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Optimism fades, but war goes on
San Francisco Chronicle


June 28, 2005

TIKRIT, Iraq - At Saddam Hussein's vast palace complex that is now the U.S. Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto contemplates the war American soldiers under his command are now waging.

"The enemy is intrinsic," said Taluto, who heads the 42nd Infantry Division and the Army units attached to it in Iraq. "They're infiltrating the Iraqi security forces as we speak. I don't know how big (the insurgency) is, but I think their capability is constantly replenished."

In more optimistic days, after the 2003 invasion, the Bush administration believed that American troops would be helping to rebuild schools, hospitals and water systems, and maintaining security while Iraqis set about establishing a new, democratic government. Then the troops could go home, with the thanks of the Iraqi people.

Instead, Iraqis now hold the soldiers responsible for the condition in which their country finds itself.

"Having all these humvees driving on the road, having to get out of the way, having us patrol, having bombs go off - you can understand how they could feel offended by our presence," Taluto said.

In conversations and interviews over the past month, U. S. soldiers under the command of the 42nd Infantry Division in Samarra and Tikrit came across as frustrated, sometimes disheartened, though still largely unbowed.

Some of them say that Iraqis will never accept the American presence. Others do not believe democracy can work here. The declining support in the United States for the war provokes anger. The mounting U.S. death and injury toll is depressing.

"I'm tired of going to my buddies' funerals," said Spc. Joshua Forman, from Sammamish, Wash., referring to memorial services the military holds for soldiers killed in Iraq.

What keeps them going in the 120-degree heat is a conviction that they must fight here to prevent future terrorist attacks on the United States. They also fight to honor the memories of comrades killed, while hoping that they can yet help build a better future for the Iraqis.

But everyone, from generals to privates, senses that the mission won't end soon.

"Before everything settles, it will be years," Taluto said. The Iraqis "have to understand that the (U.S.-led) coalition is a necessary evil, so to speak."

Soldiers in Samarra and Tikrit share their thoughts about the war and their role in it..

Lt. Col. Todd Wood

The 41-year-old from Indianola, Iowa, is commander of the 2-7 Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, based in Tikrit.

After watching the sun set behind the sandstone cliffs over the Tigris River on a recent evening, Wood climbed into his humvee and drove to visit a family of Sunni Arab squatters, who fled the ethnic clashes with the Kurds and the Turkomen in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk and now live in the bombed-out buildings of the former Iraqi Republican Guard training complex in Qadessiya, a village about 110 miles north of Baghdad.

As Wood's soldiers were handing out stuffed toys to barefoot children at the complex, a boy tugged on the sleeve of the colonel's interpreter, Omar Elmenshawi.

"Mister," the boy said, in English. Then, in Arabic: "There is a bomb in our yard."

Someone had hidden a rocket-propelled grenade and two mortars in shallow pits outside the building where the boy lived, and the boy thought there might be a homemade bomb in the rubble that surrounds the yard. So, what had started out as an exercise in good neighborliness became another bomb-sweeping operation. American soldiers put bright orange markers on the spots where the ordnance lay and Iraqi women looked on apprehensively.

"I can understand the frustrations Iraqi people have," Wood mused. "Some of them we cause with disrupted traffic, with our raids, our fighting the insurgents."

Wood, a Ranger with 900 men under his command, has been in Tikrit since January. A wiry man, Wood frequently patrols Tikrit on foot alongside his soldiers. He joins them in predawn raids as they search for insurgents, and calls many of them by their first names. He knows firsthand the frustrations, the doubts, the pain - five of his men have died in the past six months - and the tortured relationship between Iraqis and American soldiers.

He refers to the constant back and forth between occupier and occupied as a "chicken-and-egg discussion."

"They say: 'If you weren't here, there wouldn't be an insurgency.' And my reply to that is: 'If I weren't here, all kinds of things would be different.' "

Sgt. Darrell Foster

The 25-year-old from Buckhannon, W.Va., serves in the 2-7 Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

Foster's job is to figure out which of the passing civilian cars he sees from the turret of his armored humvee could be a bomb. The choking dust and the scorching sun add to the constant tension he feels as he scans the streets of Tikrit. And he is starting to have some doubts about what he is doing on his second tour of duty in Iraq.

In his first tour, during the invasion in 2003, "we didn't have to worry about IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs)," he says. "Now it's more, freaking, everybody's trying to kill us."

That and the growing U.S. death toll make him ponder whether the mission will succeed. In the short term, he concludes, it probably won't.

"A place like this, they've been ruled by some sort of dictator for thousands of years. You try to bring a peaceful solution, it's just not gonna work," he says.

"In my opinion, the people that are here right now aren't the ones we're doing this for. It's the kids. We want to show them the right attitude for when they grow up. They are the generation that we're doing this for.".

Pfc. Drew Madison

The 20-year-old from Jasper, Ala., serves in the 2-7 Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

On his laptop, Pfc. Drew Madison keeps pictures of his wife, Jessica ("she's gorgeous"), and of his 2-year old son, Tyler ("a star in my eye").

He also has a folder labeled "Blood & Guts."

In the folder are pictures of bloodied remains of suicide bombers and videos of mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces Madison has downloaded from radical Islamist Web sites.

"I've seen dogs tearing up a dead body. I've seen this guy, he got shot in the eye. I grabbed him to pull him out of the car, and turned his head and blood gushed from his eye socket like water from a bottle," Madison says.

The more he thinks of the horrors of war and the constant threat to his life and those of his comrades, the more furious he becomes at the questioning at home of the American war effort. It makes him feel, he says, as though he fights in vain.

"What do they know?" fumes Madison, a humvee driver, about Americans' dwindling support. "They're not over here! They've never been over here. We're the ones making sacrifices. We're leaving our families behind, fighting somebody else's war over here, trying to help this country set up democracy."



Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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