US troops eye Iraq's future with realism, philosophy

Many of the Americans with the closest view of Iraq believe it could be a long road to democracy.

American soldiers in Iraq are learning firsthand that sometimes the hardest part of writing history is not knowing how it will end.

There are few places in this war-torn country where the final outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom is more uncertain than in the heavily Shiite Muslim neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad.

In Thawra, also called Sadr City by many of its Shiite residents, US commanders are maneuvering their way through an ever-changing political landscape.

Various Shiite clerics are sending conflicting signals to US officials, telling military officers one thing and then acting and saying something completely different to others. US troops also face an ever-present threat from remnants of the Saddam Fedayeen, Baath Party stalwarts, and a large group of armed criminals.

On the other side, the US government's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in Iraq seems to have adopted a go-slow posture - perhaps, analysts say, to allow Iraqi infighting to sort itself out before identifying appropriate local leaders.

Caught in the middle of this swirl of posturing and jockeying are US soldiers - America's sons and daughters, mothers and fathers - patrolling the front lines of the second phase of the war in Iraq.

Many are beginning to form opinions about what will likely be written in the final chapter of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The soldiers quoted here from the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment are not Middle East experts, learned political scientists, or foreign-policy specialists. They are simply a cross section of the US, ordinary Americans who have had the benefit of two months on the ground in Iraq seeing the situation for themselves.

Many of them have had to dodge bullets. All of them face the prospect of a dangerous and uncertain stay in what to them is a very foreign land.

Most see much painstaking work ahead - work that will hardly be completed in a few months' time.

"As long as we are here, everything will be stable, but as soon as we leave, another Saddam will pop up, and it is this thing all over again," says Sgt. Eric Fitzgerald of Baltimore. "It will turn out like another Bosnia or Kosovo."

Pvt. John Hecht of Merrill, Iowa, wants to know where the next generation of Iraqi leaders are - the Iraqi version of America's James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Men with courage and vision and an honest conviction to place the goals of the nation above those of any individual or faction.

"They need a strong leader who won't take sides," Private Hecht says.

The problem in Iraq, Hecht and others say, is that many of the most talented potential leaders were discovered first by Saddam Hussein's security service and executed.

Others see an important role for ordinary Iraqis. "The Iraqi people are going to have to start taking care of themselves before this gets better," says Pvt. William Craig of Neosho, Mo. "I don't know if the new Iraqi government will be democratic," he says. "But if it doesn't happen right away, I think five or 10 years down the road it will be democratic."

Pvt. David Padilla of East Los Angeles, Calif., agrees on the task's lengthy duration. "It's going to take 10 to 15 years," he says. "What I'm hoping is we help the younger generation because ... the only way we can help this country is through the kids."

He adds, "We're just helping them get their foot in the door. It is up to them to save themselves."

Says Pvt. Joel Burden of Winter Park, Fla.: "We're here for 10 years of occupation so the younger generation gets to understand what democracy feels like and enjoy it," But he adds, "Then in 15 years, we will have to come back and do the same thing all over again because war is ingrained in these people."

If democracy comes to Iraq, Lt. Stephen Johnson of Lompoc, Calif., says it will most likely be a "false democracy" with rigged elections. He says there will be more freedom than under Mr. Hussein, "but a true democracy is decades off."

The lieutenant adds, "I don't think we will be out of here until the Palestinians and Israelis have peace."

"This place could be a paradise," observes Sgt. Herman Herrera of Gunnison, Colo., but only as long as the US is willing to maintain a military presence here.

"We are going to get the country above where Saddam had it," he says. "But I believe it is going to go right down as soon as we leave."

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