MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. soldiers fought exhaustion and braced themselves for the worst Friday as the military pressed forward with a six-day-old search for three missing comrades believed captured by al-Qaida in Iraq in an ambush south of Baghdad.
Even if the three are dead, soldiers said that the families back home needed to know what happened and that the attackers must be punished.
``We'll find them. I'll tell you what, they're going to wish they never did this thing,'' Lt. Col. Michael Infanti said.
Infanti, commander of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, gave an impassioned pep talk to soldiers at a patrol base who were exhausted from the search.
``I can't tell you they're alive, and I can't tell you that they're not,'' he said. ``This ain't over. This ain't over by a long shot.''
Thousands of soldiers have been involved in the search, backed by aircraft, intelligence agents and dog teams.
Many troops from the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, their faces burnt from the sun after scouring fields and villages for any clues, said a glimmer of hope kept them going.
``It's knowing that there's a chance that they're still alive _ and even if they're not alive, their families deserve to know what happened to them,'' Staff Sgt. Dustin Parchey said at a dusty forward base near Mahmoudiya, some 10 miles east of where the ambush occurred Saturday.
But while Parchey worried about his fellow soldiers, the 29-year-old from Lewistown, Pa., defended the strategy of having remote outposts like the one where the three Americans were captured and four comrades were slain.
``You have to keep a presence there. The outposts that we have put out there have made a difference,'' he said.
Soldiers learned Friday that DNA testing had positively identified the fourth soldier killed in the Saturday attack. He was Sgt. Anthony J. Schober, 23, of Reno, Nev., according to relatives who spoke to the Reno Gazette Journal. Schober was on his third tour in Iraq.
Insurgents attacked the post with small arms fire and hand grenades, breaching the concertina wire that surrounded the two Humvees that comprised the stationary outpost. Shell casings found around the two vehicles indicated the soldiers _ from D Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division _ had put up a fight.
At the base near Mahmoudiya, some soldiers in support roles expressed regret that they were not directly involved in the search, but said they were spending sleepless nights doing whatever they could to help.
``I'm doing good, considering,'' said Pfc. Joel Palmer, a 20-year-old from Atlanta who is on his first rotation in Iraq.
Palmer, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, is working with the communications network, but he said his division felt the loss as if it were one of their own.
``Every soldier that takes a hit is rough for morale,'' he said, standing in the base's Internet cafe, crowded with troops.
He said he believed the missing soldiers were still alive based on information circulating around the base.
``More than likely, they've been tortured, but I'm still saying they're alive. That's all you can say,'' Palmer said.
Sgt. Jose Atilano, of Brosser, Wash., estimated he had gotten 14 hours of sleep since the search began, returning only briefly to the base after spending hours in the field.
He said he was eager to go back as soon as he got the order.
``We are going to keep going until we find them. If I were in their shoes, I would hope my battle buddies would do the same for me,'' he said.
Lt. Col. Robert Morschauser, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, which works closely with a brigade of Iraqi soldiers, also promised to continue the search. But he acknowledged it might take a different form at some point.
``I'm very proud of the guys. Will we change the shape of (the search)? We may. But the effort's going to continue,'' he said, sitting under a wall map of the area.