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.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
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.

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.

"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.

"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."

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."

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.

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."

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