Soldiers in Iraq Say Pullout Would Have Devastating Results

Capt. Mike Lingenfelter of Panhandle, Tex., says it would be
Capt. Mike Lingenfelter of Panhandle, Tex., says it would be "an extreme betrayal" for U.S. troops to leave Iraq now. (By Josh White -- The Washington Post)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SYKES, Iraq, Nov. 5 -- For the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, the war is alternately violent and hopeful, sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold. It is dusty and muddy, calm and chaotic, deafeningly loud and eerily quiet.

The one thing the war is not, however, is finished, dozens of soldiers across the country said in interviews. And leaving Iraq now would have devastating consequences, they said.

With a potentially historic U.S. midterm election on Tuesday and the war in Iraq a major issue at the polls, many soldiers said the United States should not abandon its effort here. Such a move, enlisted soldiers and officers said, would set Iraq on a path to civil war, give new life to the insurgency and create the possibility of a failed state after nearly four years of fighting to implant democracy.

"Take us out of that vacuum -- and it's on the edge now -- and boom, it would become a free-for-all," said Lt. Col. Mark Suich, who commands the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment just south of Baghdad. "It would be a raw contention for power. That would be the bloodiest piece of this war."

The soldiers declined to discuss the political jousting back home, but they expressed support for the Bush administration's approach to the war, which they described as sticking with a tumultuous situation to give Iraq a chance to stand on its own.

Leading Democrats have argued for a timeline to bring U.S. troops home, because obvious progress has been elusive, especially in Baghdad, and even some Republican lawmakers have recently called for a change in strategy. But soldiers criticized the idea of a precipitate withdrawal, largely because they believe their hard work would go for naught.

Capt. Jim Modlin, 26, of Oceanport, N.J., said he thought the situation in Iraq had improved between his deployment in 2003 and his return this year as a liaison officer to Iraqi security forces with the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, based here on FOB Sykes outside Tall Afar. Modlin described himself as more liberal than conservative and said he had already cast his absentee ballot in Texas. He said he believed that U.S. elected officials would lead the military in the right direction, regardless of what happens Tuesday.

"Pulling out now would be as bad or worse than going forward with no changes," Modlin said. "Sectarian violence would be rampant, democracy would cease to exist, and the rule of law would be decimated. It's not 'stay the course,' and it's not 'cut and run' or other political catchphrases. There are people's lives here. There are so many different dynamics that go on here that a simple solution just isn't possible."

Soldiers and officers had difficulty conveying what victory in Iraq would look like or exactly how to achieve it. In some ways, victory is a moving target, they said, one that relies heavily on the Iraqi people gaining trust in the Iraqi security forces and the ability of the Iraqi government to support essential services. In northern Iraq, officials said they expect to hand over major parts of the country to Iraqi forces within the next five months, but most agree that Baghdad will be far behind.

Even if top commanders meet their goal of transferring authority to the Iraqi army within the next 18 months, a U.S. presence long after that is likely, several officers said.

"This is a worthwhile endeavor," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Multinational Division North and the 25th Infantry Division. "Nothing that is worthwhile is usually easy, and we need to give this more time for it to all come together. We all want to come home, but we have a significant investment here, and we need to give the Iraqi army and the Iraqi people a chance to succeed."

Numerous soldiers expressed frustration with the nature of the fight, which many said amounted to driving around and waiting for the enemy to engage them, often with roadside bombs, known within the military as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

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