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Troops in Mosul Distant from Debate over War


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

On a trip to Iraq Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced a small reduction in overall US troop strength next year. The decrease of several thousand troops below the scheduled level of 138,000 is scheduled for this spring. Now this announcement comes as debate continues on whether to pull US forces out of Iraq and how quickly. Many US soldiers serving in Iraq seem to view the talk back home with a mix of frustration and resignation. NPR's Eric Westervelt spent time with US soldiers in Mosul and has this report.


Both sides in the Iraq debate seem to think that their words in Washington reverberate in the field. Opponents of a quick drawdown of forces say such talk is demoralizing to troops. Proponents say it's the status quo that's chipping away at morale. In reality, most soldiers in Iraq say they're too busy with their daily routine to let the debate affect their mission.

Lieutenant NICHOLAS SYKES(ph) (US Army): Easiest way to take Mosul is a day at a time. It's actually funny, I mean, along the morale lines and stuff like that. Sometimes the days drag, but it just--every time I look up it's like, man, it's already Friday again. We're through another week. So...

WESTERVELT: Army Lieutenant Nicholas Sykes is a platoon leader in Charlie Company, the 117th Infantry. To him, the discussion stateside about bringing the troops home seem like background noise.

Lt. SYKES: I think most of us are aware of it just 'cause it's all over the news, and I mean, we have Internet access, so news is readily available, but for the most part, we all just do what we gotta do to accomplish the mission.

WESTERVELT: And for Lieutenant Sykes and his soldiers, that mission in Mosul these days involves daily security patrols mixed with what one soldier called `stupid hand-holding' for the highly erratic Iraqi police force as well as joint operations with the slightly better-regarded Iraqi army, or IA.

Lt. SYKES: Since we've been here, we've seen the IA step up, take more charge, at least the guys we've been working with, as far as going out and not being as afraid to go take on an insurgency. Makes us feel like we're doing something better, different, so that eventually they're ready to take over; we can go move on back to the States.

WESTERVELT: Just when the Iraqis will be ready remains the big question. Other soldiers do voice frustration at the calls for a swift pullout of troops. It's not a partisan anger, but a kind of gnawing irritation, a sense that most people in the US don't have a clue what soldiers in Iraq do every day. Snapshot coverage of roadside bombings on the TV, soldiers complain, doesn't tell the full story or show the complexity of the challenges they face.

Corporal CODY VELLA (US Army): They don't understand as much, I don't think, back home, but maybe if they knew more what we're doing now.

WESTERVELT: Army Corporal Cody Vella spends part of every day with his upper body sticking out the back roof hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle, his hands gripping his M-16. The mission changes every day, Vella says, but a constant is the hard, dull grind of 14-hour days patrolling, training and trying to rebuild.

Cpl. VELLA: You have weeks where, you know, you're going out, getting hit hard every day, sniper attacks, getting shot at, IEDs going off, and then a week later, you know, it's real quiet and you're walking around shaking hands and going to schools, you know, so--oh, they probably think that we're just over here looking for a fight or something like that, probably, a lot of the ones that are talking about just bring us home. You know, we're not always looking for a fight when we go out. A lot of times we're doing stuff like checking on kids that are hurt and need medical attention. I mean, we're doing something here still; there's always something that can be done to help.

WESTERVELT: Asked just who he thinks the enemy is out there attacking his unit, Vella inadvertently acknowledges that the mere presence of US forces in Iraq can help fuel the insurgency.

Cpl. VELLA: Wouldn't surprise me that most of them are pissed-off Iraqis just wanted us to get out. We have our good days and our bad days when we want to leave and just get the hell out of here, but we're here to do a job and we know that they need our help. Without us here, they'd--I don't know if they could--the Iraqi government could handle what's going on right now by themselves without having us.

WESTERVELT: The soldiers from the 117th are about a third of the way through their 12-month rotation in Mosul, a tour length that's highly unlikely to change. But these soldiers know that the outcome of their work with Iraqi forces will likely affect the length of time their successors have to spend in Iraq. Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.