Many of the American soldiers trying to quell sectarian killings in Baghdad don’t appear to be looking for reinforcements. They say a surge in troop levels some people are calling for is a bad idea.
President Bush is considering increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. advisers in Iraqi units. White House advisers have indicated Bush will announce his new plan for the war before his State of the Union address Jan. 23.
In dozens of interviews with soldiers of the Army’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as they patrolled the streets of eastern Baghdad, many said the Iraqi capital is embroiled in civil warfare between majority Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that no number of American troops can stop.
Others insisted current troop levels are sufficient and said any increase in U.S. presence should focus on training Iraqi forces, not combat.
But their more troubling worry was that dispatching a new wave of soldiers would result in more U.S. casualties, and some questioned whether an increasingly muddled American mission in Baghdad is worth putting more lives on the line.
Spc. Don Roberts, who was stationed in Baghdad in 2004, said the situation had gotten worse because of increasing violence between Shiites and Sunnis.
“I don’t know what could help at this point,” said Roberts, 22, of Paonia, Colo. “What would more guys do? We can’t pick sides. It’s almost like we have to watch them kill each other, then ask questions.”
Based in Fort Lewis, Wash., the battalion is part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. Deployed in June, its men were moved to Baghdad from Mosul in late November to relieve another Stryker battalion that had reached the end of its tour.
“Nothing’s going to help. It’s a religious war, and we’re caught in the middle of it,” said Sgt. Josh Keim, a native of Canton, Ohio, who is on his second tour in Iraq. “It’s hard to be somewhere where there’s no mission and we just drive around.”
Capt. Matt James, commander of the battalion’s Company B, was careful in how he described the unit’s impact since arriving in Baghdad.
“The idea in calling us in was to make things better here, but it’s very complicated and complex,” he said.
But James said more troops in combat would likely not have the desired effect. “The more guys we have training the Iraqi army the better,” he said. “I would like to see a surge there.”
During a recent interview, Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, deputy chief of staff for the Iraqi army, said that instead of sending more U.S. soldiers, Washington should focus on furnishing his men with better equipment.
“We are hoping 2007 will be the year of supplies,” he said.
Some in the 5th Battalion don’t think training will ever get the Iraqi forces up to American standards.
“They’re never going to be as effective as us,” said 1st Lt. Sean McCaffrey, 24, of Shelton, Conn. “They don’t have enough training or equipment or expertise.”
McCaffrey does support a temporary surge in troop numbers, however, arguing that flooding Baghdad with more soldiers could “crush enemy forces all over the city instead of just pushing them from one area to another.”
Pfc. Richard Grieco said it’s hard to see how daily missions in Baghdad make a difference.
“If there’s a plan to sweep through Baghdad and clear it, (more troops) could make a difference,” said the 19-year-old from Slidell, La. “But if we just dump troops in here like we’ve been doing, it’s just going to make for more targets.”
Sgt. James Simons, 24, of Tacoma, Wash., said Baghdad is so dangerous that U.S. forces spend much of their time in combat instead of training Iraqis.
“Baghdad is still like it was at the start of the war. We still have to knock out insurgents because things are too dangerous for us to train the Iraqis,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Handly disagreed, saying Baghdad has made improvements many Americans aren’t aware of.
“People think everything is so bad and so violent, but it’s really not,” said Handly, 30, of Bellingham, Wash. “A lot of people are getting jobs they didn’t have before and they’re doing it on their own. We just provide a stabilizing effect.”
Staff Sgt. Lee Knapp, 28, of Mobile, Ala., also supported a temporary troop surge, saying it could keep morale up by reducing the need to extend units past the Army’s standard tour of one year in Iraq.
“It could help alleviate some stress on the smaller units,” he said. “It could help Baghdad, but things are already getting better.”
Sgt. Justin Thompson, a San Antonio native, said he signed up for delayed enlistment before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, then was forced to go to a war he didn’t agree with.
A troop surge is “not going to stop the hatred between Shia and Sunni,” said Thompson, who is especially bitter because his 4-year contract was involuntarily extended in June. “This is a civil war, and we’re just making things worse. We’re losing. I’m not afraid to say it.”