of the care packages we get from back in the states is just too much for all of us, so we bring it out here and share with them," said Rachmel.
The Iraqis paid back the kindness with hot, sweet tea and wanted us to take their picture with their new American friends.
Then, it was back to the desert patrol.
They're not in Georgia any more. Encounters like those--and worse--are the norm for the troops who go outside the wire.
Inside the wire, in the American base camps, life isn't awful. Definitely not like home, but livable. Coming up tomorrow night, we'll show you some of the things that you do that are truly making a daily difference in soldiers' lives.