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U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — Soldiers in Iraq are hoping against hope that the apparent fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime means they’ll be going home soon.

But they’re not quite sure it’s time to give up the fight.

“It’s a good sign, but by no means does it mean the war is over,” said Capt. John Drosos, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, who serves with the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. “We’ve still got a mission to do, and there’s still no sign of a cease-fire.”

Even as they watched televised images of Baghdad residents celebrating and cheering the arrival of U.S. ground forces, leaders of the 11th Aviation Regiment continued to plan missions.

They are still deciding whether the unit, currently camped at a dusty desert airstrip southwest of Karbala, should move to another spot farther north to continue the war north of Baghdad.

“I think it’s the beginning of the end,” said Capt. Brandon Barker, 30, of Dalton, Minn., an officer with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment.

“These people could have just taken off their uniforms and be jumping up and down [celebrating]. When night falls, we’ll see if they’re really with us.”

U.S. soldiers in Iraq have learned through hard experience that enemy soldiers may pretend to be friendly or surrender, then come out firing.

“There’s a lot of people in Baghdad,” said 1st Lt. Jeremy Vigna, 24, of Evans, Ga., the 2-6 Cavalry’s communications officer. “You worry about that one guy with a grenade.”

For these soldiers it’s been a hard mission in dusty desert outposts that are getting hotter every day. The 2-6 Cavalry has been in Kuwait and Iraq for six long months. The rest of the regiment has been here two.

They believe, at the very least, this is a big step toward a ticket home.

“It seems like we’ve come out here and accomplished what we set out to do,” said Pfc. Richard Negrete, 31, of Tampa, Fla., who is part of the 2-6 Cavalry’s fuel-and-ammo resupply team. “We’re tired. The lack of sleep is getting to everybody.”

But, he said, “It’s good to hear people cheering in the streets. It’s a lot better than seeing your pilots come back shot up.”

Capt. John Kolisnyk, 29, of Langhorne, Pa., is the 6-6 Cavalry’s flight surgeon. He hopes the cheering crowds of celebrating Iraqis make an impression on other people in the Middle East who hate America.

“It’s an encouraging sign,” he said. “The other countries had to see this celebration by their fellow Arabs.”

Capt. Reono Bertagnolli, 36, of Salt Lake City, a 2-6 Cavalry doctor, said he felt “optimism and jubilation” watching the news from Baghdad.

“This is a big step,” he said, “towards getting us all to go home.”

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