The sky is the orange of a burning flame as the sun fights to pierce the sandstorm whipped up by 40mph winds. Visibility is cut to 10 yards. Three young soldiers stand on guard at the edge of an American encampment halfway along the road from Basra to Baghdad.
Their military radio, the only contact with the world, has told them Iraqi paramilitaries are firing mortars again at the unit alongside them.
The clouds of dust bring with them the possibility of cover for a counter-attack.
The first of the soldiers draws on a cigarette and turns to his friend. “You bearing up'” he asks. “I feel like we are getting our arse whipped,” comes the reply. “Wherever I turn there is someone trying to kill me. Damn this country and damn these people.”
“Roger that,” the first replies. “Yesterday we were taking one of the soft top trucks and suddenly there are three Iraqis shooting at us. I was under that vehicle lying in the mud before I even knew it and the staff sergeant was there beside me as scared as I was.
“The Bradleys came up and started shooting the hell out of them. We got them. Took them prisoner. But, God, I thought I was going to piss myself.”
His friend turns to shield his eyes from the sand. “That’s the problem with this pussy army. We just wait to take hits. They (the Iraqis) took those mechanics prisoners and shot some of them in the heads. They start throwing shells at us and we can’t even fire back in case it hits civilians. Damn that ‘hearts and minds’ shit.”
The first turns to the third of the guards on duty who has been staring out into the sand clouds. “How you doing'”
“Not too good,” he says. In recent days he has repeatedly spoken of wanting to talk to his mother.
“You’ll be ok.”
“I don’t know if I will get out of this.”
“Yes you will. We’ll get through this.” The oldest, the first to speak, Sgt Bill Jones, is 21. The youngest, the last, Pte Roman Komlev, is 18. It is only four days since the US army crossed the Kuwait border but many of its soldiers are already tired and frightened.
People back in Britain and the US have a far better idea of what is going on in Iraq than the average soldier. The troops on the ground hear only the occasional snippet of information passed down the line, the bad news, such as the capture of soldiers or the renewed fighting in An Nasiriyah, moving the fastest.
Few are aware that the US forces are within sight of Baghdad or that waves of Apache helicopters and B52s have been blitzing the Republican Guards.
Even less have any idea of how many hostile Iraqis are out there and who it is who keeps taking shots at them from the cities that were meant to be already pacified.
For the vast majority, it is their first taste of combat. After the skirmishes around Tallil airfield over the weekend, one of the Abrams tank commanders caught in the fighting, 25-year-old Lt Davis Garavato, lay exhausted on the floor of a vehicle.
“You go through all that training,” he said. “You know you are in Iraq but, until you hear bullets and see those tracers, you don’t think any of it is real. I can remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe it. They’re taking on the might of the American army’. It shocked me.”
After the fight, the US soldiers clustered around a still smoking white lorry. Some were having their photographs taken.
An Iraqi can be seen lying on the ground, a rocket launcher fallen beside him. Someone had placed a jacket over his head. In the front seat are two skeletons, the flesh stripped off by the power of the American shell. In the back, a corpse has been burnt almost to ash, its blackened shape caught in the pain of its last moments, arms thrown up, head pushed back.
Amid yesterday’s sandstorm, some soldiers are sheltered inside an M88 maintenance vehicle, its hatches shut as protection from the dust and possible mortar fire.
“This is worse than Somalia,” Sgt Norman Weaver, the vehicle’s commander, said.
“That it is,” answers Sgt James Swinney, a medic.
“And you know the worst part of it' There is only one way home, and that’s through Baghdad.”