The Iraq War – three years and counting

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It’s portrayed in scenes of violence, smoke and bloodshed.

On newsstands: Six dead, 20 wounded by a roadside bomb.

On television: Coalition forces continue to fight insurgents. Pundits and politicians fear civil war.

The Iraq War is brought home in breaking news flashes, tearful homecomings and body counts with experts forecasting political ramifications.

And as the war continues past the three-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad and President Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, some are calling for an end to the war and to bring the troops home.

Others say we must “stay the course” and believe a sudden withdrawal of troops would destabilize the region and lead to all-out civil war between Iraqi religious and ethnic sects.

Here in the Lakes Region, the voices for and against the war are diverse – from private citizens wanting an end to the violence and veterans who believe the Iraq War plays a crucial role in the war on terrorism to the personal stories of soldiers who have seen Iraq from the frontlines.

And behind the debate are many questions. Are we battling terrorism in the region? What’s really going on beyond the political rhetoric, beyond the violence? And when is the right time to withdraw our troops and return the security of Iraq to its people?

Iraq Town Meeting

Hundreds of peace activists convened at a University of Southern Maine auditorium last month to voice their dissent and frustration with the war. The purpose of this so-called “Iraq Town Meeting” was to encourage citizen discussion of the war.

A cloth marking the 2,000-plus U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq hung from the balcony as citizens lined up at the microphone to ask open questions and let their opinions be heard.

They spoke of “dangerous times for democracy” in America, U.S. and Iraqi casualties, the $8 billion spent each month on the war and how Maine’s U.S. senators and representatives were complicit in authorizing what activists perceive to be an “illegal war.”

Peace activist Sally Breen, 70, of Windham, was surprised by the numerous calls for President Bush’s impeachment at the Iraq Town Meeting. Like many who spoke at the meeting, she too believes the White House “fabricated pre-war intelligence and broke international law” by invading Iraq.

Breen, a grandmother who’s been arrested five times for protesting, believes the Iraq War has more to do with U.S. military and economic domination than the fight against terrorism.

“The war was immoral and illegal to begin with,” she said. “And then Bush keeps on pouring those young people in there to be killed and maimed. There seems to be no end.”

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Breen was a member of the “Snowe Seven,” who tried to convince Sen. Olympia Snowe to oppose the war.

After the war began, she and other peace activists staged protest “sit-ins” at Sens. Snowe and Susan Collins’ offices where they read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and demanded the troops come home.

She was disappointed that none of Maine’s U.S. delegation attended the Iraq Town Meeting and is particularly concerned that the United States is building permanent military bases in Iraq.

“Let’s just talk about the truth,” she said. “What’s really happening over there?”

March 2003 – The U.S. led invasion of Iraq and fall of Baghdad

Colonel Toby Pennels, 46, of Windham, helped plan the humanitarian effort in Iraq during the initial combat operations in Iraq and the siege of Baghdad in early 2003.

“If you want to call President Bush a liar, then you have to call me a liar, too,” said Pennels, who reviewed extensive intelligence in Kuwait while waiting for the war to begin. “The pre-war information looked like Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction.”

Iraq is a huge country, Pennels said, and biological and chemical weapons could have been moved out of the country during the onset of the war.

U.S. coalition forces fell under heavy gunfire on route to Baghdad, Pennels said. But military leaders were stunned at how quickly the troops were able to secure the sprawling city.

The return of insurgent forces did not surprise Pennels. Many of Hussein’s Republican Guard fled Baghdad, Pennels said, only to return and fight to reclaim power through guerilla warfare and suicide attacks.

“The old Republican Guard is fighting back, and this is their method,” he said. “It’s awful, it’s terrible, but anything goes.”

As a military liaison to Iraqi civil leadership, Pennels met with local leaders and led a humanitarian effort to win hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, specifically working to set up hospitals and clinics for the wounded.

While many Iraqis seemed wary to express themselves, Iraqi children often ran out into the streets and cheered on U.S. troops in the days after the siege of Baghdad.

Though he understands the situation continues to change in Iraq, Pennels feels the good work of soldiers has gone unnoticed by the media.

“Unfortunately, the soldiers working in the community is not as exciting as two trucks getting blown up in the carnage.”

While he defends the rationale for the Iraq War, Pennels isn’t bothered by anti-war protests or dissent. Witnessing people speak their minds reminds him of why he continues to serve his country and protect American freedoms.

Protest and anger over the war on terrorism

Tom Childs, 41, of Standish, a registered Libertarian, is a vocal opponent of the Iraq War whose frustration with President Bush’s “war on terror” has compelled him and his wife, Cara, to become politically active.

At the recent Iraq Town Meeting, he called for an investigation into the reasons behind the Iraq War and whether intelligence was doctored to sway public and congressional opinion.

Childs believes he is patriotic in his dissent. And that the best way to support the troops is to bring them back home.

“In a nutshell, when Bush decided to go into Iraq, he was taking a baseball bat to a bees nest,” Childs said. “Right now, we’re fighting people that don’t want us in their country. Whether they are affiliated with terrorism or not, we’re not going after the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.”

Childs attended his first protest rally last September when 300,000 anti-war protestors rallied outside the White House. Police helicopters careened down low to disperse crowds of protesters that day, he said, and blew away protest signs.

More protesters would have attended as well, Childs said, but the Amtrak trains from all directions were shut down because of “switching problems” on the tracks leading into Washington, D.C.

Under the guise of national security, Childs believes President Bush deliberately misled the American people and uses scare tactics and the threat of another looming terrorist attack to coax consent for his “war on terror.”

“It’s a misnomer,” Childs said of the war on terror. “A war on a concept doesn’t make any sense. They missed their opportunity by invading Iraq. I think they could have flushed out Osama Bin Laden if they had used those troops to sweep Afghanistan.”

Veterans defend the war

Local Windham veterans hold a different impression of the war having fought in past conflicts like Vietnam.

Kenneth Murch of Windham is a veteran who romped through the jungles of Vietnam with a machine gun humped on his back. He believes all wars are brutal and “stupid,” but praises President Bush for taking a stand against terrorism.

“Saddam Hussein definitely supported terrorism and paid suicide bombers to attack civilian targets,” Murch said.

He defends the pre-war decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power after United Nation’s diplomatic efforts fell short, he said. And the U.S. Congress authorized the declaration of war because they too believed Saddam Hussein was harboring “weapons of mass destruction.”

“After the first Gulf War, all we heard from the news was that we cut out too short,” Murch said. “Bush went in under the pretense that Saddam did not fulfill his obligation to the United Nations.”

David Tanguay of Windham, another veteran of the Vietnam era and commander of the local American Legion, holds the same opinion, though he still looks at the Iraq War with a critical eye.

“I don’t think they had nuclear weapons, but I think they did have chemical and biological weapons and we gave them time to move them out into another country like Syria,” said Tanguay.

He believes U.S. troops are now in the middle of a religious war between the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims.

“I think the problem is when we get between two sources, we inevitably get between two sides and they both end up targeting us,” Tanguay said. “Unfortunately, no matter what we try to do, we become the targets.”

Murch contends that American dissent is no reason to pull out of Iraq before the country is ready to take control of its own security.

Both Tanguay and Murch are disappointed by how the media places too much emphasis on the violence in Iraq.

Negative news reports and vocal American dissent only embolden the enemy, Murch says, and is akin to “lining up soldiers before the firing range.”

This is exactly what happened in Vietnam, said Murch, and believes media outlets should focus more on how the U.S. forces are trying to build a democracy in Iraq. And if this democracy succeeds, the result would change the political landscape of the Middle East.

“I think if these people see democracy working in Iraq, other dictatorships will fall, too,” Murch said.

2004: The rebuilding effort in Iraq

Supply Sgt. Mary Reutlinger, of Windham, worked to rebuild Iraq in 2004 with the Maine National Guard during a time when the United States began transferring power back to the Iraqi people through an interim government.

She and the 133rd Engineering Battalion of the Maine National Guard helped build schools, clinics and command posts as well as repair airports and roads in Northern Iraq near Mosul.

“We were a battalion-sized engineering (outfit) that was doing the work of what a brigade would do,” she said.

Many of the buildings in this impoverished region were damaged by the first Gulf War and never repaired by the Saddam regime, she said.

Her battalion of Maine National Guardsmen quickly put both their engineering training and military training to action after insurgents reacted with force to the establishment of the new Iraqi government.

Mortar attacks were commonplace from insurgent forces, but this didn’t stop the engineering battalion from doing its work, or the Iraqi people from living their lives.

The 133rd Battalion worked hand in hand with Iraqi workers to rebuild and repair villages outside Mosul.

“They really welcomed us and they really liked working for us,” Reutlinger said. “They never made money like they were making at that time.”

Though the Arab Sunni population was distrustful of the interim government, the Iraqi children would welcome the soldiers as they rode through the villages. In return, U.S. soldiers would hand out candy and stuffed animals as they drove by, she said.

But their humanitarian endeavor did not come without a price. A December suicide bombing claimed the lives of two National Guardsmen in her battalion and 20 Iraqi civilians.

And though violence is a fact of life in Iraq during these uncertain times, Reutlinger, who now outfits soldiers being deployed to Iraq, reassures Iraq-bound reservists that the war is not what you see on your television and that the effort to build a democracy in Iraq and quell the violence is progressing.

Should we be the world police?

Jim Perly, 67, of Windham, and his wife, Delene, are retired college professors and strong political activists who remember protesting during the Vietnam War to remove U.S. soldiers from Vietnam.

Perly feels the same way about peace activism as many soldiers feel about serving their country.

“The more you read in the newspapers, the more you realize you have to be involved,” he said. “It’s a patriotic duty.”

Now, 30 years later, Perly is pushing for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as soon as possible. He believes U.S. presence there is creating resentment in the Arab world and fueling terrorism.

“I can’t help but wonder how many more terrorists we’ve created by the animosity generated by the civilian deaths in Iraq,” he said.

Ten-thousand dead is the conservative estimate for Iraqi civilian casualties, he said. And he doesn’t believe the presence of U.S. troops is creating stability in the region.

“I don’t know how much more unstable it can be than it is now,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that we have calmed the situation any by being there for three years.”

He wants the United States to gather international support and replace ground troops with United Nations peacekeeping forces through a slow withdrawal.

Perly believes our nation overstepped its bounds by invading Iraq and bypassing U.N. authority. And Perly is perturbed that military reservists, like the Maine National Guard, are still fighting this foreign war, leaving the homefront vulnerable.

“I have real problems thinking that it’s our job to remove despots from office around the world,” he said. “Where is it written in our Constitution that we need to be the police of the world?”

Are the Iraqi people ready to defend themselves?

First Class Sgt. Corey Emmons, 35, of Gray was one of 700 soldiers in 2005 selected to train the new Iraqi army and police force.

“At first, it was very difficult to get people to join,” said Emmons, a former West Point drill sergeant. “Anyone who was even associated with the military was singled out and killed or captured.”

But as the Iraqi army gained momentum, more and more joined on despite the risk, he said.

The new recruits far outnumbered their trainers, Emmons said, 20 to 1. And after the Iraqi soldiers went through basic combat training, it was Emmons’ job to test them on the streets of Tall’Afar.

Once a waypoint for insurgents passing from Mosul toward the Syrian border, Emmons would patrol neighborhoods in Tall’Afar with teams of Iraqi soldiers and teach them how to respond to live gunfire, apply first aid and conduct raids on buildings.

Together, they would often sit down with locals and talk about politics, the war and drink chai tea. Local Iraqis often complained about corrupt local politicians and lack of water and electricity while Emmons tried to persuade them to talk about any possible insurgent forces lurking in the neighborhood.

Roadside bombs weren’t the main concern for Emmons since he and his team rarely traveled outside Tall’Afar. Instead, he and his Iraqi soldiers had to keep their eye out for snipers and rocket-propelled grenades.

There were some “close calls” and times when he was up to his elbows in blood patching up soldiers or civilians caught in the crossfire.

While many locals were distrustful of the new Iraqi soldiers because of the tyrannical power the Republican Guard once had, Emmons and his Iraqi recruits created many friendships with the people in Tall’Afar.

Emmons is proud of the work he did in Iraq and believes it would be irresponsible for U.S. troops to leave prematurely because of the delicate situation in Iraq.

Though the goal is to build the Iraqi army so U.S. soldiers can withdraw, he said that some U.S. presence may be needed in Iraq for years to come as the Iraqi people learn to defend themselves and build a new government.

In the meantime, with the world watching, the debate over the Iraq War continues here in small-town America and abroad.

Sgt. Corey Emmons of Gray rides in a military convey in Iraq. Emmons spent the past year training Iraqi soldiers and believes a premature withdrawal of troops would destabilize the region.