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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.

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"The Iraqis that I talk to, they don't mind us being here – some of them like it," says West. "I think we helped and set them up for their success."

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There have been "a lot of peaks and valleys," says Sgt. First Class Jeffrey Wilkes of Silver, Texas, a little more candidly. Iraq is "completely different; when we first came through in '03, it was a pretty messed-up place."

"I think we're leaving this place better than we found it," says Wilkes. "We're on the road a lot, and I see kids going to school, infrastructure. I didn't see that in '03-'04. If I saw kids on the road [then] they were usually begging for something."

Running convoys, Wilkes says this 115th Brigade Support Battalion has "been up and down" Iraq since it arrived last August. "Think it's a lot safer place than it used to be."

Almost by definition, individual soldiers only see a limited slice of the conflict, especially on a battlefield as expansive and varied as Iraq's. Since 2009, when US troops handed control of the cities to Iraqi forces, direct contact with Iraqis has shriveled further.

Multiple deployments shape a longer-term view

But multiple deployments add perspective for some US officers.

The result for Iraqis has been "mixed," says Maj. Timothy Draves of Hoffman, Ill., who is on his third deployment and has tallied 30 months in Iraq. "You get some guys who want you to stay – I was up in the Kurdish region, that wants to you stay – and you get other regions that say, 'Ah, we need you to go.' "

"Time will tell" if it was worth it  – for the prolonged separations from his family, as well as more strategically for the US and Iraq, says Draves, as he watches soldiers strap heavy tow bars to an armored vehicle.

Was it worth it for the Iraqis?

"Getting rid of a dictator, and to get a democratic society? Probably so," says Draves. "They might not see it now. But I think in the future they could see they are better off. I was there for the provincial elections in '08, and people dipping their finger in the purple ink saying they voted, they were proud of it."

Coming to terms with the death toll on both sides would require "a longer perspective, because it is hard to separate yourself from those events," says Draves.

Perspective is also gained by time, in a country where a large segment of the population were children when Baghdad was rocked by "shock and awe," and decades of repressive dictatorship ended overnight.

Efflandt says he has seen "stunning differences" in the course of his three tours, the first in 2004 when the insurgency was just gathering steam and there was a "noticeable vacuum of power."

The final chapter? Not written yet.

"The final chapter is not written," says the US Army colonel, from Rock Island, Ill. "But there are ideas that are now resonant in the culture that were not anywhere near resonant when I first came here for reconnaissance in 2003. People have an expectation that their voice is heard, and there was nothing like that in 2003.

"You'll hear statements from youth that, 'Oh, it was better when Saddam was here,' adds Efflandt. "Having met people in 2004 that showed you the bill they got billed for the bullet that killed their uncle – I've seen that – the 26-year-old [Iraqi] who is unhappy now hasn't seen that."

"I'm pretty sure they're happy we're leaving," says Spec. Steve Caudle, from Prineville, Ore. "Not just like, 'We finally got rid of them,' but just the fact that they can feel they've got back completely what is theirs.

"There's going to be bitterness with a lot of [Iraqis]. I'm not saying everybody – not everybody's experience is the same – I'm sure some of them had bad experiences."

The perspective is the same for many Americans, both at home and in Iraq, says Caudle, who has spent 33 months in Iraq of his 28 years.

"A lot of people feel it's time to leave, [but] I feel overall there's not too much negativity from it," says Caudle. "Being here as long as I have, it's kind of nice to know when I leave there isn't anybody who needs to replace me. It's just shut off the lights and be done with it."

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