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.
"It's frustrating, because it's hard to get into the fight," said Staff Sgt. Robert Wyper, 26, of Riverside, Calif., a squad leader with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. Wyper rides around the Mosul area in a Stryker armored vehicle. He has fired a total of four rounds from his weapon since he arrived in August, while several other soldiers said they had never pulled their trigger during their deployments. "The combat we have is on the enemy's terms," Wyper said. "You can shoot at the enemy, but how do you shoot at an IED?"
First Sgt. David Schumacher, 37, of Watertown, N.Y., is on his eighth deployment to a foreign battlefield since a tour in Somalia, and his third tour in Iraq.
"The insurgents are more strategic this time, they're smarter," he said. "We're trying to anticipate their next move, and they're trying to anticipate ours. There's still a lot to do."
In Rushdi Mullah, a small farming village near Baghdad, Capt. Chris Vitale, 29, of Washington, Pa., said his unit's recent moves to the edge of this insurgent safe haven have made a major difference for residents. "If my unit left town, the insurgents would come back in and use it to stage attacks on Baghdad," he said. "I'm sure of it."
In the north, where Iraqi army and police units have made strides toward controlling their own territory, U.S. soldiers said they were at a critical point in helping the Iraqi forces develop.
Capt. Mike Lingenfelter, 32, of Panhandle, Tex., said that U.S. troops have earned the trust of residents in Tall Afar over the past couple of years and that leaving now would send the wrong message. His Comanche Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment is working with Iraqi forces to give them control of the city.
"We'll pull their feet out from under them if we leave," Lingenfelter said.
"It's still fragile enough now that if the coalition were to leave, it would embolden the insurgents. A lot of people have put their trust and faith in us to see it to the end. It would be an extreme betrayal for us to leave."
Sgt. Jonathan Kirkendall, 23, of Falls City, Neb., said he fears that many Americans think that building the country to viability will be "quick and easy," when he believes it could take many years. Kirkendall, of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad, is on his third deployment to Iraq and celebrated his 21st and 23rd birthdays here.
"If they say leave in six months, we'll leave in six months. If they say six years, it's six years," said Kirkendall, who is awaiting the birth of his first daughter, due next week.
"I'm just an average soldier, and I'll do what they tell me to do. I'm proud to be a part of it, either way it goes, but I'd like to see it through."