Troops Want to Finish the Job
BALAD, Iraq - Sgt. Isaiah Killough would love to be with his wife, who's due to have a baby any day. Instead, the 20-year-old military policeman is spending time with detainees in Iraq.
"The only bad thing is being away from my wife right now," said Killough, of West Plains, Miss. "But we're doing a good thing here, and if we leave too early then it would leave us where we started."
Several service members at U.S. bases had mixed reactions to the recent announcement by the Bush administration that some troops in Iraq and Afghanistancould start going home, but all agreed it was important to stay until the job was done.
"I've got a wife and kids at home," Sgt. Richard Roush, 40, of Brooksville, Fla., said at a base near Kabul, Afghanistan. "I would love to see everybody pulled out, but I don't want it to happen too soon. Then we'd be right back where we started."
Facing congressional pressure and waning public support for the conflict in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced plans for the U.S. military to start reducing its troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan during a surprise visit to the region in late December.
He ordered the number of troops in Afghanistan to be cut from 19,000 to about 16,500 by spring, but he did not reveal the exact size of the reduction in Iraq and cautioned that removing forces too quickly would impede the long-term hunt for terrorists.
Capt. Blane Kusterle, 27, of St. Petersburg, Fla., said further withdrawals should only occur when the Iraqis are up to speed - and that could be a while.
"I think committing to a timeline would be detrimental to the process of handing over to the Iraqis," he said. "It is a good sign to pull the numbers down a bit, but not substantially."
As of late last month, 17 of the 109 former Iraqi bases used by coalition troops since the 2003 invasion had been transferred to Iraqi command, while 30 have been shut down, Army officers say.
Some Iraqi forces have excelled and fought well alongside Americans, but other units have been hamstrung by weapons shortages and some have had their soldiers caught working with insurgents.
In some places, Iraqi troops have failed to report for duty, gotten caught with bomb-making materials or allowed insurgents to attack U.S. convoys or other coalition soldiers by looking the other way, Americans say.
Iraqi soldiers and police units were responsible for much of the security for the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, which were free of the violence and bombings that U.S. officials expected.
Army Spc. Larry Powers, based near ousted leader Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, agreed, even though his brigade has lost more than 30 men since arriving nearly a year ago.
"The withdrawal is good for us," the 20-year-old from Roseburg, Ore., said during a visit to fellow U.S. forces at Balad, about 55 miles north of Baghdad. "For the Iraqis, it's good to get them in control, but their numbers aren't that high."
Powers, sitting on a sofa in a wood-paneled recreation center at the base, said he had other concerns on his mind, like watching for the roadside bombs that have proven so deadly for his colleagues.
President Bush has authorized the reduction of U.S. combat troops in Iraq to below the 138,000 level that prevailed for most of this year. He did not reveal the exact size of the troop cut, but senior Pentagon officials have said the number of American troops in Iraq could drop to about 100,000 by fall.
The U.S. hopes that as more Iraqi police and army forces are trained, they will be able to take over from American troops. Much of that expectation depends on the ability of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups to form a broad-based government that will have the legitimacy to deflate the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
"The conditions on the ground will dictate our force level," Bush said Sunday.
U.S. forces who work with the Iraqis say they've made progress but more work needs to be done.
"I think they might need a little bit more help," said Lucia Godoy, 27, a supply sergeant from Corpus Christi, Texas, with the 172nd Airborne Stryker Brigade in the northern city of Mosul.