GIs pledge to maintain focus despite losses
BAGHDAD — The news reports are grim.
Eight U.S. soldiers die in the worst fighting in Baghdad since the coalition took control. Twelve Marines fall in a day near Ramadi. Anti-coalition forces take control of southern cities. Japanese citizens are held hostage.
There is also an endless series of questions without easy answers: Is the American-led coalition making progress winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis? Have the last 10 days wiped out months of hard work? Will U.S. troops be mired in the sands of Iraq for years to come?
Not a sunny picture from Iraq. But according to those on the ground, it is not all gloomy either.
Many troops in Iraq say media reports coming out of the country — and arriving on the television sets or doorsteps of their families’ homes in the States — aren’t capturing the whole picture. Some days in Iraq are much better than stories typically portray.
“You can’t judge 15 million people by the actions of 10,000,” says Spc. Brent Brendel, a member of the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade from Friedberg, Germany. “I see the news media doing that a lot. That the Iraqis don’t want us here. And that’s just not the case.”
Sometimes it seems that way, though. Just ask some of those who spent time in Sadr City, a poor, Shiite-dominated section of Baghdad, last week. Hundreds of U.S. troops faced hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whom a coalition spokesman recently called “a two-bit thug.”
On Saturday, many of those troops mourned the loss of comrades killed in that fighting. Five of the eight soldiers killed were under the command of Lt. Col. Gary Volesky of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
He said up until last Sunday, smiling people would line the street in the sprawling neighborhood, saying “ ‘Good, good mister’ to us as we go by.”
That night, automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades replaced the smiles. The next night, troops across the sector endured sometimes heavy attacks while guarding police stations.
Staff Sgt. Steve Rutkowski, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman who endured an onslaught Monday night at one of the stations with only a dozen comrades, says the most mystifying part of the experience was the Iraqi reaction the next morning.
“They just came out and went about their business like nothing had happened,” he said two days later from the station rooftop, shaking his head.
A few miles away all was quiet. Too quiet for some. All shopkeepers questioned reported a drop in business near the Green Zone, the heavily guarded area of closed-off streets in central Baghdad where U.S. authorities live and work.
Traffic, often chaotic and congested throughout the city, was only chaotic. A series of cultural anniversaries, religious holidays and strikes could be blamed for some of that. But shopkeepers said the violence, or at least a perception of it, clearly had a role.
Wassif Michael, who runs a small grocery store on a busy street bordering the Green Zone, said several of his neighbors have moved out of Baghdad.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it,” he said. But he has three families that rely on the income the small shop generates. So he stayed.
So has neighbor Abu Saif, who runs a shop that sells seeds, nuts and other sundries.
“I have to be open whether there is business or not,” he said through an interpreter. “My living is from this shop.”
A few blocks away, an employee of a local film laboratory — who doesn’t want to be identified — says closing would send the wrong message. He said that would give those prone to violence the impression that their tactics work.
The shop is one of a dozen similar businesses on Tahrir Square, a large circle that’s often snarled with cars and seemingly overwhelmed traffic policemen. It’s also a crossing point for protesters heading across the bridge to the Green Zone or down the street to Fardus Square — the place where a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by Marines during the fall of Baghdad.
A year later, soldiers were taking down pictures of al-Sadr that supporters had put up on a more politically correct statue. Troops spent the next three days blocking off roads to make sure protests thought to have the potential of violence wouldn’t happen.
Volesky says the military walks a fine line when it comes to dealing with the population it’s supposed to be protecting. He said soldiers have to put aside their feelings, including grief at the loss of friends and comrades, and do what they came to do.
“We rolled tanks and Bradleys [into Sadr City],” he said. “That’s just what Saddam did. We’ve got to reach out and put our arms around them now and say, ‘We didn’t start this.’ ”
First Lt. Ray Spicer is the executive officer for the 2nd Battalion’s Company C, which lost one soldier in the Sadr City fighting.
He said he left the fight with a new sense of pride in his fellow soldiers and the mission they’re performing.
“There wasn’t a single person in this task force that didn’t want to personally go out there and get those guys out [of the ambushes],” he said.
The mission, he says, goes on.
“We came here for the Iraqi people. They’re why we’re here.”
It’s impossible to ignore recent events, though.
“Things have changed from a week ago,” he says.
He pauses before answering.
“It’s just more serious.”
At the same time, 1st Sgt. Rick Stuckey — whose Company A lost four soldiers — said it has to be business as usual.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he says of the way his soldiers will operate. “You’ve always got to stay focused on the task you’ve got at hand. We’re down right now, but we’re going to focus on why we’re here.”