In Iraq, frontline patience wears thin

In a middle-class neighborhood on the bank of the Tigris River, Charlie Company's 4th Platoon dismounts from their armored vehicles and starts banging on doors. They're going house to house, talking to residents, looking for information on insurgents in this city of 1.8 million.

While the soldiers' reception varies, one Christian family welcomes them with smiles. But misunderstanding quickly ensues.

"Please don't take our weapon," the mother of four pleads in Arabic when US Army Staff Sgt. Josh Clevenger comes across an AK-47. "We need it to defend ourselves. It is not safe, anything can happen."

As he stands in the living room, Sergeant Clevenger has no intention of confiscating their rifle - nor any comprehension of the woman's plea. With his platoon's lone interpreter elsewhere, he is effectively rendered speechless.

"Your weapon is filled with blanks," Clevenger, from Muncie, Ind., says to the woman, his voice unwittingly rising as he tries to convey helpful information. "These aren't real bullets - they won't protect you."

For US soldiers who don't grasp the language or the culture here, a central part of their mission - generating goodwill and support - remains far more difficult than capturing insurgent leaders. While their officers remain largely on message and outwardly optimistic, many of the front-line men like Clevenger, who patrol "outside the wire" twice daily, say that their patience is wearing thin.

"I don't want to stay here too much longer. The Iraqi Army is getting to where they can get a hold of things now," says Clevenger. "The longer we're here and the more times they attack us, the more they're going to figure out how to better their attacks."

More than a few soldiers of the US Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team stationed in this Sunni-Kurdish city in northern Iraq, shuddered last week when President Bush said total withdrawal of US troops "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." Three years after the invasion, many soldiers say it's time to hand over control to Iraqis. Most of those interviewed echoed a recentZogby poll of 944 military respondents throughout Iraq, that found that 72 percent of US troops favor withdrawal within the next year.

"I think we're doing good things here, but I think we need to start pulling it out," Spc. Mathew Merced, a jovial infantryman from Mcinnville, Ore., says, scanning Mosul's al-Karama neighborhood from a trash-strewn rooftop.

"The Iraqi Army here has come a long way in just the short time we've been here."

More than 2,300 US servicemen have lost their lives in the longest US armed conflict since Vietnam. American support for the war, 62 percent three years ago, has dwindled today to just 43 percent, according to a recent CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll.

How much longer?

For those soldiers with years left on their contracts, for young fathers, and newlyweds, the prospect of the war dragging on is disconcerting. Divorce rates in the Army have risen at least 25 percent since the war began.

"In the back of your mind you wonder how much longer is this going to go on, how many more times am I going to have to come back over here," says 1st Lt. Michael McCasland of Spokane, Wash., who spent just two weeks with his newborn daughter before returning to Iraq. "There has to be a point when Iraqis take responsibility for their own country."

Compared with much of Iraq, the city of Mosul is relatively calm today, sidestepping the sectarian dueling that is roiling much of the country.

Still, two IEDs struck the battalion's armored eight-wheeled Strykers Sunday, though there were no casualties. In the city's eastern half alone, Lieutenant McCasland's battalion (one of four in the Stryker Brigade operating in Mosul) endures an average of 50 IED attacks each month, and a handful of car bombs.

The insurgents' attacks have grown less effective with time, but now they seem to be adapting, officers say. In recent weeks those attacks have become more sophisticated as some here worry a catastrophic attack could be imminent.

"The enemy has gotten very well- organized and very well-versed in what they're doing, as if they've gotten new leadership in the area," intelligence officer Capt. Mark Awad told a gathering of Iraqi Army and police officers in Mosul Saturday.

While US soldiers are practiced in the art of firepower, the sort of counterinsurgency campaign under way at the moment has demanded a far more nuanced approach to battle. Defeating the insurgency is as much about reaching ordinary Iraqis as it is about capturing terrorists.

"The fight is really for the people and their mind-set," says Lt. Col. Richard Greene of Germantown, Md., the battalion's executive officer.

Beanie Babies and candy

Even as they're frustrated at the often-tense relationship with Iraqis, the soldiers here take solace in the swarms of children that come out to greet them wherever they go. Though the children are often after the Beanie Babies and candies that the soldiers dole out, for troops, their response offers much-needed reassurance.

"When we roll into a neighborhood, it's like a parade with all the young kids running out," says Clevenger. "I think we're definitely making a difference here."

But in the leafy front yard of a well-to-do Kurdish family, three women spew vitriol in the face of platoon leader 1st Lt. Raymond Maszarose of Vicksburg, Md. Last year, they say, US troops accidentally killed their father and two of their nephews.

"We hate the Americans," says one of the women, calling herself simply Om Omar. "They destroyed our country. They can't protect this country, can't provide electricity, why'd they come here? It's a nightmare."

The women say their father was caught in the crossfire during a firefight between US soldiers and insurgents. "How do you know it was the Americans that killed him?" Lieutenant Maszarose asks again and again. But it's no use. For these women, the blame lies squarely on US shoulders.

And they are not alone. A recent poll by of 1,150 Iraqis showed that nearly half of all Iraqis and nine out of 10 Sunni Arabs support attacks on US forces.

"We're up to over 2,300 US military deaths and it sucks that they feel like that," says Clevenger.

After the encounter with the angry Kurdish family, members of Maszarose's Charlie Company 4th Platoontake over an Iraqi home for an evening stakeout of an oft-targeted police station. Khaled Saleh, the father whose home has been temporarily commandeered, and his young children sit wearily among them.

As the evening drags on uneventfully, the soldiers complain about new rules of engagement, meant to limit the sort of accidental killings and indiscriminate shootings that can alienate communities overnight. In recent months, they've been ordered to keep their vehicles' rear-mounted machine guns unloaded, to drive slowly down streets that are likely mined with IEDs, and to hunker down in their vehicles when approached by a possible suicide car bomber rather than open fire.

Their efforts are unappreciated

To these soldiers, they are bending over backward to keep the peace, and they are confounded that Iraqis don't seem to appreciate that.

"Why do they blame us?" wonders US Army Spc. Brandon Beard, of Arkadelphia, Ark. "The terrorists are wreaking more havoc on this city than we are."

"I don't hate all Arabs just because a few of them blew up the World Trade Center, so why should they hate all US soldiers just because one shot their father?" asks US Army Cpl. Joshua Hedges, of Warrensburg, Mo., a father of three.

The bleary-eyed Saleh looks on uncomprehending. When asked about the US soldiers in his country, and now in his living room, he shrugs, and barks down to his wife to bring another round of tea.

"What can I do?" he wonders. "We adapt and we survive and we give tea to our guests. But I would like an option beside the murderer Saddam Hussein or the lawlessness and humiliation of foreign occupation."

Back on base, Pvt. Isaac Ussery, of Naples, Fla., offers an explanation as he plays Blackhawk Down on a Sony PlayStation.

"Saddam had [things] under control and we don't basically," he says. "Iraq was safe under Saddam. You weren't safe from him, but you were safe from your neighbor and you were safe from Syrian people trying to come in and blow things up."

Despite their stated frustrations, soldiers say they are prepared to keep coming back. Many here have reenlisted for another four years and throughout the Army reenlistment rates are up.

It beats managing a gas station back home, says Private Ussery.

"I expected to be living in tents in the desert," he says after he rescues the virtual downed Blackhawk. "But I got here and I have electricity, heating, air conditioning, Playstation, TV, surround sound. It's not that bad."

How US troops see Iraq

According to a Zogby poll of 944 US troops stationed in Iraq:

72% said the US should leave Iraq within one year.

29% said US forces should leave Iraq immediately.

58% said the US mission in Iraq is clear.

85% believe the US invaded Iraq to retaliate for 9/11 attacks.

24% said a major reason for invading was to establish a model democracy.

Source: Zogby International, Jan. 18 - Feb. 14, 2006

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