Troops Honed in '03 Fighting a Different War in Iraq

Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division say they have calmer approach now.
Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division say they have calmer approach now. (By Thomas E. Ricks -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

BAGHDAD -- During his first tour in Iraq two years ago, recalled Army Sgt. James Eyler, "the mindset of the whole unit was, if they pose a threat at all, shoot to kill."

Back then, "we didn't trust any Iraqis," he added as he manned a machine gun atop a Humvee and prepared to go out on a night raid this week. These days, Eyler says he is forcing himself to be more patient with Iraqis. "Now we understand that to get out of here, we're going to have to," he said.

In many respects, the war in Iraq in 2006 isn't the same as the one that was being fought in 2003-04, when the insurgency was emerging and taking U.S. commanders by surprise. No one in the U.S. military may understand the changes better than troops who were part of the initial occupation and have returned for a second tour -- and are being trained to be less quick on the trigger and more ready to give Iraqis the benefit of the doubt.

Said another machine gunner, Sgt. James Russell: "It's a lot less brute force and a lot more hearts-and-minds now."

Some soldiers' comments seem to reflect a growing sense that the U.S. military committed several major errors in 2003-04, when it lacked cultural understanding and tended to use force as the tool of first resort. "The first time we were here, there was a lot of overreacting," said Staff Sgt. Jesse Sample. "Now, with experience, we react a lot more calmly." Like all the other soldiers interviewed for this article, Sample is a member of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, which was headquartered in Tikrit in 2003-04 and is now based in Baghdad.

Preparing for a convoy on a particularly bomb-infested stretch of highway south of the capital, Sample added, "This tour is 180 degrees different from the last time." Now, he said, "we don't roll out into the city intimidating anyone we see."

Last time, Sgt. Kris Vanmarren saw his mission as being to "bust up the insurgency." This time, he said, it is geared more toward supporting Iraqi security forces -- outfitting their checkpoints, helping with their training and providing perimeter security for their operations.

"The focus has definitely shifted," agreed Capt. Klaudius Robinson, the Polish-born commander of a cavalry troop based south of Baghdad. On his current tour, he estimates, he spends half his time on "engagement" with the population, perhaps a quarter working with Iraqi forces and "maybe 20 percent going after the bad guys."

Robinson noted that every patrol he sends out includes an interpreter, in contrast to the first year of the U.S. military presence here. "It's a huge difference" being able to communicate clearly instead of using "hand signals and broken English."

In 2003-04, the 4th Infantry had a rash of abuse cases, including some illegal killings of detainees. For its second tour, the division has its own cultural adviser, who writes a kind of advice column on Islamic and Iraqi mores in the Ivy Leaf, the division newspaper.

Despite the changes, the Iraq veterans disagreed about some aspects of the current situation, such as whether it is more or less hazardous than before and whether the huge improvement in the quality of life for U.S. troops really helps boost their effectiveness.

"It's still a dangerous situation, but to be honest with you, I don't get the willies like I did last time," said Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Mann, who was based north of Baghdad at Taji in 2003-04 and now works in the capital as an adviser to the Iraqi army.

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