, Salem, MA

November 17, 2007

U.S. raids Iraqi villages looking for missing Lawrence soldier, comrade

LAWRENCE | While hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops descended on a remote desert area southwest of Baghdad yesterday, Andy Jimenez was watching television news at home hoping of word his son is still alive.

The soldiers went house-to-house after a pre-dawn air assault into two villages in search of Army Spc. Alex Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence and Pvt. Byron Fouty, 19, of Michigan | missing since an ambush six months ago.

"It reassures me that they are looking for them," Andy Jimenez said last night.

"My biggest hope and desire is that they find them soon. It would be the best gift from God if we get them home for Thanksgiving or Christmas," he said.

In Iraq, U.S. officers said there was no sign of the soldiers but stressed it was only the first day of the operation dubbed Marne Courageous, which also aimed to establish a long-term presence west of the Euphrates River in a former al-Qaida stronghold.

Jimenez and Fouty, members of the 10th Mountain Division, were seized May 12 when insurgents overran a checkpoint in an area south of Baghdad known as the "triangle of death."

A third soldier, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., of California, was also captured, but his body was found May 23 in the Euphrates River. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed.

"There have been a series of different sources and a lot of different avenues that led us to this area looking for al-Qaida and of course the missing soldiers," Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, said of yesterday's raids.

Caraccilo's unit took over last month from the 10th Mountain Division but promised to continue the search for Jimenez and Fouty.

Associated Press photos showed a woman shrouded in black watching as soldiers dug in the sand. Soldiers said she claimed bodies were buried in the area, but officials declined to comment on specific tips and insisted they remained optimistic the soldiers were alive.

Andy Jimenez, 53, of Albion Street, sat at home with his friend of 11 years, Jose Mejia. They kept an eye on the television, as Jimenez answered calls from friends and family members from Florida to New York.

"I'm very excited," said Mejia of the new developments. "Every time we hear good news, you know there will be hope."

Jimenez said these past six months have been extremely difficult, but friends have been a source of support. "I've cried many times, but what keeps me strong is the faith and support of others," he said.

On Tuesday, Jimenez, along with James Sereigo-Wareing, founder and director of New England Caring for Our Military, and members of Fouty's family will go to Fort Drum, N.Y. to meet with members of the 10th Mountain Division.

"I'm glad I'm going," Jimenez said. "I want to talk to them and hear what they can tell me about Alex."

The raids yesterday began about 4 a.m. after two Chinook helicopters and eight Black Hawks making multiple runs dropped more than 600 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers into the villages of Owesat and Betra, about 15 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital.

The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida, claimed in an Internet video that the missing soldiers were killed and buried. The militants showed images of the military IDs of Jimenez and Fouty but offered no proof that they were dead.

On June 16 the U.S. military disclosed that it had found the identification cards of Jimenez and Fouty in an al-Qaida safe house near Samarra, more than 100 miles north of where they disappeared. The house contained video production equipment, computers and weapons but no people.