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U.S. Soldiers Face Mounting Frustration In Search For 3 Comrades Taken In Ambush

MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq (AP) _ Sweat-drenched U.S. and Iraqi soldiers sprawled on the muddy farmhouse floor, taking a break from the grueling search for three kidnapped comrades. A report of a soldier shot by a sniper came over the radio.

The platoon commander ordered his men to their feet and they dashed off to help. The sniper victim's unit had no medic, but the one taking a rest did. It was the second attack of the day: A bomb buried in a field had exploded under a foot patrol hours earlier, killing one American and wounding three others and two Iraqi soldiers.

The search for the troops who went missing after a May 12 ambush is grinding down U.S. forces already strained by the push to restore calm in and around Baghdad.

Firefights erupt daily as troops search a 135-square-mile area south of the capital. Roadside bombs hit armored Humvees. The troops have taken to walking but the fields are heavily mined. Still, the military insists it won't quit until it finds the missing men, or knows what happened to them.

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 Saturday, often halting 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 violence in the largely Sunni area west of Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.

The military searchers stopped to question a shepherd in a lavender 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's troops were debating how long they should rest in the two-story farm house, where they took refuge after three hours of searching, when they got the call that a soldier had been shot through the forehead by a sniper.

Spc. Andrew Carbajal, a 20-year-old medic from Clinton, Iowa on his first tour in Iraq, grabbed his bag and leapt to his feet and sprinted with fellow troopers over parched fields and through a date palm grove to reach the site of the attack, 2.5 miles away. It took them 30 minutes.

The wounded soldier was evacuated in serious condition to Balad air base north of Baghdad.

One of his friends flew back to base carrying the wounded man's personal effects. He sat through the flight holding his buddy's blood-soaked flak jacket, looking at the floor of the clattering helicopter.

But most of the wounded soldier's comrades stayed with Bright's troops, preparing to clear one more area before nightfall.

Bright said most of the troops have lost weight, many as much as 12 pounds, as Iraq's weather has climbed above 100. The searchers spend hours patrolling only to return to base after the mess hall closes.

Bright was forced 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 on Saturday.

``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.''

Tips have poured in but most have ended in disappointment, with no sign of Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, Calif., Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass. or Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich.

Four other American soldiers and an Iraqi were killed in the attack.

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 at the forward operating base in Mahmoudiya, complained it was another wild goose chase. Still, they said they weren't ready to quit the search.

``I choose to remain positive, but with each passing day with no evidence of life the likelihood of soldiers being found alive is less,'' Lt. Col. Randy Martin, a spokesman for troops searching for the soldiers, said in an e-mail Sunday. ``We will not stop until we find our fallen comrades.''
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