For 'Surge' Troops, Pride Mingles With Doubt

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 21, 2008

BAGHDAD -- This time last year, Capt. Wes Wilhite's men were getting ready to move into an abandoned house in western Baghdad wedged between cells of Sunni insurgents to the south and strongholds of Shiite militias to the north.

Violence in the Iraqi capital seemed unstoppable. U.S. military vehicles were getting attacked with armor-piercing roadside bombs almost daily, and a raging sectarian war was Balkanizing once-mixed neighborhoods.

"A slaughterhouse," is how Steve Murrani, an interpreter working with Wilhite's men, described it.

The soldiers, who came to Iraq as part of President Bush's troop increase, began returning home last week. They leave with sunburned faces, calloused hands, tattered boots. On their wrists they wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of five soldiers killed on a clear afternoon in March, just as progress was starting to seem irreversible.

They leave buoyed by a sense of pride over dramatic security improvements they helped bring about. Violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in years, the rate of U.S. casualties has dropped since the United States began implementing a new counterinsurgency strategy last year, and Iraqi politicians have made some strides in bringing about political reconciliation. But the departing soldiers are also burdened by their losses, still unable to determine whether history will call their tour a turning point or a waste of time.

"Could this all fall apart?" Wilhite, 28, a tall, lean redhead from Milwaukee, asked in an interview in early July. He sighed. "Possibly."

A Miserable Start

Wilhite's unit, the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division's Delta Company, arrived in Iraq in March 2007.

Once-vibrant commercial districts in their area of operation, which included the neighborhoods of Jamiyah, Khadra and Amiriyah, had become ghost towns.

Sunnis in the northern part of the area had been run out of town by Shiite militiamen bent on expanding their domain. Gunmen hid powerful roadside bombs in the mounds of garbage and junk that lined the streets. A curfew then in effect wasn't hard to enforce; most people didn't venture out after dark.

The roughly 120 soldiers of Delta Company spent the first few months sleeping at a large base near Baghdad International Airport. They were soon assigned to a neighborhood outpost to live among Iraqis, train soldiers and policemen and build relationships with local leaders known for their animosity toward Americans.

The soldiers moved into the two-story house in the Washash neighborhood in August. The Joint Security Station, as the outpost was formally known, had no running water or air conditioning. Exhausted from long shifts filling sandbags and manning guard posts, the Americans collapsed at night on cots and slept in sweltering rooms.

"It was misery," Wilhite said. "In one word, it was absolute misery."

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