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Petraeus testimony heartens the troops

The Baltimore Sun

FORWARD OPERATING BASE Q-WEST, Iraq -- Their commanding general spent hours delivering his report card and pages of charts to Congress this week as several hundred members of the Maryland National Guard kept up their own punishing schedule at this base in northern Iraq.

Some who paused here to watch the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus or absorb the news accounts said they were encouraged and impressed by his message. Others said it wouldn't change their views, either of the war or their role in it.

"It was an honest presentation," Cpl. Sean Dolan, 30, of Pocomoke said after hearing some of Monday's testimony, in which Petraeus described "uneven" military progress in Iraq. "It showed the numbers to prove we're making progress."

Interviewed again yesterday, Dolan wanted to say more. He argued that the size of the troop "surge" should have been 200,000. "Then," he said, "we could have wiped out all of the insurgents."

In line with the general's recommendations, President Bush this week is expected to announce plans to reduce U.S. troops in Iraq by about 30,000 by next summer. The withdrawal would leave about the same number of troops as before the buildup.

Spc. Julius Blattner, 23, of Salisbury took notes during the first day's testimony. He said he was disappointed that members of Congress, in his view, tried to tell the general what he was going to say before he testified.

"We wanted to hear what the general had to say, because he better than anyone knows what's happening on the ground," said Blattner, who serves with the Maryland Guard's Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment assigned to base security here.

He continued: "The strategy the general set out is the one we hear from our chain of command: We're here to make it possible for the Iraqis to secure this country for themselves. And the general said we're making progress, and I agree."

For those who missed the testimony, like Sgt. 1st Class David Pauley, the news of a drop in the number of insurgent attacks around Baghdad wasn't going to change his attitude about the war, he said, because he believes the coalition forces are achieving their military goals.

The full-time Maryland National Guardsman from Stewartstown, Pa., didn't watch Petraeus' report, but he glanced at the e-mail that the four-star commander sent last week to every soldier in Iraq. Pauley, 37, never finished the letter.

He's not disinterested, he explained, just extremely busy.

"I'm a soldier," Pauley said, standing guard inside this coalition base near Qayyarah, about 200 miles north of Baghdad. "I do what I'm told. And I have no real opinion about it."

The split in interest on the base could not have been more apparent as the hearings began Monday. On one side of Q-West's recreation center, more than two dozen soldiers crammed in front of a big-screen television to cheer on an Ultimate Fight Club match. Nearby, a quieter group of six soldiers gathered before another TV to watch Petraeus.

The seemingly limited interest in the general's report might have been a result of the late hour of the broadcast - 9:30 p.m. here - and the troops' grueling schedule. Many of the 2,000 soldiers here, including 500 Maryland National Guardsmen, work long and often irregular hours at this former Iraqi air base. For many, Q-West's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center means mostly recreation.

Some soldiers do have views about the projected future of the Iraq war and the performance of the generals orchestrating the counterinsurgency effort here, now in its fifth year. Army captains can be heard quietly debating the state of the insurgency with one another in the dining halls or sharing thoughts about the wisdom of the current security strategy, at a picnic table waiting for a Pepperoni Lover's pie at the base's Pizza Hut.

But to the public and press, the average GI seldom offers an estimation of the war's progress, often saying that such talk is "well above [my] pay grade." Privately, they are more apt to grumble, if they complain at all, about administrative blunders that held up a signing bonus or accelerated a deployment date, problems that have convinced some to leave the Guard when their enlistment is up.

For those prodded into on-the-record interviews, the view is highly supportive of the current strategy from Washington.

Spc. Nishan Perera, 23, a bank teller from Silver Spring, missed Petraeus' testimony because he had been helping to safeguard a six-day convoy to Forward Operating Base Anaconda in Balad.

"I believe we're making a difference," said Perera, who deployed with the Maryland Guard to Iraq for a year during 2005 and 2006. His tour is expected to end by late spring, and he said he does not plan to re-enlist. No hard feelings, he said, he just feels he has done his part.

He doesn't watch the news, he said, but his father keeps up with current events.

"He tells me that he thinks we'll be home real soon," the soldier with Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment said with a little laugh.

In many ways, Petraeus' recommendations will have few ripple effects on the Maryland National Guard serving here. Some 1,300 began arriving in Iraq about two months ago, but their call-up was not part of the roughly 30,000 additional troops sent into Baghdad and Anbar province during the spring and early summer.

As part of their mission, officials said, the Maryland Guard members are replacing troops at this old Iraqi military airfield and expect to be relieved by other arriving units next spring. There is no indication their deployment - an Iraqi tour expected to last a total of about nine to 10 months - would be reduced by the withdrawal of surge forces expected to begin this year, according to Petraeus' recommendation.

Lt. Col. Andrew Blair, the commander of Maryland's 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment and one of the few interviewed here who watched Petraeus live Monday night, said the general's remarks resonated with him.

"To me, the reduction in the number of attacks shows that there is an opportunity here," said Blair, whose soldiers are responsible for Q-West's internal security. "My job now is to find those opportunities here that help Iraqis stand up and live and work and fight their enemies on their own."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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