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By Nir Rosen, with the US 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
in Iraq

Why we are here

AL-QAIM, western Iraq - Lieutenant-Colonel Gregg
Reilly, the SCO, or squadron commander, of the 3rd
Armored Cavalry Regiment's Tiger Base in western Iraq,
is relaxed and comfortable answering tough questions,
but he gets visibly tense for the first time when
asked why the US is in Iraq.

He removes his legs from the desk and, placing an
elbow on the table, he leans his forehead in his palm,
pondering intensely on the best way to articulate his
position without crossing the line. He speaks
deliberately, "We're here for the right reasons. In
order to enable this region of the world to progress.
And America has always had to be there to stand up for
the basic human rights of people. We believe that
people should be able to govern themselves and that
human rights are important to the long term support of
progress in the region. This idea is embedded in the
progress of humanity."

He avoids the political debates about how the US ended
up occupying Iraq. That is not in his purview. "The
reputation of the United States is on the line," he
says. "We're here," he repeats emphatically, "We're
here. And we're here for the right reasons. There is
nobody else who had the will or the ability to do

Reilly's men are clear about their missions, even if
they state purposes, like his, that are often not the
official ones cited prior to the war. Specialist Ray
Winters, originally from California, is here "to help
the people of Iraq, that's the overall reason. I'm not
worried about what's going on back home outside my
family. My family is proud of me and I'm proud of
myself. We're fighting terrorists and guerrilla
warfare. These are bad people and we've got to get rid
of them so the people of Iraq can move on."

Captain Chris Alfeiri, of the 1st Squadron of the 3rd
ACR, says his men believe they are active in the fight
against terrorists, though he admits, "This is not
directly connected to 9/11."

Immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the
1st Squadron was sent to Egypt for exercises called
Operation Bright Star. "We were expecting and hoping
to go to Afghanistan," Alfeiri says, "and we were
frustrated we didn't have a role there. We don't want
to leave Iraq until the job is done." First Sergeant
Clinton Reiss, a veteran of the first Gulf War in
1991, says, "The more we're attacked the longer we're
going to be here. We get these people on their feet,
we go home. That's the way I look at it."

Similar sentiments can be heard from a young enlisted
soldier relating his experiences to his wife on the
morale phone. "If they would be peaceful and be nice
we would be out of here in no time," he tells her.
"We're trying to help them. They don't understand and
they're trying to prolong our stay by butting heads
with us."

Known as the "anti-morale phone" by soldiers because
it is often impossible to find a connection, this
phone and the Internet access they have are their life
line, allowing them to tell family members they love
them, to ask for supplies, to arrange their finances,
and from time to time to argue with girlfriends and
wives, to the increased interest of all those within
listening range. They do not discuss politics over the

Captain Bill Ray, a 30-year-old intelligence officer
from a small town called Ordway, near Pueblo,
Colorado, asserts that the war in Iraq was a
"continuation of the war on terrorism. Even though we
haven't been able to put our hands on WMD [weapons of
mass destruction] I believe it was here and a lot went
to Syria. We needed to come here before Saddam
[Hussein] started letting those weapons out of this
country. And there were training camps for
international terrorist organizations in Iraq. We came
here for just reasons and there were a lot of people
here who were in bad shape." He adds that unlike most
men on the base, "I'm not married, so being here this
long doesn't bother me."

Captain Justin Brown, the commander of Apache Troop,
states his mission in Iraq in clipped military
simplicity, "To get the area safe in order to provide
a secure environment to bring international
organizations in and provide normalcy."

Staff Sergeant Michael Adair, a 30-year-old
non-commissioned officer under Brown's command from
Junction City, Kansas, believes that "we're here to
liberate the people of Iraq, to help restore a
government, more at the local level for us, to restore
infrastructure and to stop illegal trafficking and
border crossing."

His colleague from Apache Troop and first Gulf War
veteran Staff Sergeant Christopher Joseph, 31, from
Moya, North Carolina, agrees, adding that "the only
concern that soldiers here have is the same thing the
government is finding out, and that is it's going to
take longer than we thought. We're disappointed that
we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction yet,
but that keeps us motivated to search for them."

Adair adds, "I'm not after WMDs. I think when they
realized we were coming in they got rid of it. I
definitely think al-Qaeda is alive and well in Iraq.
Our soldiers don't have a clouded vision of why
they're here." They agree that keeping track of the
debates back home about the US occupation was
difficult. "We're behind the times news-wise," says
Joseph, "we're focused on the here and now."

Soldiers get most of their news watching Armed Forces
Network television or reading Stars and Stripes
newspaper. Both are sanctioned by the military. Reilly
believes his men are as informed as the general US
public, adding that "it's very representative of the
population back home. On your city block back home,
how many people are interested in the issues? It has
to do with interest, not rank. They spend most of
their time focused on the day-to-day, either
recovering from an operation, preparing for an
operation or doing an operation."

Joseph adds that the copies of Stars and Stripes they
do get are usually about two weeks old and are only
from one or two days of the week. Despite that, and
even though his troop of 100 men only get six copies,
he says, "It gets passed around like porno." Adair
agrees. "What news we get they devour," he says of his

But they are not well informed about the growing
recriminations over possible administration deception
by the administration of President George W Bush and
subterfuge regarding the evidence provided to justify
the war. They do not have time to follow these
debates, and the official military sources do not
delve into such matters. "I have to believe, and hope,
that our leaders sent us here for the right reasons,"
says Reiss, and leaves it at that.

Of course not all the men are thrilled to be in Iraq.
Enlisted men say their officers have to be positive,
because dissent can ruin a career. When asked how long
he has been in Iraq, one enlisted 21-year-old snaps,
"Way too long." He explains that "when we first got
here it felt like we were doing something good, now it
feels like a waste. We were making progress for a
while and now things are slower. When we first got
here we were getting Ba'ath Party members left and
right. We've been away from our families a long time."

Another 21-year-old says, "If we find weapons of mass
destruction it was worth it, but if we don't and we're
just here because Bush wanted to finish what his daddy
started, then a lot of boys died for nothing, and
that's fucked up."

A very senior officer expresses his hopes that retired
General Wesley Clark, a Democrat, will become the next
president, believing that the positive ramifications
would extend to the army as well. A chief warrant
officer wonders aloud whether it was a mistake to
isolate the international community and attempt the
daunting challenge of reconstructing Iraq alone.

It is common to hear the men state that they are just
a conventional force, untrained for "these kinds of
operations". Fortunately for the regiment, many of its
soldiers have experience from Bosnia-Herzegovina and
Kosovo setting up tactical checkpoints, dealing with
foreign cultures and navigating complex ethnic, tribal
and religious rivalries. Sergeant Joseph explains,
"This isn't from a textbook. It's all battlefield
training. Tank commanders aren't trained for kicking
down doors. We're adapting as we go."

According to Alfeiri, "All my soldiers are between 18
and 23. The hardest thing for them is to transition
from combat to stability operations, using deadly
force in the morning and in the same day fixing the
air conditioners in a hospital." Alfeiri wonders how
he and his men will adjust to the life back home they
all long to return to. "We're in an environment where
there is no law," he says, "nobody can stop us." He
believes the transition to regular life in the United
States will be difficult, comparing it to the
experiences faced by veterans of Vietnam.

Sergeant Scott Blow, a 27-year-old from Denver, is
confounded by the same problems all the men of the 3rd
ACR face. "Nobody knows who the enemy is here until
they shoot at you. Any time you kick down a door you
don't know what to expect." For a conventional force
accustomed to expect to fight an obvious enemy, the
challenges are not merely intellectual.

On June 7, Bandit Troop's Sergeant Michael Dooley was
standing at a checkpoint when a car approached
containing three men. Two of them called out that
their friend was injured and needed attention. When
Dooley approached the vehicle to assist, he was shot
in the face and killed immediately. The car sped off,
but soldiers shot at it and later found it abandoned
containing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), hand
grenades, flares and C4 explosive.

The men on Tiger Base are curious what the Iraqis
think of them, and baffled by the hostility the daily
attacks make so obvious. "They hate us," soldiers
often say of their new neighbors in Iraq. Sergeant
Reginald Abram, 24, from San Diego, exclaims, "These
people are pretty persistent. If they killed three of
my buddies for shooting at them I'd be like, damn,
maybe it's time to find a new hobby. But it's not
difficult to understand why somebody might pick up an
AK-47 against us. Maybe we killed his father in the
first Gulf War, maybe in this Gulf War, maybe he's
just a dick."

Alfeiri also expresses sympathy. "I wonder how I would
feel if someone was breaking down my door," he says,
"or if it was my grandfather who didn't understand
instructions at a checkpoint and panicked and was shot
by the foreign force."

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact for
information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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