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U.S. EXITS IRAQ

One war, two perspectives

American troops and Iraqis separate with very different understandings of what happened -- and what lies ahead.

December 18, 2011|David Zucchino
  • Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq as they cross the border into Kuwait.
Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S.… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

K CROSSING, KUWAIT — A U.S. military convoy sliced through the flat Iraqi desert before first light, carrying the last troops safely into Kuwait and ending America's costly and divisive war in a troubled land.

When relieved soldiers got out on the other side Sunday, shouts of "Going home!" and "It's over!" mingled with bear hugs and high-fives. One soldier hollered, "I'm going to Disneyland!" Another, "A sweet, sweet Christmas."

The final vehicle passed a fortified Kuwaiti border police post eight years, eight months and 28 days after U.S. forces poured across the same frontier, 150,000 strong, sweating inside bulky chemical and biological protective suits, but convinced of a swift and certain victory. Once Saddam Hussein fell, the war would end and they would all soon return home.

Instead, two countries with little understanding of each other collided in a long, brutal war that exacted a terrible price from both. And as America takes its leave, they separate with very different understandings of what happened between them -- and what lies ahead.

The United States has seen its reputation stained by a preemptive invasion in the name of weapons of mass destruction that never materialized. As of Sunday, 4,484 U.S. service members had died in the war, and 32,200 had been wounded, according to icasualties.org. The conflict cost hundreds of billions of dollars, even as Americans descended into economic misery.

Iraq erupted into a nightmare of sectarian hatred unleashed by the fall of Hussein's suffocating dictatorship. An estimated 104,000 to 113,000 Iraqi civilians died, according to the Iraq Body Count website, most of them killed by other Iraqis. The legacy of the bloodletting is a deeply flawed democracy that has been unable to keep Iraqis safe.

Returning American forces speak with pride of eliminating a dictator and creating conditions for free elections. They armed and trained Iraqi security forces that have grown more confident with each passing year. If they did not eliminate raging violence, they at least reduced it significantly during the last four years.

But the war imposed a crushing burden on American troops and their families. Some served three, four or even five tours, and marital strains and divorces multiplied. Children went without mothers or fathers. Birthdays and anniversaries flew by, unattended.

The knock at the door by uniformed service members became all too common in the homes of men and women serving in Iraq. At the worst of it, in mid-2007, death notifications averaged four a day.

Spc. Christopher Neiberger, 22, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Aug. 6, 2007, one of five U.S. soldiers to die that day. His sister, Ami Neiberger-Miller, is relieved to see the troops finally coming home, but it also means a chapter is closing.

"It means he is really not coming home," she says. "While it's been four years for us, there is a piece of it -- our grief -- that is always the same, just as fresh and raw as the first day it happened. We just get better at carrying it."

Crossed paths

Maj. Gen. David Perkins and Ziad Taha have never met. But their paths certainly crossed -- on April 7, 2003, when the U.S. combat brigade that Perkins commanded opened fire on the prosperous roadside nursery that Taha operated in Baghdad.

The nursery had been taken over by Islamic militants from Syria and the Iraqi Republican Guard, despite Taha's pleas for them to set up fighting positions elsewhere. When the armored column charged into Baghdad, the nursery was raked by tank and machine-gun fire.

Taha's family hid in their home behind the nursery. They saw a neighbor blown apart as he tried to retrieve his car. They saw the Syrians and Iraqi soldiers eviscerated by tank rounds as they fired from behind flimsy clay flower pots.

When it was over, the family had survived, but the nursery was ruined.

Perkins' so-called thunder run into Baghdad captured Hussein's Republican Palace and government complex, toppling the regime. Perkins, then an Army colonel, served two more tours in Iraq, the last one ending in November. He rose to two-star general. He served as the chief military spokesman in Iraq, with responsibility for Iraqi governance, politics, oil and elections.

Over the years, he drove past the rebuilt nursery many times. Each time his thoughts turned to the chaotic, confusing opening act of the American experience in Iraq, and the ensuing years of hardship.

"The Iraqis like to say we made mistakes, that we didn't understand Iraq, and they were right," Perkins says now. "But they do give us credit for learning over the years."

He's proud of what U.S. troops accomplished, but worries that the Iraqis aren't quite ready for democracy. His Iraqi colleagues are uneasy about the American withdrawal, Perkins says, and he fears that deep sectarian divisions might allow extremists to prevail.

He says of Iraqis: "Can they trust themselves? Have they reached political maturity? It's really up to them now."

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