‘Fresno Bee’ Reporter in Iraq: Troops Wonder About Success

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By: E&P Staff

Papers the size of the Fresno Bee no longer send reporters to Iraq, generally, but Chris Collins has served that role lately, with the reports going out over the McClatchy Newspapers wire as well.

The latest Collins report attempts to gauge the sentiments of U.S. troops away from the usual military-staged interviews and photo ops. Here is an excerpt from the piece datelined “Southeast of Salman Pak.”

Standing in a small room in the Iraqi home they’d raided an hour earlier, a dozen soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division were trading jokes when 1st Sgt. Troy Moore, Company A’s senior enlisted man, shouted out.

“We’re bringing democracy to Iraq,” he called, with obvious sarcasm, as a reporter entered the room. Then Moore began loudly humming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Within seconds the rest of the troops had joined in, filling the small, barren home in the middle of Iraq with the patriotic chorus of a Civil War-era ballad.

U.S. officials say that security has improved since the Sledgehammer Brigade, as the 3rd Brigade is called, arrived five months ago as part of the 30,000-strong buildup of additional U.S. troops to Iraq and took control of an area 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. The brigade, with 3,800 soldiers, has eight times the number of troops that were in the area before.

Although the soldiers who since spring have walked and ridden through this volatile area mixed with Sunni and Shiite Muslims have seen some signs of progress, they still face the daily threat of roadside bombs, an unreliable Iraqi police force, the limitations of depending on Iraqis for tips and the ever-elusive enemy.

“Even though we’ve out-stayed our welcome, in the big picture of whether we’ve helped or not, I know we have,” said Sgt. Christofer Kitto, a 23-year-old sniper from Altamont, N.Y. “But now it’s just in a state of quagmire. The U.S. time here has come and gone.” …

Col. Wayne Grigsby, of Prince George’s County, Md., the brigade’s commander, ticks off his troops’ accomplishments since June: 86 “knuckleheads” killed and 186 detained; 50 homemade bombs disarmed and 21 weapons caches discovered; 100 boats ? used by Sunnis to transport weapons up the Tigris to Baghdad ? destroyed.

“People ask me is the surge working, I say, ‘How can it not work?’ You’ve got eight companies sitting in a place where there was one company before,” he said.

After months of interacting daily with municipal governments and providing economic relief, the military has begun to earn Iraqis’ trust, he said. Now tips about suspected insurgents come in regularly from townspeople.

Grigsby keeps the entryway to his office decorated with red, white and blue balloons and a sign that reads: “Git ‘R Done!” Beside his desk stands a metal rocket launcher that his troops recovered from an insurgent safe house last month. Insurgents used the launcher and others like it to fire a hail of rockets at FOB Hammer on July 11, killing one soldier. It’s an odd piece of memorabilia, a constant reminder of how aggressive and resourceful the enemy can be.

Grigsby is optimistic about his troops’ work, but he also knows that they’re going home in less than nine months and that the effort will have been for naught if the Iraqis don’t pick up the slack. So far, Iraqi police don’t patrol any part of the region without the military’s help.

In late June, the 3rd Brigade turned over control of an abandoned Pepsi factory in Salman Pak ? the largest city in the region ? to Iraqi police so they could use it as a checkpoint and patrol base. Three hours after U.S. forces left, insurgents swarmed the factory in broad daylight and took control.

“The surge isn’t going on forever, so who’s going to take our place?” Grigsby asked. “The key is the Iraqi security forces; that is the key. We’ve worked our butts off up here and lost some great soldiers. At some point, they’ve got to bring it so they can live in a peaceful nation.” …

Maj. Joe Sowers, a public affairs officer from Richmond, Ind., said that during his first tour in 2004, “there was no such thing” as EFPs, which the U.S. military says that the Iranian military supplies.

“Us and the insurgents have grown together,” Sowers said. “It’s a deadly little dance we’re doing, and they’re improving.”

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