BAGHDAD, June 19 -- Facing daily assaults from a well-armed resistance, U.S. troops in volatile central Iraq say they are growing frustrated and disillusioned with their role as postwar peacekeepers.
In conversations in a half-dozen towns across central Iraq, soldiers complained that they have been insufficiently equipped for peacekeeping and too thinly deployed in areas where they are under attack from fighters evidently loyal to deposed president Saddam Hussein. Others questioned whether the armed opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq may be deeper and more organized than military commanders have acknowledged.
What are we getting into here? The war is supposed to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?
US Army's 4th Infantry Division
"What are we getting into here?" asked a sergeant with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division who is stationed near Baqubah, a city 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. "The war is supposed to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn't in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?"
Today, a soldier from the 804th Medical Brigade was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck a military ambulance carrying a soldier wounded in another incident, said Capt. John Morgan, a military spokesman here. The attack, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, produced the third U.S. fatality from hostile fire in four days. Two other soldiers were wounded in today's ambush.
Most armed assaults on U.S. military personnel have occurred in an arc of towns and cities to the north and west of Baghdad, where support for Hussein was deepest. U.S. forces also have mounted a massive counterinsurgency drive in the region. Areas south of the city, where no such counterattack has been launched, had been quiet until today.
The weapons used against the Americans also have been increasing in power. In Samarra, a city about 70 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. troops killed an Iraqi today and captured another after they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank. On Wednesday, three mortar shells rained on a U.S.-run civil administration office in the city, killing an Iraqi bystander, military spokesmen said.
Some soldiers are vexed by what they see as a contradictory reception from Iraqis. Sometimes the public appears welcoming, sometimes actively hostile. The problem recalls other military U.S. deployments, including in Afghanistan, where it can be difficult to distinguish friends from enemies.
"The way it seemed is, once Iraqis got over being grateful for getting rid of Saddam, they found out quickly they don't want the Americans, either," said Sgt. Nestor Torres, a military policeman with the 3rd Infantry Division in the restive town of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. "Everyone is blending in with everyone else, so you can't tell the friendly ones from the hostile."
Torres is a bodyguard for the division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III. "When I look around, I've got to wonder who wants to shoot my boss," Torres said.
Iraqi boys climb on top of a destroyed US military ambulance in the al-Dura district of Baghdad, as one flashes a V for victory sign. A US medic was killed and two others wounded in the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack. (AFP/Cris Bouroncle)
Peacekeeping duty in Iraq has made soldiers particularly vulnerable. Troops at police stations and on guard duty at banks, electrical installations and fuel stations are frequent targets of sniping. Soldiers have been fired on when delivering propane gas. Bystanders throw stones at them when they are constructing soccer fields or fixing schools.
By contrast, no American has been killed during the recent armed raids in northern and western Iraq, during which U.S. troops have tried to apprehend suspected Baath Party militiamen, fighters from Saddam's Fedayeen and other Hussein loyalists.
Some soldiers complain they are playing roles for which they are ill-prepared. In Baqubah, the domain of the 4th Infantry's 2nd Brigade, combat engineers who specialize in weapons demolition and building bridges have been given a new mission: to drive around in their M113 armored personnel carriers to fight crime.
"I don't know why they're keeping us around here," said Cpl. Anthony Arteaga, 25, of Hammond, La., who is assigned to the 588th Engineer Battalion. "We're not peacekeepers. We're heavy-combat engineers."
As Arteaga's M113 roared out of a parking lot to conduct a patrol, the noise of the engine drowned out nearby conversations, prompting Pvt. Dan Sullivan, 21, of Gainesville, Fla., to complain that the vehicle was ill-suited for catching criminals.
"They hear you from two miles away," he said. "By the time we get there, the bad guys are gone."
Sullivan also said that the armored vehicle was too wide to travel down some of Baqubah's narrower streets. "This wasn't made for patrolling a city," he said.
But that is what the battalion has been doing for the past six weeks. Assigned to squelch the lawlessness that followed the downfall of Hussein's government and confiscate illegal weapons, the unit's M113s rumble through the city for hours at a time, even under the blazing afternoon sun. Soldiers decked out in full combat attire, including heavy flak jackets, poke out of the hatch, their M-16 rifles at the ready.
When the battalion first arrived in Baqubah in late April, "every single person was waving at us," said 2nd Lt. Skip Boston, 24, of Marshalltown, Iowa. Now, he said, "they just stare."
"A man told me the other day that we've been here for two months and nothing's changed," Boston said. "That's not really true, but all they see is us riding up and down the roads and being a nuisance for them."
The focus on crime fighting has annoyed Boston and his men, who said they would rather be blowing up ammunition caches. "It's getting really frustrating," Sullivan said. "We took the city, but what was it for? We took one bad guy out, but now there are lots of bad guys here."
After President Bush declared on May 1 that major combat in Iraq was finished, many soldiers assumed they would be returning to the United States in a matter of weeks. But withdrawal plans have been placed on hold. Not only have military units have been reassigned to street patrols, many are still living in the same spartan camps they pitched two months ago, where they eat rations and sleep in dusty tents.
The inability to unwind outside their camps or interact with Iraqis in a non-military setting has added to soldiers' frustration, several said. Soldiers are prohibited from leaving their compounds without a weapon, body armor and a specific mission. Although they are encouraged to talk to Iraqis while on patrol, they have been urged not to eat local food, and alcohol consumption is prohibited by a general order applying to all military personnel in Iraq.
At a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad set up to search for illegal weapons, a soldier sweating in the 110-degree heat told a reporter, "Tell President Bush to bring us home." On a skylight atop Fallujah's city hall, a soldier has scrawled in the dust: "I'll kill for a ticket home."
Elements of Blount's 3rd Infantry Division have been away from their home base at Fort Stewart, Ga., since September, when they were deployed to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion. After spearheading the race to Baghdad and the conquest of the capital, many in the division expected to be sent home. Instead, they were dispatched to Fallujah to put down a budding revolt.
"Fatigue could come," Blount, the division commander, said in an interview. "They are getting tired. But morale is still pretty good."
Others contend spirits already are slipping, particularly among reservists who did not anticipate staying in Iraq for more than a few months. "It's a cliche, but winning the war is easy," said Master Sgt. Steven Quick, a reservist and police officer from Severn, Md. "Winning the peace is difficult. For future recruitment and retaining of reservists, there has to be a clear idea of when we can go home in situations like this."
Even relatively simple projects designed to show goodwill can turn sour. Military engineers recently cleared garbage from a field in Fallujah, resurfaced it with dirt and put up goal posts to create an instant soccer field.
A day later, the goal posts were stolen and all the dirt had been scraped from the field. Garbage began to pile up again. "Is this animosity, crime or both? What kind of people loot dirt?" said Capt. Allen Vaught, from the 490th Civil Affairs Battalion. "We can't build stuff and then have everyone just help themselves. We don't get anywhere that way."
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