By Hugh Riminton
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- It's an odd thing to see a general cry. But that was what, suddenly, he appeared to be doing.
I had been invited to lunch with Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general of what is known as Multi-National Division -- Center.
In practice, the title puts him in charge of one of the most complex "battlespaces" in Iraq, stretching from southern Baghdad to the Sunni insurgent heartlands immediately to the south and on to the holy centers of Shiite Islam. Soon, his patch will stretch east to the Iranian border.
I thought of Lynch as I turned on a microphone switch to report to the world a disaster in his battlespace. Near Mahmoudiya, a predawn attack on two U.S. vehicles Saturday left five dead at the scene and three men missing. The dead and missing are men that the general commands.
But when I met with Lynch for lunch on May 6, that hadn't happened yet.
After sandwiches and soda, General Lynch explained his task.
"Public enemy No. 1," he growled, "is still al Qaeda. ... They are evil, pure evil. He has no respect for human life and doesn't care who he's killing."
Iranian "influence," he said, is supporting both Iran's sectarian allies in the Shiite militias and their sectarian enemies in the Sunni insurgency. Munitions with Iranian markings have turned up in caches captured from both groups.
He knows why he's fighting. Days ago, insurgents had blown up a minibus carrying women and children near Mahmoudiya. At least eight died at the scene, and four others were dreadfully wounded.
"My soldiers and me are here to ensure my children and their children back home aren't going to be afraid of getting blown up when they get on a bus," he said. "That's going to happen right there in the United States if we don't fight this fight right here, right now."
"I am convinced of that."
Lynch is a man of average height with thinning sandy hair. Nothing much about his appearance projects authority. It is purely demeanor. The restless pugnacity of a man who has spent his adult life in uniform, possessed of the kind of energy that doesn't get kept down.
Now, however, he dropped to one knee. He took from a Velcro pocket on his left shoulder a fistful of white laminated plastic cards. There were faces on them and brief typed biographical notes.
He fanned them on the ground.
They were the soldiers who had died in Iraq under his command.
"I will carry these forever," he said.
He looked down at the cards. They run into the dozens.
"Jay was 22. ... Eddie was 21. ... David was less than 20." He dwells on each face. His voice coarsens and he stops. A red flush burns into the roots of his hair. He keeps his head down.
"Every day," he continues after a while, "I ask myself what I could have done to save them."
His answer, when the conversation continues, is to look at the methods by which U.S. troops are being killed. The increasingly deadly projectile bombs being buried for his patrols create -- as he called them -- catastrophic kills.
"I'm looking out for what's 'left of the boom,' " he said -- what comes before the explosion. "Who's supplying the munitions, who's financing it, who's doing the transport, the training."
It's a thinking war.
"People have said managing Iraq is like playing three-dimensional chess in the dark," he says. "I think that's an understatement. I have never seen a more complex environment."
It's a complex environment that includes attacks like the one Saturday near Mahmoudiya.
At least five more laminated cards for the general's pocket. And doubtless, for he struck me as a good man, more anguished questions of himself, more tears to add to the tears of others.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, shown briefing reporters in Baghdad, Iraq, last year, says terrorism will spread "if we don't fight this fight right here, right now."