For GI's in Iraq, pride, progress and uncertainty

Posted in Iraq | 05-Jan-04 | Author: Eric Schmitt| Source: The New York Times

Morale is high, but troops are wary of future

Coalition Forces cordon and search Abu Ghurayb Market after a grenade attack on American soldiers in Baghdad, Iraq on Nov. 2, 2003.
BAGHDAD - U.S. soldiers, from privates to generals, say they believe their fight to restore security and stability in Iraq is winnable in the long run, but that a U.S. military presence will be required for years to keep the country from falling into chaos.

In nearly 100 interviews and conversations in the past 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 country. But they also voice a mix of pity, disdain and admiration for Iraqis and question what the future holds for Iraq and the U.S. military presence here. To succeed, many soldiers and commanders say, sizable numbers of U.S. forces will have to remain 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 1st Armored Division in Baghdad phrased it recently, "Time flies when you think you're going to die."

There are good weeks and bad weeks, "like a roller coaster," as Brigadier General Frank Helmick, an assistant commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said.

Soldiers are sensitive to the growing ambivalence - if not outright hostility - among some Iraqis to the allied 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 Corporal Chris Ellis, 33, of Hopewell, Alabama, 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 steep 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 Brigadier General Mark Hertling, an assistant commander of the 1st 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, U.S. forces have been fighting not only an elusive 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 has been a slow process. Unemployment rates remain more than 50 percent in most of Iraq. Electricity is still intermittent in many neighborhoods here in the capital.

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 Major General David 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 of U.S. soldiers also seems to shift with the casualty toll.

Casualties waned in early December, but after the capture of Saddam on Dec. 13, attacks spiked again over the holidays, killing more than 14 U.S. 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," 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 U.S. military presence depend on the threat and how quickly Iraqi security forces effectively assume control.

Privately, the same soldiers and officers say U.S. forces will be needed here for at least three to five years. "That's not unrealistic," Captain Matthew Konz, a company commander with the 101st Airborne Division, said when asked if that estimate was reasonable.

Commanders said they saw 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 Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division. "I'd rather be home with my family, too. But I think they're getting some satisfaction in what they're doing."

Soldiers expressed a variety of views.

"Everyone's afraid of dying," said Sergeant Latonya Williams, 27, with the 64th Forward Supply Battalion, Fort Carson, Colorado, who is a single mother from Houston with a 2-year-old son at home with Williams's mother. "We're not God. But we signed up for this."

Sergeant Mercury Goodman, 27, of San Luis Obispo, California, a 4th Division infantryman, disagreed: "I think we're just targets. I don't think we're doing any good."

But most soldiers and commanders interviewed say they have seen a difference since U.S. forces toppled Saddam's government. Intelligence officers said they believed continual raids had 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 Lieutenant Matthew Cannon, 25, of St. Petersburg, Florida, second in command of a company in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment which patrols the Sadr City section of Baghdad. "Restaurants and kebab stands have opened. People are everywhere on the streets. Kids are playing soccer. But we still get some thumbs down."

The capture of Saddam has prompted more Iraqis to share information with U.S. 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 Colonel James Hickey, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, which led the raid to capture Saddam.

Soldiers say they know Saddam'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 Sergeant William Persuhn, a platoon sergeant in the 2nd 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 police force and civil defense corps are growing steadily, toward a goal of 220,000 members this year. As might be expected, there are growing pains. Deeper barriers persist too.

"Tribal loyalty trumps whatever oath they took as police officers," said Colonel Frederick Hodges, who commands the 1st 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."