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For US troops, war becomes long, deadly fight to rebuild Iraq

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- Two years after President Bush stood under a ''Mission Accomplished" banner and declared that the United States had prevailed in the lightning-swift battle of Iraq, American troops labor each day on a different mission: a slow, painstaking, and often deadly effort to rebuild the country well enough to leave it.

For the 139,000 US troops stationed in the country, Iraq has become a long-term project -- not routine like a stint at a US base in Germany or Korea, but a regular stop in their deployment rotation. They and their commanders operate on the assumption that the US military will be in Iraq for years, living with that reality more frankly than many politicians have acknowledged.

The more methodical pace comes with a steadily rising death toll; insurgent attacks that dipped after January's election are climbing again. At least 1,572 US troops have died in Iraq, and at least 12,147 have been wounded since the launch of the invasion on March 19, 2003. During the first year after Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003, a total of 598 US troops died. Over the second year, the toll was 835.

Hunkered down in armored Humvees, veterans returning to Baqubah and other parts of Iraq find the country far more hostile than it was two years ago, when they drove in open-sided trucks and stopped to eat at Baghdad pizzerias.

As the US military forces carry out tasks much different from the martial hammer blow they are best trained to deliver -- feeling out which Iraqis to trust as they train soldiers and cajole politicians -- their new goals are harder to define.

''Back in March 2003, we were in an attack to remove a regime and destroy an army. And that's what we did," said Army Major Ed House, the operations officer of the Third Infantry Division's Third Brigade Combat Team, which spearheaded the invasion and returned in February to occupy the canal-laced region around Baqubah.

Now, he said, the brigade views its role during its yearlong deployment as working toward ''an independently functioning Iraq," a job it will not finish but will hand off to successor troops in January.

''None of us want to come back," House said. ''If we make it better in our year, and the next group makes it better in their year, at some point, someone's going to say, 'They got it.' "

Even the brigade's official, written mission statement has recently changed, House pointed out: The troops' most important job is no longer necessarily to defeat the insurgency, but to train Iraqi soldiers and police to win that fight.

That means artillery officers and tank platoon leaders from the 3,000-strong brigade have been reassigned to redress a fitful start in the training of Iraqi forces, which was plagued by insurgent infiltration, intimidation, and inadequate equipping and training.

Iraqi units in the area still fall under US operational command, and the Americans readily concede that the 4,200-soldier Iraqi brigade based in Baqubah is uneven and dependent on US forces for logistics such as the supply of food, weapons, and fuel.

But Baqubah's forces have shown recent improvement as some Iraqi units, originally formed as the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps nearly two years ago, come of age.

Walking a fine lineIn Abarra, a village north of Baqubah, a suicide truck bomber crashed through the gates of an Iraqi Army headquarters on March 20 and detonated as insurgents attacked with small arms. By the time the Americans rolled up through the smoke of blazing palm trees, said Major Rich Creed, a top officer in the training effort, ''they had already won the fight without us."

It was a great victory considering how often Iraqi Army troops have fled from attacks. The downside: The Americans think the village police chief was behind the assault on the base, not least because several wounded attackers fled to his house.

In attempting to prod the admittedly imperfect Iraqi forces to center stage, the US infantry troops face daily decisions on whether to let Iraqis take the lead or tell them how things should be done. They often have to choose between taking direct action or deferring to Iraq's wobbly government and legal system. Each day brings a myriad small negotiations with a complex web of tribal and social networks they barely understand.

Last week, in the charred army headquarters in Abarra, Captain Charles Ziegenfuss, who commands a First Infantry Division tank company attached to the brigade, sat smoking for an hour with a tribal sheik. He was trying to persuade him to oust another man from an elected regional council for suspected arms trafficking. Sheik Adnan al-Tamimi, a longtime US ally, was reluctant, and kept reminding Ziegenfuss that an Iraqi court declared the man innocent.

''He's got a valid point," Ziegenfuss said, leaving the meeting after Tamimi promised to think about it.

Down the road, in Baqubah, artillery troops of the brigade's 1-10 Battalion, who live and work in a bunker with Iraqi police, were facing a similar situation. They and the police chief wanted to suspend a police major suspected of stealing phones and computers from detainees, abusing female prisoners, and embezzling police salaries. But the major's brother is a colonel in charge of the investigations department, a man the Americans consider effective, and he has been trying to protect his brother.

''Everybody's a little corrupt." said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kessler, who heads the Military Transition Team that oversees Iraqi Army forces. ''The question is what's acceptable and how do you mitigate it."

Although Iraqi Army forces have technically reported to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense since formal sovereignty was returned to Iraq last year, many Iraqi units take orders directly from American liaison officers, and all work closely with US advisers.

Baqubah is the capital of Diyala Province, bordering Iran northeast of Baghdad. One of Iraq's greenest areas, where citrus trees shelter under palm groves between algae-filled canals, the area is home to many former Ba'athist officials.

It is part of the country's restive central region but calmer than such cities as Mosul, Samarra, or Ramadi. With its mix of Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds, pro- and anti-US feeling, and alternating periods of calm and chaos, the town is as representative a slice of the country as any.

Since taking over responsibility for Baqubah and the surrounding area in February, the Third Brigade Combat team has taken fewer casualties than commanders expected -- two have been killed in action and one in an accident. But on the brigade's five bases, command centers, dining halls, and traffic circles are named for fallen soldiers from US units that have come and gone.

Attacks on US and Iraqi forces in the brigade's area, roughly corresponding to Diyala Province, peaked at 334 in January, dipped to 120 in February following the National Assembly election, but bounced back to 132 in March, a level comparable to the simmering violence of last summer and fall.

A suicide bombing last week blew up a restaurant where police often ate, across the street from the joint US-police headquarters, killing six police and wounding a dozen; this followed a February bombing that killed 15 trainees outside the complex.

Iraqi soldiers and police increasingly bear the brunt of insurgent attacks across the country. Some Iraqis have turned against insurgents who attack their countrymen.

Most US troops, in Baqubah and across Iraq, live in air-conditioned trailers or refitted Iraqi buildings. Most have reliably hot showers and dining halls that get bigger and better -- the best have lobster tails and T-bone steaks -- even as the security becomes tighter following a suicide bombing on a US dining hall in Mosul in January that killed 22 people, including 14 US troops.

Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the brigade's largest camp, has a coffee shop that sells lattes and has a freestanding movie theater.

Across Iraq, the deadliest and most common weapon used against US troops is the homemade roadside bomb, dubbed with the clinical-sounding acronym IED, for improvised explosive device. Every time the troops around Baqubah leave their bases, they scan the palm trees along the road for the olive-oil cans that could contain bombs. What galls soldiers is that the bombs lie in wait almost randomly on their daily rounds, and their makers never confront the troops; soldiers feel better, they say, on the offensive.

Sergeant Terence Sutton likes raids on insurgent targets but not IED sweeps, which too often mean finding the bombs when they blow up under your Humvee. ''Go out and set off all the bombs -- it feels like that's our whole job."

The long-term mission also means that active-duty soldiers and reservists alike, many on second tours in Iraq and expecting more, wonder how they and their families will cope as the military calls on them for more overseas deployments than they ever expected.

Major John Colombo, a National Guard reservist from upstate New York, is working with police in Baqubah after three grueling years of deployments in New York related to Sept. 11, 2001. He volunteered for Iraq but said many reservists' families are suffering, particularly without the community support that active-duty families find on military bases.

''Do you know how many times my daughter's been asked, 'Is your dad dead yet?' " he said.

'Biologically opposed' The continuing war can also leave soldiers feeling isolated from home communities that see Iraq through politically polarized lenses, said Lieutenant Jim Meeks, who grew up in Newton and graduated from Harvard.

Meeks, 26, was wounded last June in Ramadi when a roadside bomb went off as he was transporting Iraqi detainees; four of his prisoners died. Recovering at home, he found people either ''biologically opposed" to all war or convinced that supporting the troops meant no debate at all over the situation in Iraq.

He volunteered to return. He now leads a tank platoon of the First Infantry Division's 2-34 Battalion, stationed at Forward Operating Base Gabe near Baqubah and working under the Third Brigade. But these days, they almost never use their tanks. On Tuesday, his platoon spent a day on the road that illustrated all the ambiguities of their labor.

At the Abarra army base, Meeks ran drills with Iraqi soldiers and chatted warmly with his favorite lieutenant, Hassan Falih. Falih vowed to keep up the fight and told Meeks he is not afraid to tell people in town he is in the army.

But out of Meeks's earshot, he admitted he tells neighbors he is still in his old job as a tailor and worries that Iraqi forces are losing some of their newly gained respect as reconstruction continues to lag.

''Right after the war, people were proud to say they were working for the Americans; now my men hide their faces with black masks," Falih said.

The next stop was another village where Meeks deployed his brilliant smile to win over Iraqi schoolchildren as he and Falih handed out school supplies. He gave young girls an English lesson and showed boys how to blow soap bubbles in the street. But around him, a crowd of silent older men gathered, their faces unfriendly.

A radio call announced that Falih's commander's brother had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. He was driving the commander's car when insurgents riddled it with bullets. Meeks's convoy careened away down the muddy road to investigate.

As they drove, the gunner in Meeks's Humvee shouted at every passing car, ''Get out of the way! Now!" as drivers cowered and pulled over. Meeks asked the driver, ''Are you going to tone him down, or should I?"

''Be easy, man," the driver called up to the turret. ''They're not shooting at us."

Iraqi troops said the would-be assassins were driving a white Toyota -- one of the most common cars in Iraq. One of Meeks's Humvees pulled one over almost immediately. The convoy was chasing another Toyota when small boys along the trash-strewn street started throwing rocks. Then a teenager threw a brick that glanced off a Humvee; at 40 miles per hour, the troops said, it would have done serious damage to a gunner's head.

The platoon halted and went after the boy. Meeks and his men scrambled down a muddy alley and slogged across a field, slowed by their flak jackets. A family standing by their gate insisted they had not sent the boy.

''Tell him that when kids throw bricks at us, we put their parents in detention!" Meeks told his interpreter, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Uday.

Down a different alley, another group of soldiers caught a few pebble-throwers. One father grabbed his son and spanked him on the spot. Another told a Globe reporter that he had been tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime and did not like US soldiers chasing after the children. ''They don't mean what they are doing," he said.

Trudging through the mud a few houses away, Uday sighed, ''The Iraqis hate us." He lives nearby and fears being assassinated, but said it is best to cooperate with Americans to bring security. His neighbors do not agree, he said. ''They don't understand."

Staying resolute Back at Forward Operating Base Gabe, a collection of modest former Iraqi Army buildings under eucalyptus trees, many in the platoon said they wanted to keep going until the job is done. Some defined that narrowly: getting the Iraqi troops to the point of independence, not rebuilding the country.

''It's not what any of us signed up to do," said Staff Sergeant Josh Wilson, who leads training courses on the base for Iraqi troops. He likes training, because training other soldiers is a key part of any sergeant's job, but overall he would rather be fighting.

Meeks said leading 16 men through such a complex task is the hardest job he has ever done. He said he has asked them to envision how they would deal with what he considers the three worst possibilities of war: You lose a limb or your eyesight. You kill a noncombatant. Or your buddy dies because of a decision you made. ''You have to forgive yourself," he said. ''This is what your army asks you to do."

But he cannot tell the men all his thoughts on those situations. ''You can't show fatigue in front of them," he said. ''You can't show fear. You can't show indecision."

Globe correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report. Anne Barnard can be reached at

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