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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Monday, March 31

Kosovo-style routine sinks in for 101st Airborne regiment

By Matthew Cox | Army Times

KIFL, Iraq - They have been on the ground almost a week, but so far, the war in Iraq for many Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, feels deceptively like peacekeeping in Kosovo.

More than 300 soldiers from the Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion arrived here by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and ground convoy Saturday evening to take control of the town's bridge over the Euphrates River, 75 miles south of Baghdad. They replaced elements of the 3rd Infantry Division.

As the troops patrol this quiet farming town, scars of violent battle are everywhere. Small groups of charred Iraqi vehicles, destroyed in the 3rd Infantry's drive north, litter the abandoned streets. But the quiet is deceptive.

Just north of this town Saturday morning a suicide bomber blew up a car, killing himself and four soldiers from the 3rd Infantry. And just south on Sunday morning, U.S. soldiers fought a fierce battle with Iraqi forces. Central Command said the Americans killed 100 of the enemy and captured 50.

The 3rd Battalion's mission is to maintain security and prevent militia groups such as the Fedayeen, posing as returning residents, from filtering back into town.

Sunday morning five Iraqi soldiers, unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes, surrendered.

The mission here for most soldiers isn't that much different from the type of work they did on past deployments to Kosovo.

"It's the same routine we'd do in the urban areas of Kosovo,'' said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Mulkey, 24, of Yuba City, Calif. What he does here reminds him of the house-to-house searching he did in the Balkan province from May to November 2001.

"I was deployed to Kosovo for six months, and I did the same job - searching civilians for weapons," said Spec. Chad McLaughlin, 21, of Amarillo, Texas.

Just as they did in Kosovo, soldiers here occupy the town's banks and municipal buildings. Each day more and more residents return, hauling their belongings in mule-drawn carts.

Soldiers search houses, uncovering small numbers of weapons and ammunition.

Inside the town's Baath political party headquarters, portraits of Saddam Hussein decorated nearly every room. The large mansion concealed rocket-propelled grenade ammunition, mortar fuses and stores of hidden grain.

There are, however, clear differences from what soldiers saw in Kosovo.

Blackened hulks of destroyed automobiles are scattered along the town's main market-filled street. About 10 feet from one vehicle was a human torso, missing most of its flesh, arms, legs and half its skull.

Nearby, a Mercedes sedan served as temporary coffin for five decomposing Iraqis, still clutching AK-47 rifles when soldiers found them.

"It didn't seem real to me,'' said A Company commander Capt. Jon Wiley, 29, of Altoona, Pa. "This is the first time a lot of these guys have seen dead bodies. Until we got here, this had seemed like a training exercise.''