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Troops in Iraq Note Progress, Counsel Patience on Iraqi Freedom Day

By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2006 – U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq three years ago when it was liberated from Saddam Hussein's regime and are back again during its reconstruction said today the country had made and continues to make great progress.

But speaking today with military analysts during a conference call from Iraq, they urged U.S. media outlets and politicians to have patience with the mission, noting that Iraq's reconstruction will be a long, arduous, multiyear task.

"One of the biggest differences in Baghdad, and throughout Iraq... is that the Iraqi military is doing really well, and they're taking over more pieces of the mission," said Army Sgt. Maj. Linda Allen. "The second biggest difference that I see [between now and three years ago] is the infrastructure issue."

Allen is the sergeant major for Multinational Corps Iraq's Coalition Analysis and Control Element. She performed the same role for U.S. 5th Corps three years ago in Kuwait and Iraq.

Army Lt. Col. Thomas Murphree, a deputy transportation officer for Multinational Corps Iraq, agreed that Iraqi infrastructure improvements have been significant. "The system [for electricity, water, sewage treatment and other services] has continued to get better," he said.

Murphree, who was a theater distribution commander in Kuwait and Iraq in April 2003, said he's observed growing capabilities within the Iraqi security forces. He noted that the ISF lead security efforts for the recent mass Shiite pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala. "You've got a million or so people making a walk about 60 kilometers; that's a big deal. That was a monumental success for the Iraqis," he said.

Murphree worried, though, about the demand for instant gratification and immediate, short-term success he said seems to be fostered by the American media.

"At least part of the press... wants us to magically snap our fingers, say the war is over, this country is back on its feet, and we're all coming home," he said. Many Iraqis, too, have unrealistic expectations about how quickly the Americans can help rebuild their country. "That's shortsighted," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Germany took 20 years to recover fully from World War II, he noted, while Japan required five years' recovery time and substantial U.S. assistance.

"If you look at it from an historical perspective, we've accelerated the power curve... in terms of what the Iraqis have accomplished and the Americans are doing," Murphree said. "But it's still not going to be something that you can throw a mark on the wall and say that's the day that we're done and we get to come home."

U.S. soldiers and Marines understand this, said Maj. Robert Hookness, Jr. "By nature, [we] tend to adapt and overcome," he said. "We've all come to the realistic conclusion that we're in this for the long war, for the long haul."

In the meantime, Hookness said "morale is pretty good" among the troops who will be serving for that long haul. "I go around from place to place and ask soldiers how the quality of life is; they all seem to be doing okay," he said.

One reason the mission has proven more time-consuming than expected is mismanagement by Saddam's regime. Iraqi infrastructure suffered from 20 years of neglect, Murphree said. "So as soon as we get the system[s] up, we're finding additional problems... [that result] just from years of neglect... [because] parts of the system have not been online for a period of time."

Iraqi and coalition reconstruction teams are rebuilding the infrastructure, bringing it online and then trouble-shooting myriad problems. Progress is quicker in some parts of Iraq than in other parts of the country, Murphree noted.

Infrastructure challenges are especially acute in Baghdad, partly because Iraq's largest and most high-profile city has several million residents. Consequently, power outages there incite the same type of highly vocal and negative reaction that, say, a power outage in New York City would incite. "But we're working through those issues, and it's getting much better," Murphree said.

Iraqis appreciate what U.S. troops are doing for them and their country, he observed. "They see that we're diligently working to improve the situation... Most of the time they understand that we're working through the issues with them, and [that] we want them to be leading the reconstruction of their country," he said.

Toward that end, scores of contractors from the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and other countries are assisting with the reconstruction. "Contactors are still here risking as much of their lives as the soldiers are," Murphree said. They're "out there in force. And, on any given day, they're exposed to the same threat as the U.S. soldiers are. And we'll send either private security teams with them or soldiers, depending on [their] location and [mission]." And the Iraqis "see the progress" being made, Murphree noted.

U.S. troops, too, are seeing vast improvements in their own living conditions in Iraq. The military has built an infrastructure support system that includes beds, washing machines and dryers; cooked meals with fresh fruits and vegetables; greatly expanded phone, Internet and television access and even an opportunity to take college courses.

"It beats having to wash your clothes by hand and eating MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) or T-rations for six months," Allen said. And "a lot of people are knocking out college [courses] left and right."

All this is helping keep troops as comfortable as possible while they continue their mission. Morale "is high," Allen said. "But you have to keep the soldiers focused" to break up the monotony of daily life in Iraq.

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