By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; A01
BAGHDAD, July 26 Army Staff Sgt. Jose Sixtos considered the simple question about morale for more than an hour. But not until his convoy of armored Humvees had finally rumbled back into the Baghdad military base, and the soldiers emptied the ammunition from their machine guns, and passed off the bomb-detecting robot to another patrol, did he turn around in his seat and give his answer.
"Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes twice a day, in 120-degree heat," he said. "Then ask how morale is."
Frustrated? "You have no idea," he said.
As President Bush plans to deploy more troops in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers who have been patrolling the capital for months describe a deadly and infuriating mission in which the enemy is elusive and success hard to find. Each day, convoys of Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles leave Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad with the goal of stopping violence between warring Iraqi religious sects, training the Iraqi army and police to take over the duty, and reporting back on the availability of basic services for Iraqi civilians.
But some soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division -- interviewed over four days on base and on patrols -- say they have grown increasingly disillusioned about their ability to quell the violence and their reason for fighting. The battalion of more than 750 people arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait in March, and since then, six soldiers have been killed and 21 wounded.
"It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we're driving around waiting to get blown up. That's the most honest answer I could give you," said Spec. Tim Ivey, 28, of San Antonio, a muscular former backup fullback for Baylor University. "You lose a couple friends and it gets hard."
"No one wants to be here, you know, no one is truly enthused about what we do," said Sgt. Christopher Dugger, the squad leader. "We were excited, but then it just wears on you -- there's only so much you can take. Like me, personally, I want to fight in a war like World War II. I want to fight an enemy. And this, out here," he said, motioning around the scorched sand-and-gravel base, the rows of Humvees and barracks, toward the trash-strewn streets of Baghdad outside, "there is no enemy, it's a faceless enemy. He's out there, but he's hiding."
"We're trained as an Army to fight and destroy the enemy and then take over," added Dugger, 26, of Reno, Nev. "But I don't think we're trained enough to push along a country, and that's what we're actually doing out here."
"It's frustrating, but we are definitely a help to these people," he said. "I'm out here with the guys that I know so well, and I couldn't picture myself being anywhere else."'Never-Ending Battle'
After a five-hour patrol on Saturday through southern Baghdad neighborhoods, soldiers from the 1st Platoon sat on wooden benches in an enclosed porch outside their barracks. Faces flushed and dirty from the grit and a beating sun, they smoked cigarettes and tossed them at a rusted can that said "Butts."
The commanders in Baghdad and the Pentagon are "looking at the big picture all the time, but for us, we don't see no big picture, it's just always another bomb out here," said Spec. Joshua Steffey, 24, of Asheville, N.C. The company's commanding officer, Capt. Douglas A. DiCenzo of Plymouth, N.H., and his gunner, Spec. Robert E. Blair of Ocala, Fla., were killed by a roadside bomb in May.
Steffey said he wished "somebody would explain to us, 'Hey, this is what we're working for.' " With a stream of expletives, he said he could not care less "if Iraq's free" or "if they're a democracy."
"The first time somebody you know dies, the first thing you ask yourself is, 'Well, what did he die for?' "
"At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America," added Spec. David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat alongside Steffey. "It's like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it's just like if the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back out there."
"My personal opinion, I don't speak for the rest of anybody, I just speak for me personally, I think civil war is going to happen regardless," Steffey responded. "Maybe this country needs it: One side has to win. Be it Sunni, be it Shiite, one side has to win. It's apparent, these people have made it obvious they can't live in unity."
It was dark now save for one fluorescent light and the cigarette tips glowing red.
"I mean, if you compare the casualty count from this war to, say, World War II, you know obviously it doesn't even compare," Fulcher said. "But World War II, the big picture was clear -- you know you're fighting because somebody was trying to take over the world, basically. This is like, what did we invade here for?"
"How did it become, 'Well, now we have to rebuild this place from the ground up'?" Fulcher asked.
He kept talking. "They say we're here and we've given them freedom, but really what is that? You know, what is freedom? You've got kids here who can't go to school. You've got people here who don't have jobs anymore. You've got people here who don't have power," he said. "You know, so yeah, they've got freedom now, but when they didn't have freedom, everybody had a job."
Steffey got up to leave the porch and go to bed.
"You know, the point is we've lost too many Americans here already, we're committed now. So whatever the [expletive] end-state is, whatever it is, we need to achieve it -- that way they didn't die for nothing," he said. "We're far too deep in this now."'Our Biggest Fear'
The largest risk facing the soldiers is the explosion of roadside bombs, known among soldiers as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the main killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. Battalion commanders say they have made great strides clearing the main highways through their southern Baghdad jurisdiction, including the north-south thoroughfare they call Route Jackson, but insurgents continue to adapt.
"We do an action, he counters it. It's a constant tug of war," said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Wilmot, an IED analyst with the battalion. "From where I sit, the [number of] IEDs continually, gradually, goes up."
Each day, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers patrolling neighborhoods such as Sadiyah, al-Amil and Bayaa -- an area of about 40 square miles where about half a million people live -- encounter an average of one to two roadside bombs, often triggered remotely by someone watching the convoys, he said.
"Motorola radios, cellphones, garage door openers, remote-controlled doorbells. Anything that can transmit, they can, in theory, use," Wilmot said. "Anybody who thinks they're stupid is wrong."
After the bombing in February of a golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian killings between rival Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions exploded, and have continued to take thousands of Iraqi lives despite a security crackdown in Baghdad that started last month. U.S. military commanders in Baghdad say the killings extend beyond sectarian motives, to include tribal rivalries, criminal activity and intra-sect gang warfare. Most of the killing takes place out of sight of the Americans, commanders said.
"At this point, it's getting a little difficult to tell which groups are responsible," said Capt. Eric Haas of Williamsburg, Va., an intelligence officer for the 2nd Battalion. "Our biggest fear is this turning into a Bosnia-Kosovo situation" where the police are allowing the slaughter to take place.
"We're definitely making progress," he added. "It's going to take some time to get there."
Into this fray, day and night, come the U.S. soldiers. Each infantryman conducts an average of 10 patrols a week, for a total of 50 to 60 grueling hours, "and it is having an effect," said the battalion's executive officer, Maj. Jeffrey E. Grable.
"Sometimes it's not obvious, the fruit of their labor," said Grable. But the patrols have "a deterrent effect on sectarian violence. Unfortunately, we just cannot be everywhere all the time."'Only Promises'
The patrol led by Capt. Mike Comstock, 27, of Boise, Idaho -- two Humvees and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle -- started at 1 p.m. on Saturday. At about 15 miles per hour, the patrol passed down blighted Iraqi streets with dozens of cars waiting in gas lines, piles of smoldering trash, rubble-strewn vacant lots and gaping bomb craters.
On one stop, the patrol pulled up to the Saadiq al-Amin mosque in the Bayaa neighborhood. Some mosques in the city have stockpiled weapons and been operations centers for insurgents -- used, said one officer, "like we use National Guard armories back home."
"How are you doing today, sir? A little hot?" Comstock asked Walid Khalid, 45, the second-ranking cleric of the Sunni mosque, who opened the gate wearing sandals and a white dishdasha , a traditional robe.
"Our imam was killed three weeks ago," Khalid said through an interpreter.
"This is actually the first I've heard about this," Comstock said, taking notes.
"The people around here are afraid to come here to pray on Fridays," Khalid said, going on to explain that the mosque didn't have water or electricity. He said that he was worried about corrupt Iraqi police attacking the mosque, and that he needed permits for the four AK-47 assault rifles he kept inside.
"Would it help if we brought the national police here so you could meet them?" Comstock asked. "Maybe you guys could start building trust together."
"We would like to cooperate, but sometimes those people come to attack us, and we want to defend the mosque," Khalid said. "Inside the mosque is our border. If they cross this line, we will shoot these guys."
Comstock's patrol stopped at Bayaa homes and shops to conduct a "SWET assessment": checking the sewage, water and electricity services available to residents. Most said the sewage service was adequate, but the electricity functioned no more than four hours a day. Some said they had little running water and dumped their trash along the main streets. Inner neighborhood roads were blocked with slabs of concrete and the trunks of palm trees. The most repeated concern among residents was a lack of safety.
"I can't fix electricity or sewers all the time. We recommend projects to be done," Comstock told Muhammed Adnan, a Bayaa resident. "Patrolling your neighborhood is one thing we can do. I hope that helps."
"We just receive promises around here, nothing else," Adnan, 40, told Comstock. "Three years, just promises, and promises and promises."
Comstock wrote down the words: "only promises."