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Quick decisions on the battlefield

By Walter Rodgers

CNN's Walter Rodgers reports by videophone, and his use of lights is severely restricted.
CNN's Walter Rodgers reports by videophone, and his use of lights is severely restricted.

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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

EUPHRATES RIVER, Iraq (CNN) -- As it crosses the Euphrates River, the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is discovering Iraqi forces are attempting to alter the balance of power by using the specter of civilian decoys and the cover of a sandstorm.

Let me give you an example. We were going through a village late last night. An elderly man came out in his long robes and began waving to the soldiers. The soldiers who saw him thought he had a rifle in his hands.

Here you have a man appearing to be friendly. He has a rifle in his hands. Is he the village elder saying, "Here, follow me. I'll show you a way through the village"? Or is he someone sympathetic to Saddam Hussein's regime saying, "Here, follow me. I'm going to lead you into an ambush"?

That is what confronted the soldiers. I do not believe he was fired on, but I am sure he was not followed.

Every soldier who has his finger on a trigger has to make instantaneous, correct decisions. Otherwise, we face tragedies all along this road.

I had a situation yesterday morning. A young Iraqi came up to me and said, "Hello." I spoke to him in a few phrases of Arabic. He told me, "I speak English." We chatted.

He denounced Saddam right and left. Of course, as a reporter, you do not know whether he is telling the truth.

Then he wanted to go over to a Bradley fighting vehicle a few meters away. I prevented him physically from doing so because I knew if he approached the vehicle, he was going to be told to stop.

And if he kept approaching, he would be shot, because the soldiers know Saddam has said he would use suicide bombers to stop the Americans.

I did not put my hands on the guy's hip to see if he had dynamite, but that was a very real possibility. Was this young Iraqi civilian anything more or less than he appeared to be?

I can tell you that within minutes the Iraqi army was firing on our column with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. We dived to our vehicle and drove away.

The Iraqis are also using the cover of a massive sandstorm, dashing up, firing in the direction of the convoy. Under these conditions, it is difficult to see much of anything.

We are all using goggles, but within a matter of minutes they fog up and become virtually useless.

You try so hard to blink your eyes and wash out the sand and grit, but it is like running out of windshield wiper fluid on your car. You are bone dry and you can do nothing. You wish you had eyewash, but there's neither time nor place for that here.

The dust is everywhere. It's hard to breathe. You wonder about the long-term damage to the people of the desert, the nomadic peoples like the Bedouins. It's like a blizzard, except the darned stuff doesn't melt.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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