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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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A 'triangle of death' quiets down

One measure of change is the experience of troops in this area, beyond the edges of what was called the "triangle of death" south of Baghdad during the sectarian killing that peaked with death tolls in 2006 and 2007 as high as 3,000 per month in the capital.

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In recent years it has been relatively peaceful, thereby providing a different experience for some US troops, who have experienced Iraqi hospitality – such as being invited to Iraqi homes for meals – that was once in very short supply.

In many regions, during much of the past nine years, any association at all with Americans – whether real or imagined – could result in killing by Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias. 

"Local nationals get on with us very well, they feed us dinner, they always invite us to their homes; if anything happens in that area, they come and find whoever is out on patrol and gives them a heads up," says Sergeant First Class Tony Fishburne, from Walterboro, S.C.

"The situation [Iraqis] see now is much better than in past years ... they said security has improved 10 times more than it was ... they're not happy that we're leaving."

Fishburne was one of the first US troops to arrive in Baghdad, taking part in the original "Thunder Run" into the capital which marked the American arrival.

"I never thought I would be back, that from 2003 to now we would still be doing patrols," says Fishburne. This tour, the Americans are "more in the advisory role" of Iraq units, whom he says are "just as talented."

From 500-plus bases to eight

As US troops here pack up this base, one of only eight that remain, down from more than 500, they are aware of the high cost – and the doubts back home about the Iraq war.

Sgt First Class Rogers Davis, from Ocala, Fla., has been a "casualty assistance officer" at the unit's base at Fort Hood, Texas. His job, alongside a chaplain, is to inform families in person about the death of a family member, and then support them through the aftermath.

"It's a very hard thing to do. Face-to-face, knock on the door, and try to build the courage to actually say the words to notify them that their loved one has passed, and the reason why," says Davis. "They won't open the door. It might take a number of days, where you're just sitting and waiting until someone answers the door. You wait. Come back, knock on the door."

"Doubts, you have a lot of doubts" among grieving families, says Staff Sgt. Kimberly Havis of the Louisiana National Guard, from Choudrant, La. She has been in Iraq since February, but her job at home is with the state's organization for military funeral honors. She says she volunteered for Iraq, to better understand the sacrifice those troops had made.

Louisiana has had 43 service members killed in Iraq; she has been with many mourning families.

"At that time, a family is dealing with so much mentally that it is hard to hold that sense of pride and have closure – the family just feels anger," says Havis. "We don't want a soldier's family to ever lay them to rest and not have honor and pride for what their soldier stood for."

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter: @peterson__scott

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