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In Anbar province, change of course rankles many U.S. soldiers

RAMADI, Iraq—Scaling back the military and political goals in Iraq's Anbar province has hurt the morale of many U.S. soldiers stationed there, and some have begun to question openly not only their mission, but also the leaders who sent them to Iraq in the first place.

It's not just buck privates. Several sergeants—the backbone of the enlisted military—said they felt the same way.

Instead of neighborhood patrols, most of the convoys that leave the bases in Ramadi these days are on their way to guard main roads and the government building downtown. There are also observations posts throughout the city, where soldiers sit and watch, waiting for something to happen.

To carry food from one base to the next in Ramadi, a matter of a few blocks, takes four vehicles—armored Humvees and trucks—all with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on top.

"I'm tired of every time we go out the gate, someone tries to kill me," said Staff Sgt. Sheldon Rivers.

Asked whether most Americans have an idea of how bad the security situation is in Ramadi, Sgt. Maj. John Jones said recently that he was annoyed every time he heard analysis about Iraq from politicians and journalists on TV.

"When people come over here, where do they stay? In the Green Zone. I call it the Safe Zone," he said, referring to the secure area in Baghdad where the government is housed. "They miss the full picture."

What is the full picture?

"It's just like the West," Jones said, "when we were trying to settle it with the Indians."

He wouldn't elaborate.

"It means that we have to kill all of them," said a captain standing nearby, half-joking.

Jones just shrugged.

Sgt. 1st Class James Tilley was on patrol on the road outside Ramadi later that afternoon, sitting in his Humvee for an hour or two in one spot—sweating profusely in the 105-degree heat—before moving a few hundred yards down the road to another place.

The patrol is designed to ward off insurgents from trying to put bombs in the road.

"A lot of times, I look at this place and wonder what have we really done. ... When we first got here, we all wanted to change it and make it better, but now I don't give a shit," he said. "What the hell am I here for?"

Staff Sgt. A.J. Dean was on the same stretch of road a couple of nights later, and his tone was similar to Tilley's.

"I don't have any idea of what we're trying to do out here. I don't know what the (goal) is, and I don't think our commanders do either," he said. "I feel deceived personally. I don't trust anything (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld says, and I think (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul) Wolfowitz is even dirtier."

Dean motioned down the road to a bridge.

About two weeks ago, he said, a buddy of his was on a patrol that stopped to look at a possible bomb. As he walked around the device, it detonated, sending shrapnel through one side of his face and out the other. The soldier, whose arm also was mangled in the explosion, survived, but the word came down that the bridge had become off-limits for patrols.

"To me it's a month and a half of patrols wasted because we've given them back that bridge," Dean said. "It makes me question the whole mission."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.