Pause for Rest in the Desert

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

At midafternoon in Diyala, a province northeast of Baghdad, the heavy grind of military tanks calms to a distant rumble. Even war is slowed by 120-degree heat. Soldiers, American and Iraqi, move from shadow to shadow, stepping on slivers of palm-tree shade or lying under Humvees.

Three Iraqi soldiers park their Humvee outside a mud hut, away from the military convoys stopped on the main road. Nearby is a well filled with cool water, which is usually used for thirsty goats and fields of okra, but the soldiers find it perfect for bathing and washing their uniforms. They twist and scrub sweat-damaged shirts and socks and hang them between the thick metal Humvee doors and the harsh sun. In minutes, the clothes are dry.

The soldiers started their day at 2:30 a.m. Following a trail of wire and homemade fuses, they alone are in charge of defusing bombs for the Iraqi army in Diyala.

The well's owners, a local family of four siblings, feed the soldiers eggplant and eggs. One of the brothers is missing, kidnapped. Another spent two years at the U.S.-run detention facility Camp Bucca. But such circumstances are common here, and the family welcomes the three men with food and tea, hoping that now they might find their missing sheep -- stolen, they say, by al-Qaeda.

With the smell of fried eggs still in the air, Sgt. Hassan Shegas, 31, climbs into the bed of the Humvee, careful not to touch the vehicle's oven-hot metal frame. He finds his prayer rug rolled alongside bedding and boxes of water, bomb-detection devices and sticks of explosives.

Under willow-like trees he faces southwest, toward Mecca, and follows the daily ritual of his faith. He stands, bends, sits and repeats -- a prayer offered next to a gift of water.

By Tiffany Harness  |  August 25, 2008; 7:35 AM ET  | Category:  Northern Iraq
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