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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — A contingent of 1st Infantry Division soldiers on their way to northern Iraq are worried the war may be over by the time they get there.

A 300-strong “Big Red One” task force built around the Vilseck-based 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment began deploying Monday.

But with the White House and Pentagon declaring Saddam Hussein’s regime killed-in-action, if not the Iraqi dictator himself, the end appears near to many of the soldiers on their way to the quickly expanding northern front.

With strategic cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk in the oil-rich north falling even as the armored task force continued its deployment through the week, the group of tankers and mechanized infantrymen are wondering if there would be anyone left to fight.

It’s not that the soldiers are war mongers, say leaders, but like any professional football team, if there’s a big game, they don’t want to be left on the sidelines.

“It’s been very frustrating,” said Pfc. Jim Caldwell, a Bradley fighting vehicle driver as his 30-ton battle wagon was chained inside the belly of a waiting C-17 on Thursday.

“We’ve been waiting here for 2½ weeks, and now that we’re finally leaving, it feels like the war is almost over,” he said with a look of almost sad resignation, the massive cargo plane’s engines screaming overhead.

“It’s been a real yo-yo,” said 1st Lt. Jim Gifford, an artillery coordinator for the task force still waiting on his flight to go. Like most young soldiers here, Gifford said he’s eager to earn the coveted combat patch of a war veteran.

“We thought we would have been gone within a week. I just hope we get there before it’s over.”

Headed for the northern front

Mobilized to beef up the lightly-armed paratroopers of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade as they jumped into northern Iraq on March 26, 1st Infantry Division leaders say this task force was ready to go within days.

“We did a lot of planning with the 173rd and as soon as they left we began staging,” said task force commander Lt. Col. Ken Riddle as M1A1 Abrams tanks were loaded on Monday, the first ready-to-fight Abrams ever airlifted directly into a combat zone. “We’ve been ready to go for awhile now,” he said.

But with the Air Force’s fleet of C-17s – the only cargo plane strong enough to lift the Army’s heaviest armored vehicles into combat — already stretched thin by the war, other battlefield priorities left the soldiers waiting for more than two weeks before beginning their deployment.

Strategic realities, however, do little to assuage soldiers such as Pfc. Robert Donaldson.

Surrounded by hundreds of olive drab cots in a massive warehouse near Ramstein Air Base where the task force has been staging, Donaldson and his infantry squad mates huddle around a game of Risk.

“I take Afghanistan,” said one, moving his green army pieces into the newly vanquished territory, assault rifles splayed near by, stashed at arm’s length among field gear, rucksacks and Maxim magazines.

“We’re going to be left handing out water and MREs,” said Donaldson, worried their combat mission will shift to doling out humanitarian aid.

But like ongoing U.S. operations in real-world Afghanistan, where humanitarian aid missions coincide with still daily skirmishes against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts, Iraq is likely to remain a very deadly place for sometime to come.

‘A good deal of work remains’

“As liberated Iraqis were celebrating their new-found freedom,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Friday, “we lost an American Marine in a firefight in Baghdad and suffered a number of wounded, a sad reminder that the situation in Iraq is still dangerous, and that a good deal of work remains.”

Indeed, the war is not over.

Battlefield reports suggest much of what’s left of Saddam’s army is hunkering down in his home town of Tikrit about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

U.S. war planes have been attacking targets within the city for several days now, as allied forces converge on the city from both the north and south.

“I don’t know what the problem was in getting us over there, but I’m sure there’s still something important left for us to do,” said Sgt. 1st Class Felipe Ogas, the blue and white guidon of his infantry unit – Company B, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment – leaning against a wall next to his cot.

Whether they’ll race to whatever unfolds in Tikrit or get sent elsewhere for mop-up operations, Ogas said he’s confident “there’s still shots to be fired.”

Ogas says he knows his soldiers are eager for the fight, but as the senior noncommissioned officer for the company, he also knows war is ugly and that even the best trained soldiers can die.

“I want my guys to go in there and kick some butt, but at the same time I want to bring them all home alive.”


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