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Iraq: U.S. Soldiers In Tikrit Say They Are Staying On Mission

U.S. troops based in Tikrit say they have found hardship as well as a few unexpected pleasures serving in Saddam Hussein's former hometown. They also say they are tired of the U.S. media's description of coalition forces as frustrated and demoralized. To the contrary, they say, they are ready to stay in Iraq until their mission -- defined by some as "helping the Iraqi people" -- is complete.

Tikrit, Iraq; 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Troops with the 1st Brigade of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division are based at the very nerve center of Saddam Hussein's power base -- Tikrit, part of the so-called Sunni Triangle stretching north and west from the capital Baghdad.

The triangle has been witness to the worst of the past week's violence -- the downing of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter near Tikrit on 25 October, and the multiple suicide bombings that have left dozens, mostly Iraqi civilians, dead in Baghdad and Al-Fallujah.

The recent upsurge of violence has focused a spotlight yet again on the failure to establish security in Iraq in the months since 1 May, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over. A total of 114 U.S. troops have been killed in combat in the "postwar" phase of Iraqi operations. But soldiers in Tikrit like Captain Lou Castillo say they are no less committed to their mission than when they first arrived.

"The American troops are not demoralized. But that's what the media likes to catch on, and they're betraying us by only reporting bad news and not telling [people in the U.S.] what we're actually doing out here and capturing our true feelings," Castillo said.

The 1st Brigade's duties include searching for weapons and the people behind the continuing attacks against coalition soldiers. Asked to describe their mission in Iraq, the troops give variations on a theme. Castillo said it is "helping the Iraqi people." Sergeant Nicolas Batista said it is "to get the guys that are trying to stop Iraq from becoming something better."

Batista, who has been in Iraq since the end of March, said he understands some U.S. troops may feel unhappy about extended tours of duty and the continued threat of danger. But that, he said, is a soldier's life. "Up to a point, I can understand some people being unhappy. I mean, this is my sixth deployment, but for some people it is their first deployment," he said. "They're going to miss their family, they're going to miss their home, they're going to miss their kids, wives, everything. But as soldiers it's a mission that we've got to do. This is something we volunteered for."

Some of the hardships of the 1st Brigade's time in Iraq may be assuaged by the fact that they are currently based in several of Saddam Hussein's Tikrit palaces. Living in spacious, air-conditioned surroundings with access to swimming pools and enormous, opulent halls, the troops realize their lot is better than those of their fellow soldiers elsewhere in Iraq.

Specialist Michael Barnes told RFE/RL that the difficulty of the mission is more a psychological matter than a military one. "We really don't know whom we are fighting," he said. "It's kind of like chasing a ghost."

Understanding the local culture has also proven an uphill battle -- and one with potentially deadly consequences. "[They] drive at outrageous speeds," Barnes said. "I guess they're kind of careful about it, but then again they're not -- I've seen them drive off the side of the roads. And, you know, they are very impatient. You tell them to wait and stop and they get upset with you. [They] try to get everywhere quickly. They expect America or the U.S. coalition forces to give them all their demands right away, and they don't understand that things take time."

Despite such remarks, the U.S. troops in Tikrit are relatively mild in their complaints, and they sometimes appear wary of revealing their true feelings. One explanation may lie in this summer's controversy when several U.S. soldiers were cited by the media as pointedly criticizing the military command, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to military law, a soldier risks dismissal and a one-year detainment for demonstrating contempt toward U.S. government officials.