Troops Honed in '03 Fighting a Different War in Iraq

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.

But other soldiers on their second tours said today's war is tougher than the one they remember. Sgt. 1st Class Charles Ilaoa, an American Samoan platoon sergeant operating at an outpost southwest of Baghdad called San Juan, said: "The insurgents are getting a lot better."

In his first tour, he said, it was easier to spot homemade bombs, called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Now, he said, "the IEDs are a lot more complicated. . . . They have more sophisticated, deeply buried ones."

In 2003, it was common to come across insurgents in the open, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, said Russell, the Humvee gunner. "Now you don't see them," he said.

Even shooting has changed. Of more than a dozen soldiers asked to compare their first and second tours of duty, all agreed that the rules of engagement that govern the use of force have grown much tighter, and most said they thought the new restrictions were for the good. "It's a little bit harder. You're kind of tied down," said Ilaoa. Even so, he said, "we treat locals a lot better and have a lot better relations with them."

In 2003, if two men were seen walking on a road in the middle of the night and carrying shovels, they would be assumed to be planting bombs and be shot, said Capt. John Moris. But "what was allowed during the first tour in Iraq, isn't," he said. Now the order likely would be to detain and question the men, if possible.

On their bases, the troops of the 4th Infantry have found new comforts during this tour. In 2003, "we didn't get a lot of rest, and we lived on MREs and water," Russell said, referring to the packaged rations called Meals Ready to Eat. Now food is plentiful, and tailored to the palates of young men happy to dine on unlimited cheeseburgers, soft drinks and ice cream.

Almost all troops sleep in air-conditioned rooms and have ready access to the Internet. Forward Operating Base Falcon even boasts a pseudo nightclub, The Velvet Camel, which serves alcohol-free beer and advertises that "every Friday night is Hip-Hop Night," featuring "the Desert Pimps."

When troops leave the base for patrols or raids, they are better protected than in the past. Robinson recalled that many soldiers in 2003 had "the old Vietnam-era flak vest," which lacked bullet-stopping plates. Now everyone heading out wears improved body armor with solid plates, and machine gunners working atop vehicles also have thick face shields and are surrounded by an armored turret.

Today's war is so different that commanders said they occasionally keep a wary eye on troops who served in Iraq in 2003-04. Capt. Bret Lindberg, a troop commander, said "some of the guys who have been here before think they can make Iraqis do whatever they want, especially to ensure their own security. . . . I have to hold them back a bit."

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