U.S. Soldiers Voice Thoughts on Iraq Withdrawal

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The debate in the United States about whether its forces should be pulled out of Iraq is gathering momentum. One set of voices often overlooked in the debate is that of ordinary soldiers. We talk to some who've seen their colleagues killed and injured about their thoughts on withdrawal.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The U.S. military in Iraq reported the deaths of four Marines today. They were killed during operations in Anbar Province, a volatile region west of Baghdad.

At the center of Anbar, the city of Ramadi is now considered a major insurgent stronghold, and it's the focus of a U.S. military operation to flush out the militants and establish government control.

NPR's Philip Reeves is embedded with U.S. troops in Ramadi. He reports soldiers are aware of the debate here in the U.S. about whether to withdraw troops, but they believe their mission should be accomplished first.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Ramadi.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It's breakfast time at Camp Corregidor, a U.S. military base on Ramadi's eastern edge. Insurgents are firing mortars into the area.

(Soundbite of mortar fire)

Unidentified Man: All clear. All clear.

Sergeant Brit Ruble(ph), from the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment, who's base this is, has been in the U.S. Army for more than 15 years. He's served in Kosovo, Bosnia, and twice before in Iraq.

None of his previous tours compares with this one.

Sgt. BRIT RUBLE (1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment, United States Army): Oh, it's most definitely the most chaotic and dangerous. This particular tour is definitely the worst, as far as combat, I've seen to date.

REEVES: This is the frontline of America's war in Iraq. Ruble knows about the debate back home in the states about withdrawing the troops. He hasn't much time for it.

Sgt. RUBLE: Yeah, well it's easy for somebody in an air-conditioned office back in the states to state their opinions. Unless you've done the deed, spilt blood with your men on the (censored) dirt, you really can't talk about it intelligently, because you don't know what's going on. All you do is read the newspaper and get the reports. Being over here is a wholly different ballgame.

REEVES: Ruble belongs to Charlie Company. The Company works on Ramadi's east side.

Sgt. RUBLE: Every time we break out of the wire, there's a chance of anything and everything going wrong. Anything from IEDs, to mortar strikes, to small arms, sniper fire, or ambushes. In third platoon, we've been in just about every one of those incidents.

REEVES: There's one incident which his platoon will never forget: an ambush in Ramadi on the 13th of March.

Sgt. RUBLE: We lost one of our snipers. A great guy, Sergeant Silva(ph). He was killed. I lost one of my squad leaders. He was injured. Sergeant Arby(ph). Specialist Reed(ph) was injured as well. Sergeant Rowe(ph), which is still here with us, was injured. Specialist Alvarez(ph) was injured. And so, a pretty intense night, you know?

Specialist ROGER SANCHEZ(ph) (United States Army): Everything happens out here from mortars to IEDs to RPGs being shot at us, weapons being shot at us. I wasn't expecting all this.

REEVES: That's Specialist Roger Sanchez, a 19-year-old from Alvin, Texas. He was caught in the ambush.

Spc. SANCHEZ: I don't guess anybody can imagine what exactly it is like unless they're in it. It was bad, I mean, you know, people were shooting at you. You know, you're fearing for your life, so you're fighting through the whole thing.

REEVES: In six months, a third of Sanchez's platoon has been lost to combat injuries. Sgt. Ruble says each time it happens, it's hard to accept.

Sgt. RUBLE: You're mad that it happened. You know, if you're unfortunate to have one of your brothers in arms injured; its tough to swallow when its one of your men that, you know, was injured. And you've got to put him on a bird and fly him out and watch him go away. It's tough, and yeah, I would say everybody has a definite angry period that they're upset and they want to get back out there and get it cleaned up. You don't want that to happen to anybody else.

Unidentified Group: (singing) Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia...

REEVES: The battalion's chaplain, Father Paul Halladay, leads a service in what used to be a mansion belonging to a local sheikh. A handful of burly soldiers stands before him in a room strewn with flak jackets and guns and ammunition boxes.

Halladay's the man to whom soldiers often turn when they need support. He says no one finds it easy to deal with combat losses, including himself.

Father PAUL HALLADAY (Chaplain, 1st Battalion 506th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army): It's, you know, a hard, hard thing whenever you see man's inhumanity to man, regardless of the particulars there. But, certainly, when it's young men that you've talked to, you've had conversations with, you know, about their family - you've seen their children, and now you see them in a situation where, quite literally, they're hanging between life and death. And it can become an extremely emotional experience, particularly for the chaplain, I think.

REEVES: Back on the streets of eastern Ramadi, the men of Charlie Company, this week, launched a fresh attempt to bring the neighborhood under control.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man: Come on. Go in; go in; go in!

REEVES: They conducted house-to-house searches for weapons and bomb-detonating equipment. It's part of a major operation to establish a base for the Iraqi security services inside the city. Who knows if it'll succeed. But for all the threat of more losses, Sgt. Ruble isn't ready to give up and go home.

Sgt. RUBLE: For all the guys that have given the ultimate sacrifice and have been injured, I want to see this thing out to the end, because if we pull out too early and go home and we don't finish it, that means that all those guys have done it for naught; and I don't want to see that happen. I want to do it and do it right, so when we go home, we can say, hey, look what we've done.

REEVES: Nineteen-year-old Roger Sanchez(ph), the one caught up in the ambush, agrees.

Spc. SANCHEZ: It would be good if we stay here until everything's done and our mission is accomplished. That's it.

REEVES: You don't think that it's time to go home right now?

Spec. SANCHEZ: It's time to go home once our mission is accomplished. You know, like I just said, I'm all for going home once the mission is accomplished - as long as it takes.

REEVES: The chaplain, Father Paul Halladay, says most of the soldiers here feel the same way.

Father HALLADAY: You know, most of the guys would agree that nobody wants their sons and their grandsons to be back here doing the same thing that we're doing. So, because of that, you know, you want to make sure that you do the job right to begin with. And also, too, I think, and I hope - I hope the guys would see this - a lot of the condition that Iraq is in is because we have come into the country; we've invaded the country. And so we can't just turn around and leave now; we have to help put this country back on its feet.

REEVES: After three years of conflict, no one on the front line in Iraq knows how long that would take.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Ramadi.

INSKEEP: The U.S. military says four American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. The U.S. and its allies have been moving through the eastern part of that country near the border with Pakistan. They've been looking for al-Qaida or Taliban fighters who are blamed for an increase in violence.

The fighting is accompanied by a battle of words. Today, the man considered al-Qaida's number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a new video. It calls on the people of Afghanistan to rise up. This video shows al-Zawahiri wearing a white turban against a black backdrop. He's got an automatic rifle beside him.

Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, responded to that video. He called al-Zawahiri the first enemy of the Afghan people. President Karzai blamed him for the deaths of thousands, and for the destruction of mosques, schools and orchards across Afghanistan.

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