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The New York Times
Divided Mission in Iraq Tempers Views of G. I.'s
By EDWARD WONG
May 17, 2004
KARBALA, Iraq, May 16 Six weeks ago, soldiers of the First Armored Division were renovating schools. Now they are raiding them for hidden munitions.
Children wave to them along the roads, while insurgents with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades make them targets.
"Our mission is to rebuild this country, but the thing is, the bad guys won't let us do it," said Specialist Jennifer Marie Bencze, 20, of Santa Rosa, Calif. "At the same time we've got engineers rebuilding schools, fixing roads, doing all the humanitarian projects, we've got infantry fighting the bad guys. So the mission is really confused."
Here in the Shiite heartland, the division is caught up in the fiercest and deadliest fighting now under way in Iraq. That is a far cry from May 2003, when it rolled into Iraq thinking the war was all but over, ready to plant Western-style institutions in this arid land. Interviews with dozens of soldiers over the last two weeks suggest that their idealism has been tempered.
All agree the war is at a crucial juncture, but few soldiers can say with certainty how to achieve victory or even what might constitute victory.
"I think Bush is a good man, but over here, it's not as easy as he makes it sound," said Specialist Matthew DeGregorio, 35, a reservist in civil affairs charged with persuading Iraqis to work on projects with the Americans. "Nobody buys the fact that it's so easy."
"To be honest, I'd say there are things that need to be worked out," he added. "I'd say they need even more men in the entire country. I think it goes back to the cuts in the military. I think they're leaning too heavily on the National Guard and the Reserves."
The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib concerns soldiers, too. They ask whether their work has been irrevocably tarnished in the minds of Americans and Iraqis. "Now we wonder what people back home think of us," said First Lt. Erik Iliff, 24, of Columbia, S.C. "Will it be like Vietnam, where everyone who's fought there is labeled a baby killer?"
As for Iraqi opinion, Specialist DeGregorio said the scandal "adds fuel to the fire."
"We're not only seen as an occupier, but we're seen messing with their people and doing sick stuff," he said. "Rumors and stuff you see on TV are huge here. They've already had it driven into their heads by Saddam Hussein that America is the Great Satan."
Many of the soldiers are tired. They were supposed to go home at the end of April, but their tour was extended four months when it became clear that troop numbers were too low. They share a sense of camaraderie though, forged by working together during what is for most of them the toughest year of their lives.
At Camp Lima, a military base on the outskirts of Karbala, they sleep scores to a tent in 100-plus degree heat. They are barred from indulging in sex and alcohol. When they do leave the base, it is often to get shot at or to kill people.
The strength of the insurgency persuades some soldiers here that a strong American military presence must remain in Iraq. "We're just trying to take this big ball of mess and keep it from exploding," said Lt. Josey Sandoval, 24, of Seattle. "If the U.S. Army left right now, this country would tear itself apart."
For others, the mission that began with clear objectives is murkier than ever.
They were assigned in Baghdad to do reconstruction work and patrol the streets. Then came the two-front uprising last month, in Falluja, west of Baghdad, and in Karbala and other southern cities, and with that the division rushed south to fight militiamen loyal to the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
Over the year, some ambitious goals fell by the wayside. Lieutenant Iliff recalled the day he had to cancel elections in December for seats on a neighborhood council in Baghdad. First, the men tried to bar women from voting. Then they mobbed the ballot box. The lieutenant ended up hand-picking three people for the seats.
Whatever government does take root, "I think it'll have to be an Iraqi version of it," he said, adding: "Westernized democracy just won't work. They haven't been taught from a young age to think the way we think in the West. They don't have an understanding of the same rights."
Cpl. Jonathan Torres, 20, of Puerto Rico, echoed that sentiment: "It's going to take a lot longer than they thought it would. Here, people are used to another way of living. They thought they could change it in one or two years. It's going to take a lot longer."
Asked to describe his mission, Sgt. Daniel Rigole, 23, a tent-mate of Corporal Torres, said: "It just seems like we're trying to police. In my personal opinion, it's a job for the United Nations." "Our job as combat engineers has nothing to do with driving around, policing people up," he added. In their hot and fetid tent, Sergeant Rigole and several soldiers talked of American casualties suffered in recent fighting around the Mukhaiyam Mosque. Three soldiers have been killed and at least 55 wounded since the First Armored Division opened the offensive against Mr. Sadr's militia two weeks ago. Daily battles rage in downtown Karbala. The division's casualty rate is running higher than at any time in the last year.
Sergeant Rigole said he believed that outside Iraq, "nobody cares anymore, because it's just becoming another part of life."
"When it's somebody of your own, that's somebody who was watching your back and you were watching his back," he said. "It's part of your family, you know. Even when it's someone who's part of another unit, you still care."
Corporal Torres observed: "It builds some type of anger. It makes you angry at the enemy."
A soldier close to an infantryman killed by a sniper stopped by a reporter's room at the base and almost punched the wall. He was on the verge of tears. "I want you to tell people that this is ridiculous," he said. "We know where the enemy is. We could take them out. But we're holding back because of politics."
He was speaking of the balance adopted by American commanders, who have refrained from attacking insurgents holed up around two especially important shrines in downtown Karbala out of fear that they could inflame Shiite Muslims the world over. Most of the mortars and rocket-propelled grenades being fired at Americans are coming from that area. It is a dilemma intrinsic to the kind of urban warfare the Americans have been drawn into weighing the potential of a public backlash against the need to win a decisive victory with the fewest casualties.
"It does limit some of our options," said Lt. Col. Garry P. Bishop, the commander of American forces in Karbala. "But you can win a battle and lose a war if we turn the will of the people against us."
Many soldiers say the allegiance of the Iraqi people is still up in the air, and whichever way it swings will determine the outcome of the war. At the moment, some say, the insurgents are crushing the Americans in the propaganda campaign.
"They're really working us over," said Capt. Charles Fowler, 37, a reservist in civil affairs from Vidalia, Ga. "We're doing a lot of great, great stuff. We really are. We're just not getting credit for it."
The captain said he was failing to win over noncommittal Iraqis, those he called fence riders. Without criticizing American politicians or civilian officials, he said administrators seemed to be constantly changing their plans for Iraq, sowing uncertainty among Iraqis. That seemed especially true of the muddled proposals for setting up an interim government to take "limited sovereignty" after June 30.
"I think we should have clarified it and told people we had a definite concrete plan, something like, `Look, this is what's going to happen,' " he said. "They're really just waiting to see what's going to happen."
"They ask me what's going to happen," the captain added. "Hell, I don't even know. It makes it very difficult right now. It makes it very difficult for me. One thing I can't do is make promises that we can't keep."
Lieutenant Iliff, the officer who tried organizing elections in Baghdad, said: "People are so easily swayed. That's a source of frustration. One week they're waving at us; the next week they throw rocks at us. Then we build a playground, and they're waving at us again."
Many soldiers also expressed disappointment at the waning support in the United States for the war effort. Some said they feared that support would further erode in light of the disclosures of Abu Ghraib. They condemned the acts of the prison guards, but also said they were not paying much attention to the scandal since they had almost no access to the news.
Specialist Bencze said: "It's hard knowing that the actions of a few people can try to ruin the work we've done for the last year. I felt we'd been making a lot of progress here, and this was a roadblock."
Some soldiers blamed the news media's coverage of the fighting for fanning antiwar sentiments back home.
"For 10 months, it was my position that the American public saw too much of the shooting and the killing and not enough of the humanitarian side of things," Colonel Bishop said. "In my area in Baghdad, there were 80 schools renovated, $1.7 million of aid given out and 29 different sewer renovation projects."
In the end, the soldiers grasped at small signs that told them they were doing some good here. On a recent morning, as a convoy was returning to base after a battle at an amusement park, children ran out of their homes and waved to the soldiers. Specialist Ryan Stewart, 26, a surfer from Santa Paula, Calif., took a hand off his M-240 SAW machine gun and waved back. "That makes things seem a bit better," he said.
He was wounded by shrapnel more than a week later and flown out to Germany for care. His fiancée awaited him there. For him, the war was over.