A 'surge' unit sees change, but questions its permanence
As the US Army soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment prepare to return home this month, many question whether the sacrifices they made will have been worth it in the end.
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When it goes home to Fort Stewart, Ga., this month, the unit will be among the last to return from the "surge," Washington's move to calm the sectarian bloodshed that had consumed Baghdad and much of Iraq.
In many regards, the plan worked. Violence dropped as about 30,000 extra US soldiers moved into combat outposts around Iraq starting in February 2007. Last month, the number of Iraqis killed was 515; last June, that figure was 3,000.
Still, while the 1/64 recognizes much progress during its tour, the majority of the more than dozen soldiers and officers interviewed question if their effort will have been worth it in the end. Many say their mission helped bring about only a lull in the sectarian killings and feel that neither the Iraqi government nor its forces are ready, capable, or even motivated to build on the successes of the surge.
"We have no control over what happens once we leave. No one is prepared to stay here 20 years of their lives to make sure this place stays good," says Spc. Mark Webster, a native of San Luis Obispo, Calif., stationed at the neighborhood garrison of Adel. These combat outposts (COPS) have been scattered throughout Baghdad since the start of the surge. "We have accomplished things; we kept it at a general lull," adds Specialist Webster.
Although the experience of the 1/64 applies to only one slice of Baghdad, many of the issues and challenges it has grappled with are similar to those confronting other units in Baghdad and in other restive provinces – Anbar, Diyala, and Nineveh – where most of the surge units were deployed.
Life on the front lines
Getting US soldiers into the dusty neighborhoods of Baghdad was a cornerstone of the surge.
At COP Adel, a battered shopping center now barricaded with giant walls and nicknamed "the mall," soldiers from the 1/64 recently milled around in front of their Humvees. Inside, others nibbled on hot meals trucked in from Camp Liberty, the battalion's headquarters within the sprawling US command complex next to Baghdad's airport. A few pump iron, some mop up, others surf the Internet.