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Iraq: Prolonged Mission Dampens Morale Of U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division

U.S. troops in Iraq are suffering from low morale after hearing that their expected return to the United States has been postponed indefinitely. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz, who was embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division during the invasion of Iraq, examines the falling spirits and the disillusionment some soldiers are expressing toward America's civilian military leadership.

Prague, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the final hours before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, commanders in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division motivated their troops for battle with the promise that the fastest road back home would be through the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

"After we get done checking those places out north, we're going to take a nice long trip to a place called home -- or Fort Benning [and] Fort Stewart, [Georgia]," said U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, speaking to U.S. soldiers massed near the Iraqi border in Kuwait in mid-March. Charlton later told RFE/RL that his expectations about a quick return home for his troops were based on information he received from his superiors. But more than three months after the 3rd Infantry Division's arrival in Baghdad and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, most of the division's frontline troops have yet to return to the U.S.

Deteriorating conditions in Iraq have led to orders from Washington for follow-on security missions for the foreseeable future. That news has dashed hopes of reunions for military families living on or near the division's main bases in Georgia. The delays also have dealt a major blow to the morale of rank-and-file soldiers, who are increasingly being targeted by guerrilla-style attacks.

Thirty-nine U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since 1 May, when U.S. President George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations.

Although no official time line for redeployments has ever been announced, rumors about a return to the United States have been circulating through the ranks of the 3rd Infantry Division since 9 April, when Hussein's statue was toppled in downtown Baghdad.

Even as their advance on Baghdad was under way, members of the 3rd Infantry Division said they didn't think they could maintain their high spirits beyond early June. This correspondent, who was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, filed a report on those sentiments on 31 March, shortly before the final advance on Baghdad: "The mood of the U.S. troops here remains high. The U.S. Army has been moving forward steadily. What would have a negative impact on the U.S. soldiers here is if they remained in positions around Baghdad for another two months. Then I think that you would really start to see some despondency setting in."

In early June, Major General Buford Blount, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, announced that the U.S. Department of Defense planned to keep a larger force than anticipated in Iraq. There are some 146,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Blount said most of the 3rd Infantry Division -- which comprises tens of thousands of soldiers -- would probably stay in the Persian Gulf region at least into September.

Then, last week, the Pentagon announced that thousands of troops from the 3rd Infantry Division would be staying in Iraq indefinitely. Despite the news, Blount said last week that the morale of his troops remains "good."

"Everybody is ready to go home. I want to go home. These soldiers have been here about 10 months, a little over 10 months now. They trained six months hard in the desert, doing hard, hot work. And they are still doing a good job here. The morale is good, and we are doing a lot to work on the quality of life. We are trying to get them out of here -- redeploy -- but they have to stay focused on the mission," Blount said.

But Blount's views on troop morale do not appear to be shared by many of his rank-and-file soldiers. Sergeant Eric Wright told Reuters that some U.S. soldiers are so tired they are hoping they will sustain an injury so they will be sent home. "The guys are hanging in there, and they'll do their job," Wright said. "But you can't help but notice the looks on their faces -- just like they are exhausted. They are mentally and physically exhausted to the point that some of them hope that they would get wounded so that they could go home."

Sergeant Thomas Slago said morale is suffering because of the on-again, off-again nature of the redeployment rumors. "They keep giving us dates [for going home] and then the dates kept getting pushed back day-by-day," Slago said. "And finally we get these rumors that we are going to head on this day and head back to Kuwait, and we all get excited. And we kind of start getting our mentality that way. But nobody wants to commit their emotions that way, and for good reason. One day, the company commander called us out to formation and said we'll be here for probably 2 1/2 more months."

In the division's 2nd Brigade, several soldiers are being reprimanded for discussing their feelings frankly on U.S. television. The 2nd Brigade was the first unit to send tanks and Bradley troop carriers into the heart of Baghdad in early April. The 2nd Brigade is now tasked with patrolling the volatile city of Al-Fallujah -- a hotbed of Ba'ath Party loyalists and scene of a growing number of deadly attacks against U.S. soldiers.

One disgruntled soldier told ABC television that if Donald Rumsfeld came to Iraq, he would ask for the U.S. defense secretary's resignation. Others said the latest orders from the Pentagon had caused them to lose faith in the U.S. Army.

Later, at a Pentagon briefing, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, said those who wear a U.S. military uniform are not free to make disparaging remarks about the secretary of defense or the president of the United States.

"We are professional soldiers. The most important thing that we face is accomplishing the mission of the nation. And the mission of the nation is to ensure that we achieve stability in Iraq. And that requires defeating the Baathist threat and defeating the terrorist threat that we are facing now," he said. Abizaid said the soldiers who spoke out will be punished either with a verbal reprimand or "something more stringent."

One of the basic tenants of the U.S. Constitution is the importance of maintaining civilian command over the military. There have long been concerns that allowing soldiers to publicly criticize the civilian leadership of the military could be a step toward the politicization of the armed forces.