CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - A Marine appeared in the doorway of the battalion commander's office. "Sir, we've got an ident on a mortar team."
Marine Lt. Col. Nate Nastase stood up behind his desk. He'd been briefing me on his area of operations just east of Fallujah, where the sheiks recently flipped to our side and a fading, but still lethal, al Qaeda struggled to stay in the game.
Nastase moves with a purpose. He led the way through the smack-down heat to the operations center next door. Adrenaline laced the air. The ops staff of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, believed they had a fix on a target they'd been hunting, a terrorist hit-and-run mortar crew determined to announce that al Qaeda was still around.
But there was a problem. Ordinarily, Marine artillery would've shot counter-fire as soon as their radars picked up the incoming round. But there had been a line-of-fire issue. Fortunately, a well planned surveillance mission was in the air at just the right spot. The system didn't catch the round being fired, but quickly spotted a vehicle at the shooter's location.
It didn't seem like a coincidence. The area was a scrub waste, with no one else in evidence. There was no good reason for anybody to be there.
Lt. Col. Nastase would have to make the decision to green-light an airstrike.
Sounds clear-cut. But few things are straightforward in Iraq. Since no one saw a concealed mortar actually fire from the truck or beside it, it was impossible to be 100 percent certain.
What if it was a coincidence? The Marines had spent months building a crucial partnership with local tribes who had been our enemies for years. Now the local Sunni Arabs are on board in the fight against al Qaeda (and al Qaeda doesn't like it - earlier in the week, a mortar round killed a key sheik's daughter and one of his bodyguards).
Everyone in the room and the adjacent bay felt the same longing to pull the trigger, to take out that mortar crew. But Nastase would have to decide. And the vehicle was already on the move, headed toward another unit's sector, jumping a boundary - the military equivalent of a state line.
Nastase remained a study in self-control, reining in the emotions in the room simply by giving clear instructions and asking short, sharp questions. Appearing no older than a captain, Nastase looks like a combination of Tom Cruise and a Sicilian boxer.
A ground-attack aircraft was on station, but would soon need to refuel. What did the battalion commander want to do?
Suddenly, the target vehicle stopped in the middle of nowhere. Another vehicle, pointed in the opposite direction, pulled up beside it. Was the mortar crew switching rides, letting an unsuspecting driver take the hit if the Americans were on to them? Was evidence being transferred?
What if there was an innocent explanation for the vehicles' behavior? A misguided attack could alienate the locals again.
The vehicles broke apart, with the main suspect taking off toward the sister unit's sector. That meant checking to ensure that no friendlies were in the area and coordinating all fires - if the decision were made to shoot.
The vehicle pulled up beside a house. Just inside the other unit's boundary.
What if al Qaeda were setting the entire thing up to get us to attack a home where women and children were present? What if they were playing all of our technical advantages against us and springing a political trap? Contrary to the myths of the left, no Americans leaders want to harm the innocent. And the local repercussions of bad targeting could set back reconciliation efforts by months.
Still, everybody in that room wanted to shoot. Hitting back is the natural impulse for Marines or soldiers - get the enemy, any time you can. Nail that mortar team while we've got them.
Everything was in place for the attack.
The commander looked over the incoming data one last time. A decisive man, Nastase still had to be the one perfectly clear thinker in the room. Everyone else was doing his job, and doing it well. But unleashing the power of the U.S. military was up to one lieutenant colonel.
He chose not to shoot. If a surveillance system had actually spotted a mortar round coming out of the vehicle or from a position near it, the decision would have gone the other way. But there was just enough uncertainty to convince the battalion commander that protecting the vital, new alliance with the local sheiks was the priority.
Everyone must've been disappointed. But they didn't show it. They're Marines. They just carry on with the mission.
Nastase must've felt the letdown, too. But he was comfortable with his decision. And the mission wasn't a complete failure, not by any means: Two suspect vehicles had been ID'd and the Marines could be on the look-out for them. A house had been pinpointed as a potential terrorist safe haven or staging area - the adjacent unit could raid it, maybe grabbing key terrorists and making an intelligence score.
All of the work by the troops out in the outposts and on patrol and by the staff was paying off: The Marines had narrowed down the possibilities and had known approximately where to watch for the terrorists this time. Next time might well be their last time. That mortar team wasn't going to live long.
But the round had gone to the terrorists. Even though they shot wild - almost as if they'd really been nothing but bait.
Everyone yearns to do the satisfying thing. But a leader has to do the wise thing. The battalion commander hadn't held back from a lack of guts, but because he knew that, this time, restraint was a better fit for his mission.
But it was a hard decision to make.
Lt. Col. Nastase gave a few final orders and walked back out into the heat. Alone.