US war vets, Iraqi refugees in Ohio react to strife in Iraq

DAYTON, Ohio — Fady Antonn fled Iraq as a refugee in 2009 and arrived in Dayton to start a new life in the United States.

The images and reports of his home country fractured among warring factions of Islamic militants on the move in clashes with the Iraqi army troubled him Thursday.

"I feel very sad and very angry about what's happening in Iraq because a lot of people are being killed and their lives are being jeopardized by those radical militia who want to implement Islamic law," said Antonn, who recently became a U.S. citizen. "It's very sad to see these images" since the U.S. government and troops had armed and trained Iraqi soldiers.

Within days this week, militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, crossed the Iraq border from Syria and took over Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, according to media reports. The militants captured Tikrit and parts of Baiji, an oil refining city, the New York Times reported Thursday. The Kurds, meanwhile, took control of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

The Shi'ite-led country has long been divided along factions of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish groups, noted Jeremy Forbis, a University of Dayton political sociologist and a terrorism analyst.

"It's clear that the Iraqi national army is not strong enough really to maintain control ... with these three different groups vying for power," he said. "Certainly, this is a war that is religiously driven. It's how they recruit and retain membership."

Antonn, 23, and a recent Wright State University graduate, said the United States should intervene. "I think they should help in some way," he said. "I think they should intervene because it's a critical situation."

An early departure

Forbis said the U.S. pulled out too soon in Iraq to ensure long term stability and change. The last U.S. troops left in December 2011 after nine years of war, the deaths of nearly 4,500 Americans, thousand of Iraqis, and hundreds of billions of dollars in war spending.

"There's no easy solution to this because the U.S. certainly cannot guarantee 50 years of peace and stability ... due to the high cost in treasure and troops," he said.

Grant Neeley, a University of Dayton political science associate professor who served in the Navy Reserve in Iraq, said the Iraqis were within their rights to ask American troops to leave. But excluding Sunnis from government positions has hurt fostering a democratic government there.

"I think a question becomes if we don't help do we see Iran step into that vacuum because they have some very strong connections to the Shi'ite element in the Iraqi government," he said.

To some U.S. veterans who served in the Iraq war, the inability of Iraqi army to protect the country was not unexpected.

"It was just a matter of time and we all knew that because we were the only ones protecting Iraq and their way of life," said Jon Granata, 25, an Air Force veteran who lives in Beavercreek.

Granata was a C-130 load master flying to Iraqi cities for 10 months between 2009 and 2010, sometimes under missile and small arms fire.

'World police' imagine

As U.S. troops pulled out, more violence would flare up, he recalled. Still, he said the war had gone on too long, and he agreed with President Barack Obama's decision to pull U.S. troops out.

"It would make me very angry if we had to go in again," said Granata, now a Wright State student. "I would feel very bad for my brothers who are still in... I am over America being the world police... For me staying there so long just seemed pointless."

Even so, Granata said the United States may have no alternative but to aid Iraq given the condition the country was in when American forces departed. "In all honesty, I don't think we have a choice," he said.

Jay S. Hastings, 25, of Cedarville, said it's frustrating and disheartening after spending a year of his life in Iraq, and remembering the American and coalition soldiers who died fighting in the country, to witness what's happened.

The former Army soldier, today a Cedarville University student, said he prays daily for the Iraqi people who lived through the regime of Saddam Hussein, occupation and face ongoing sectarian violence.

"I think we have a level of responsibility that we owe the Iraqi people because we left them in this situation, but I don't think military intervention is necessarily the answer," he said.

Need for 'serious cultural changes'

Wayne Adkins, 47, of West Chester, served in an Ohio Army National Guard unit deployed to Iraq for a year about a decade ago.

"It's a disappointment," he said of the current situation in Iraq. "I can't say it's a big surprise. I think the biggest surprise for the folks who were there is that it took this long to collapse. There are deep cultural issues that haven't changed, and it's really hard to imagine that these people are going to pull off a long-term democracy without some serious cultural changes.

"The whole premise for going in was (weapons of mass destruction), which clearly, we did not find," he said. "From the get-go, we all questioned whether this was worth it.

"There were elements of hope," he added, noting the first democratic election in 2005 when the Iraqi army took the lead on security. "There was a lot of skepticism from journalists that I talked to around the world (but) it turned out to be an overwhelming success. These people like the idea of democracy and they want it to work, but I don't think they believe the individual has any power."

Mathew E. Demers, 34, of Enon, who served in Iraq as a Marine, said he was not surprised without a U.S. military presence in Iraq, the country's military forces could not stand alone.

"That's probably why it's not a bigger story in the veteran community," he said.

He doubted the American public wants U.S. troops to be sent back to the war torn country. "I think the U.S. people are not going to tolerate people being over there extended periods of and that's probably the only way to settle it," he said.

Staff writer Vivienne Machi contributed to this story.

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In this series from August, 2010, as the American military presence in Iraq was being reduced, Stars and Stripes looked at the costs of the war through the eyes of Iraqis and Americans and asked: What difference did we really make?