American troops in one of the most dangerous corners of Iraq welcomed plans for change Wednesday as the Pentagon prepared for a new chief and a bipartisan commission urged a new war strategy.
But many of the soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment were skeptical they’ll be going home anytime soon, despite a high-level U.S. panel’s recommendation that most combat troops leave Iraq by early 2008.
“There’s no way we’re leaving in two years no matter what any recommendation says,” Spc. Eisenhower Atuatasi, 26, of Westminster, Calif., said. He thought 2012 was more realistic.
Sgt. Christopher Wiacik, 28, of Lavonia, Mich., also was pessimistic.
“It’s just a study group. It’s not really going to affect the president. I don’t see any major changes happening until presidential elections start,” Wiacik said. “I think both sides will promise to get troops out and give timelines then, but not before.”
The U.S. Army troops, based in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, are still reeling from learning two months ago that their tour was being extended until at least February.
“We’ve been here for 12 months now and there’s been no progress,” said Spc. Richard Johnson, 20, of Bridgeport, Conn., as he manned a machine gun on the rooftop of an outpost ringed by a shallow moat of sewage.
Nearby buildings have been leveled by rocket or tank fire, and others are riddled with bullet holes. The neighborhood only has electricity a few hours a day and most streets are barricaded with barbed wire and blast walls.
“It’s like holding a child’s hand. How long can you hold onto his hand before he does something on his own?” Johnson said. “How much longer do we have to get shot at or blown up?”
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, said Wednesday that the United States faces a “grave and deteriorating” situation after nearly four years of war in Iraq.
The panel recommended the U.S. reduce political, military or economic support if the Iraqi government cannot make substantial progress toward national reconciliation and that American forces shift to a training role.
1st Lt. Gerard Dow said he agreed with the commission’s assessment that the situation in Iraq was “grave and disappointing.”
“In Iraq, we try to win the hearts and minds of population,” said Dow, 32, of Chicago. “They want Americans out of here. They blame us for all their problems. They look at us as the terrorists and then they turn around and help the terrorists who are trying to kill us.”
Dow trained Iraqi soldiers in Ramadi and in the north during his first assignment in Iraq, and he doubts U.S. forces will be able to hand over the fighting by early next year as the commission recommends.
“The Iraqi army is getting there,” he said. “But they are still not where they need to be and I doubt they will be by then. Too many times, they are in a selfish state of mind. Too often they are along for the ride while we do the work for them.”
He said the largely Shiite soldiers sometimes loot homes, fail to follow orders and openly acknowledge that they don’t trust the Sunni population.
“They are only going to do the right thing if someone’s watching and they know they will be punished if they don’t,” he said. “That’s not every soldier. I have met some great guys, but it is a lot of them. They don’t care, and this is their country.”
Asked if he was frustrated with the situation in Ramadi, he replied: “That doesn’t cover it.”
“U.S. soldiers are dying trying to help people who don’t want their help,” he said. “That makes you angry.”
Dow said elders at a nearby mosque broadcast messages saying Americans are the cause of all the problems in Ramadi, the capital of restive Sunni-dominated Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The soldiers here also welcomed news that Robert Gates had been named to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Gates told a Senate committee Tuesday that “all options are on the table” about how to resolve the Iraq crisis.
“Yes, please! All of us want to change what we’re doing because we’re not doing very much,” said Staff Sgt. Rony Theodore, 33, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Wiacik also hoped for change.
“We’re just sitting around not making any progress. It’s annoying. You’re not motivated to help anybody,” he said, adding his contract was up in 2008 and he did not plan to re-enlist.
“I don’t want to live my life like this,” he said.