When the Army's 1st Armored Division arrived in Iraq 13 months ago, its job was to close out Iraq's past by wiping out remnants of former president Saddam Hussein's armed base of support. Now several of its units are confronting a new threat, Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric who is leading an armed revolt in defiance of U.S. plans to sideline him in a new Iraq.
This shift in responsibility is hitting hard at soldiers who moved into this area south of Baghdad last Wednesday for a short mission to fight Sadr's militia. In the view of many troops in Company A of the division's Task Force 1-36, the old battle, though filled with hardship, was imbued with the optimism of liberation. The new one is tinted by pessimism. Soldiers feel themselves mired in an effort to navigate the indecipherable intricacies of Iraqi politics.
"I just think it's a lost cause," said Spec. Will Bromley, a gunner who sits inside the turret of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and mans a 25mm cannon whose rounds can blast walls to pieces. "This has become harder than we thought. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein, that's one thing. Getting Iraqis to do what we want is another. It's like we want to give them McDonald's and they might not want McDonald's. They have to want it or we can't give it to them."
Sgt. Jerry Sapiens, a specialist in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, suggested there was no end in sight. "We're in the baby-sitting phase and my question is, how long can we baby-sit for the Iraqis? We want the Iraqis to change, to be like us, and to do this we will have to be here forever."
"The enemy is not the same as before," said Spec. Matthew Aissen, a medic. "I fear that people who use religion as a power point are taking over the place. It's a power struggle. Our weak point is they think we are evil and we're not so popular, so we become part of the mess."
The 1st Armored Division was supposed to be out of the powdery sand, 100-degree heat and explosive danger of Iraq a month ago. After a year in the country, they were scheduled to be back in green and placid Germany, their home base...