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The war in Iraq: soldiers assess 'peaks and valleys,' prospects of a final attack

As they prepare for the final exit from the war in Iraq, US troops aim to avoid any spectacular attack – and take stock of a conflict that gave the Middle East its worst violence in recent decades.

By Staff writer / November 26, 2011

Soldiers of the US Army's 115th Brigade Support Battalion hoist tow bars as they rehearse mounting a withdrawal convoy of armored vehicles from Iraq south to Kuwait at their location 25 miles southeast of Baghdad at Kalsu Base, Iraq, on November 22, 2011. With less than 20,000 American troops left in Iraq from a peak of more than 170,000, US commanders say they are on track for a total withdrawal by December 31, which will end the 8 1/2-year US military presence in Iraq that saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a brutal civil war and insurgency, and finally a deadlocked democratic Iraqi government.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Kalsu Base, Iraq

As he watches yet another US military column prepare to drive across Iraq’s southern desert wastelands and withdraw into Kuwait, US Army Col. Scott Efflandt fears the impact of any final strike against his troops.

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"What we worry about is a disproportional attack that taints the overall accomplishments," says Efflandt, speaking at this dusty staging post 30 miles south of Baghdad.

"So a spectacular rocket attack – which has happened in Iraq repeatedly in the years we've been here – if that's the last thing that happens in Iraq, you know, like a chef at a restaurant, you're only as good as your last meal,” says Efflandt.

From its first "shock and awe" moments in March 2003, the American invasion of Iraq was about shaping perceptions. The bombing of Baghdad, live on TV, was meant to be so overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's regime would crumble – and along with it, the resolve of America's enemies from Al Qaeda on down.

Nearly nine years later, as American forces fully withdraw by Dec. 31, the US military is eager to do what it can to shape the legacy of a war that has witnessed the worst violence in the Middle East in recent decades, bitterly divided Americans over its cost in blood and treasure, and has now almost become a distraction or forgotten by the public at large.

Fewer than 20,000 US troops are left here, down from a peak of more than 170,000. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, told US troops on Thanksgiving that attacks would likely continue until the end.

"They are probably going to shoot at us the last day that we are here," Austin said at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

American soldiers who have spent the most time in Iraq – many of them upwards of three years of their lives, during three deployments – often have the most optimistic view, because they fought and bled during the vicious insurgency and sectarian civil war, and see relative calm today.

Violence levels are well down from those dark days, and an Iraqi government is in place, even if plagued by political deadlock. Though the US occupation was tainted in the minds of many Iraqis with scandals such as Abu Ghraib, and the deaths of almost certainly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, US soldiers on the ground hope a better legacy will prevail.

Their own losses have been substantial, with some 4,500 dead Americans, seven times that many wounded, a rise of veteran suicide rates, and dwindling support at home for a conflict launched to find weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

"It's history. We came in and helped some people," says Sgt. Robert West, who arrived for his first tour during the month in 2007 that claimed the highest number of US lives. He has since spent 32 months in Iraq during three tours.

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