BAGHDAD — The two US Army soldiers were shocked when the morning paper was delivered Thursday to their sand-enclosed checkpoint in Baghdad.
"Rumsfeld Resigns," blared the headline in "Stars and Stripes," the military's newspaper. There was surprise. Then uncertainty. Then a return to realities that include an Iraqi death toll of more than 2,500 each month despite the US presence.
"I always backed the president and Rumsfeld ... but ... they misunderstood what Iraq was going to be," says a bulky soldier, keeping his rifle trained down a busy road. He spoke on condition of anonymity. "The situation is such that if we left now, it would be even more [screwed] up."
"I don't think anything is going to change," says the private first class. "I was reading [in Stars and Stripes] ... about, if you go into someone's house and mess it up, you've got to do the cleanup."
"There's no sense getting excited about [politics]," he adds, "because there is nothing you can do."
Reactions to the Democrats' sweep of Congress and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation ran the gamut among some of the 144,000 US troops in Iraq who have seen popular support for the war slide in recent months.
Iraqis widely favor the change, pinning more blame for every US mistake – from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to allowing insurgency and sectarian violence claim tens of thousands of Iraqi lives – on Mr. Rumsfeld than on President Bush.
"I think this country is beyond help," says 1st Lt. Jeremiah Parker, from the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Taji, in an e-mail. He made clear he was speaking as a private individual, and not as a representative of the US Army. "From my experience as a platoon leader ... patrolling the neighborhoods, talking to locals, I think this country will not see peace unless it is under some sort of dictator," says Lt. Parker, who is in the final stages of a recently extended 16-month deployment.
"I think the divisions between the ethnic and religious groups are far too long-existing to bridge with a fledgling democracy. I think the country will devolve into chaos for awhile and then a dictator will emerge and bring some semblance of order," writes Parker. "The [US] soldiers over here are the best in the world and will do whatever you tell them to do, but I know that many, and I would say most, [believe] that these people need to fix their own situation."
"I am very pleased with [Rumsfeld's] resignation," Parker adds, writing that increasing reliance on high tech and not "on actual people" means less funding that "impacts ... the counterinsurgency fight."
Not all troops are critical of Rumsfeld, despite a recent chorus of complaints from former senior generals, and an editorial last week in four privately owned military trade newspapers, including Army Times, that called for Rumsfeld's removal.
"I am disappointed that Rumsfeld will go down in history as a villain," says Army Spc. Michael Sanchez, based in Ramadi, in restive western Iraq, in an e-mail. "Instead of offering honest discourse on his positions ... the media crucified him and manipulatively pointed to the broad and dark negativity of war as a sign of his allegedly poor leadership."
"I doubt Rumsfeld's resignation will result in the expedition of withdrawal," he writes. "[That would] have devastating consequences.... We are still making headway; drifting too far off course may cause a crash."
"I am not sure if a new secretary of Defense will improve the situation," adds Specialist Sanchez. "A revised strategy may be more beneficial than new leadership."
At the Baghdad checkpoint, a sergeant contemplated the early stages of his second year-long tour. "I'm not going to comment," he says, holding up the newspaper. "I don't watch the news, because I'm in the news. I'm here to do my job."
"I don't really follow that stupid political [stuff]," says Mark, a specialist based near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, who gave only his first name. "I like to keep things that closely impact me close, and things that I really have no control of out of my way."
"I never entirely agreed with Rumsfeld, i.e., his plans for a more mobile, faster infantry, which would result in the loss of our body armor and other key equipment," writes another Army specialist. He adds: "I can see some radical Democrats trying to pull funding for troops in Iraq, which will result in more deaths here, and an eventual withdrawal. Rumsfeld I don't think would have altered that."
Much will depend, these troops say, on Robert Gates, the former CIA chief nominated to replace Rumsfeld.
"The situation will improve dependent upon Mr. Gates's willingness ... to listen to the advice of his generals and admirals," writes Parker. "I do think the mere fact that the president has chosen a new 'secdef' indicates he is now willing to recognize more than one side of the argument."
And there is much to improve. Another car bomb in central Baghdad killed six, raising Thursday's death toll to 27. Some 66 bodies were found Wednesday around Iraq. The parliament has extended for 30 days a state of emergency, as it has done each month for the past two years.
An Army PFC at Camp Liberty near Baghdad says in an e-mail he is "disappointed" at Rumsfeld's exit, but adds that "a new viewpoint would be insightful."
When asked if he thought this might result in an earlier withdrawal from Iraq, the soldier replied: "I hope so."
• Mr. Peter conducted all e-mail reporting from Kuwait City. Mr. Peterson reported from Baghdad, and wrote this article.