Published on Sunday, January 4, 2004 by the New York Times
For G.I.'s, Pride in War Efforts but Doubts About Iraq's Future
by Eric Schmitt
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 2 — American soldiers, from privates to generals, say they believe that their fight to restore security and stability in Iraq is winnable in the long run, but that an American military presence will be required for years to keep the country from falling into chaos.
In nearly 100 interviews and conversations in the last four weeks, soldiers across Iraq expressed a complex set of emotions and sentiments toward their rebuilding mission, now entering its ninth month.
They take enormous pride in having ousted Saddam Hussein and restored a semblance of normal life for many of the 25 million people in this war-battered nation. But they also voice a mix of pity, disdain and admiration for Iraqis and question what the future holds for this country and the military presence here. To succeed, many soldiers and commanders say, sizable numbers of American forces will have to remain here for three years or more.
Morale is generally high, but the guerrilla attacks that kill or maim soldiers have prompted many to endure their daily patrols by seeking refuge in dark humor. As one sergeant in the First Armored Division in Baghdad said recently, between drags on a cigarette, "Time flies when you think you're going to die."
There are good weeks and bad weeks, "like a roller coaster," as Brig. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, an assistant commander of the 101st Airborne Division, put it.
Soldiers are sensitive to the growing ambivalence — if not outright hostility — among some Iraqis to the American occupation, but say there are few alternatives. "They're glad Saddam is gone, but they're not sure they want us to stay either," said Cpl. Chris Ellis, 33, of Hopewell, Ala., who drives a Stryker combat vehicle. "But we're going to have to stick it out. If we don't, it'll be worse than it was before."
Senior commanders say they are mindful of the challenge in restoring security and stability, and in preparing for an Iraqi government to take control in July. "I'm not trying to win their hearts and minds," said Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, an assistant commander of the First Armored Division in Baghdad. "We're in a race against time to win the trust and confidence of the people."
Since the end of major combat on May 1, American forces have been fighting not only a shadowy insurgency that carries out hit-and-run strikes with rockets and remote-controlled roadside bombs, but also criminal operations — counterfeiting, prostitution, carjacking gangs and kidnapping — that officers here say are helping finance the attacks.
Restoring public services is a slow process. Unemployment remains over 50 percent in most of Iraq. Electricity is still intermittent in many neighborhoods in Baghdad. As insurgents increasingly use roadside bombs as a weapon, often killing more Iraqis than Americans, ordinary citizens are accusing soldiers of bringing this new plague upon them.
"The continuing welcome is dependent on making progress every single day, in terms of basic services, in terms of improving electricity flow, in terms of solving the fuel crisis, in terms of very basic needs — ration cards, schools, student-to-teacher ratio, roads, potholes, wells and then repair of basic infrastructure," said Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul.
"We're competing in a sense with this man-in-the-moon metaphor, which is: `You Americans can put a man on the moon, why can't you give me a job with a salary right now? Why can't you snap your fingers and produce 24-hour power?' "
Morale also shifts with the casualty toll. Casualties waned in early December, but after the capture of Mr. Hussein on Dec. 13, attacks spiked again over the holidays, killing more than 14 American soldiers and wounding more than 110.
Security is a crucial barometer to long-term success. "If you don't have security, you can't bring back the economic base, and the enemy is still trying to prevent that," General Hertling said. "If we're being held to a standard that the only way to win is have no more bombs go off, we won't live up to that. Our standard is to reduce them every day. This is the hardest thing I've ever done."
As a new force of about 110,000 soldiers prepares to begin replacing the 130,000 who have been here for a year, commanders say the size and duration of the American military presence depend on the threat and how quickly Iraqi security forces effectively assume control.
Privately, the same soldiers and officers say American forces will be needed here for at least three to five years. "That's not unrealistic," Capt. Matthew J. Konz, a company commander with the 101st Airborne, responsible for quelling unrest in the town of Hammam al Ali, south of Mosul, said when asked if that estimate was reasonable.
Commanders see morale among most of the troops here as high, largely because most units are counting down their last months in Iraq, or have just arrived. "Are they going to tell you they're glad to be here? No," said Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division. "I'd rather be home with my family, too. But I think they're getting some satisfaction in what they're doing."
But soldiers expressed a variety of views. "Everyone's afraid of dying," said Sgt. Latonya Williams, 27, with the 64th Forward Supply Battalion of Fort Carson, Colo., a single mother from Houston with a 2-year-old son at home with her mother. "We're not God. But we signed up for this."
Sgt. Mercury Goodman, 27, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., a Fourth Division infantryman, disagreed: "I think we're just targets. I don't think we're doing any good."
But most soldiers and commanders say they have seen a difference since American forces toppled Mr. Hussein's government. Intelligence officers believe that continual raids have put a dent in the insurgents' finances and in their ability to recruit attackers. Daily life is flourishing for Iraqis in many places.
"Things are a lot better here," said First Lt. Matthew Cannon, 25, of St. Petersburg, Fla., second in command of a company in the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols the predominantly Shiite section of Baghdad called Sadr City. "Restaurants and kebab stands have opened. People are everywhere on the streets. Kids are playing soccer. But we still get some thumbs down."
Sometimes, the reward is more personal. "When a doctor comes up to you and says, `Thank you for my freedom,' what do you say to that?" said Captain Konz, the company commander with the 101st Airborne.
The capture of Mr. Hussein has prompted more Iraqis to share information with American forces, commanders say, and has helped to erode a psychology of fear that prevailed during his rule. "I know this was important to a lot of people who didn't have the power to do anything about it," said Col. James B. Hickey, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division's First Brigade, which led the raid to capture Mr. Hussein.
Still, there is mistrust and suspicion on both sides. Few soldiers know Arabic or have much direct contact with Iraqi civilians, whom many soldiers derisively call "hajjis." Many soldiers have a sense that even their Iraqi allies cannot be completely trusted. "We watch what we say around our translators and the Iraqi police," said Capt. Tim Zamora, 34, a company commander in the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Soldiers say they know Mr. Hussein's 35-year rule squelched personal initiative. Still, they express frustration that Iraqis are not taking the lead to rebuild the country's infrastructure and economy — or even clean up trash and rubble.
"Sometimes I don't know what to think," said Staff Sgt. William Persuhn, a platoon sergeant in the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. "Now they have a little bit of democracy, they're learning how to use it. But it doesn't seem like they want to help themselves."
The new Iraqi security services — from the police to a militia — are growing steadily, toward a goal of 220,000 total members by later this year. As might be expected, there are growing pains — with new police forces learning concepts new to them, like neighborhood patrols and criminal interrogations. Deeper barriers persist too.
"Tribal loyalty trumps whatever oath they took as police officers," said Col. Frederick B. Hodges, who commands the First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division south of Mosul. "They're not going to shoot or arrest someone from a different tribe for fear of retribution. It's not totally hopeless, but it'll take time."
Perhaps the most difficult task for the American troops is not to alienate civilians with their tactics. One night recently, First Lt. Leonardo Flor's platoon from the new Stryker Brigade conducted a raid against a group suspected of recruiting insurgents. At the suspects' house, soldiers wearing night-vision goggles first tried to batter down the front door and, when that failed, blew it open with eight shotgun blasts. Soldiers poured in, rifles at the ready, streaming into bedrooms.
More than 20 women and children were herded into one room, under guard. Half a dozen men were put in another. In the end, the raid turned up only a couple of World War II-era rifles and some sheaves of papers.
Lieutenant Flor, 23, a West Point graduate, ordered his men to tidy up. He reviewed the damage — a broken television and doors broken by the shotgun blasts — pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, peeled off $120, and handed it to one of the Iraqi men. The dazed man signed a receipt for the reparations, and the soldiers trooped out into the dark, cold morning.
The platoon's soldiers voiced disappointment at what they felt was becoming a series of dry holes. Lieutenant Flor gave a pep talk, praising their execution of the mission, even if the intelligence was wrong.
Since May, the military has paid out more than $2 million in damage and injury claims from Iraqis.
Later, Lieutenant Flor expressed a concern echoed by many commanders. "There are only so many missions when you bust into people's homes and separate families," he said, "before you start causing problems that didn't exist."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company