Article - Office of College Advancement

Soldiers give split portrait of Iraq

Ohlone trustee sees chaos; Former Marine from Fremont says U.S. must withdrawal

By Angela Woodall, Staff writer.

Monday, December 4, 2006—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area: The Argus.

A snapshot of Baghdad: traffic as thick as any Los Angeles freeway. Children, dressed in clean, tidy clothes, on their way to school. Women walking along the dusty brown streets on their way to do the day's shopping.

TAL AFAR in northwest Iraq is still recovering three years after the United States invaded the country. —Photo by Garrett Yee.

Such was the "almost surreal" scene described by Lt. Col. Garrett Yee, a trustee at Ohlone College in Fremont serving in the Army Reserve in Iraq.

It's hard to imagine from the description that the country of 26 million is one of the deadliest places on the planet.

But it is by many accounts, especially in and around Baghdad.

"Iraqis are desperate," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization that studies international conflict.

"Violence stalks the streets of Baghdad, peering from every corner and entering into people's homes," he said.

"It's sectarian, but also … criminal or score-settling, random and indiscriminate, lethal and utterly terrifying."

Amid reports of overflowing Baghdad morgues and the recent surge in the deaths of U.S. troops in October and November, one question dominates the national discussion:

When will our troops leave Iraq?

When Yee was deployed to Iraq in July, the Pentagon's goal was shifting from using U.S. troops to defeat Islamic radicalism to training Iraqi forces. The plan was to reduce the number of U.S. soldiers on the ground there to put pressure on Iraqi forces to take control of the country.

But the new thinking is that the troops are one of the few things standing in the way of full-scale civil war.

Pulling out now would be a mistake, according to Yee, whose job is to look at "lessons learned" by the Army—which strategies worked in Iraq and which didn't.

Yee is encouraged not so much by U.S. policy as by the people who are determined to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

However, by many accounts, that light will be no more than a shadow for the most afflicted of Iraq's 18 provinces, in part because of, not in spite of, Washington and U.S. troops.

"People say, 'Get out of Iraq.' But the military is needed to keep a lid on things," Yee said.

"It's complicated. There is no simple solution. No one thing—like withdrawal—would fix it," he added, as the sound of mortar attacks echoed in the background of his base, Camp Victory.

"They're not very good shots," he noted reassuringly.

Yee recalled a police chief in Tal Afar, a city that has been bombed by the military, wracked with sectarian violence and is mostly the color of mud.

The police chief, who had just lost an officer to a car bomb, was sad that his country is not where it needs to be, Yee said. "But he was not going to stop trying to make it better."

The city, in northwest Iraq, has lost nearly half its population. If you walk down its dusty streets, you would see many unemployed people and houses made of rock and mud, which melt in the rain, Yee said.

"You need to be careful of stepping into puddles of raw sewage as it trickles down some of its streets," he said.

The city's mayor told him that Iraq is 200 years behind the United States, but Tal Afar is 50 years behind Iraq.

"It's hard to see the widows who are at the mercy of others' generosity, or the men who can't work because they have been maimed, who can't take care of themselves or their families" was the mayor's answer when Yee asked what kind of issues had to be dealt with.

Iraqis such as Tal Afar's mayor know their lives are at risk—many having survived assassination attempts in a country where the civilian death toll ranges from 30,000 to as many as 655,000.

"Death is part of life. Soldiers and civilians die," Yee said.

But "they don't walk around in fear all the time. They learn to live with it."

Iraqis need food and security, Yee noted. "You can't do anything without security."

That is why he favors keeping the military involved.

It is an assessment former Marine Corps Sgt. Sean O'Neill disagreed with based on two tours of duty in Iraq with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

"Withdrawal has been demonized," said O'Neill, a Fremont native who heads the Bay Area chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a national organization calling for the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq.

"There's chaos already. We have to give up the idea that Iraq will become a democracy in the next few months," he added.

"The war is a humanitarian and moral disaster, but also a strategic blunder that has led to needless casualties on both sides."

In the beginning, soldiers gave a sense of security, he said. But interactions with troops who were inadequately trained for the chaos they face "basically killed that."

The Pentagon announced in November that a new crew of troops will be deployed to Iraq in early 2007, many to serve yearlong combat tours.

But those very troops may feed the anti-U.S. fire that has been fueled by atrocities such as the rape and murder by Army soldiers of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the slaying of three of her family members in their home—the fifth incident in which U.S. troops were accused of killing Iraqi civilians.

The abuses against Iraqi detainees carried out by guards at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military prison, had already deeply damaged soldiers' and U.S. credibility.

It is a problem the armed forces are painfully aware of, Yee said.

The military "can't deny what has been done and what mistakes have been made," he added.

"Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes, but we're continually going to new areas and will unfortunately probably make some mistakes along the way."

Asked whether he is optimistic about Iraq's future, Yee said that with the right leaders, there is hope.

"No country stays at war for hundreds of years," he said. "It just takes time."

Staff writer Angela Woodall can be reached at (510) 353-7004.

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