Abuse scandal hits Oregon National Guard troops on front line
This article tells how ONG troops from the "lush Willamette River Valley" are reacting to and affected by the prisoner abuse scandal
Abuse scandal hits U.S. troops on front line
Disclosures compound struggle against increased resistance
By Daniel Williams and Scott Wilson
BAGHDAD, May 14 - At Spec. Jesse Haggart's base, the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison have been flashing across the screens of the chow hall's two televisions in a seemingly endless loop.
But, a few miles away, in the swirling dust and heat of a checkpoint he was monitoring , those images fade in the face of constant deadly threat. Every few days, Haggart's platoon is fired on by hidden enemies.
"We're out here working our rears off, every day, and most people embrace us," said Haggart, a pale 21-year-old from Vancouver, Wash. But, he said, the uproar over prisoner abuse "has tarnished that."
At Haggart's outpost and in other troubled areas in Iraq, soldiers are facing new hostilities as they struggle to pacify the country six weeks before the United States hands over limited political authority to an interim Iraqi government. Disclosure of prisoner abuse has further complicated life for front-line soldiers, mostly by giving resistance leaders a new rallying point against the occupation.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld traveled here Thursday to bolster American forces in the face of the scandal, which has cast a shadow over U.S. operations in Iraq during some of its most difficult moments. U.S. officials released 300 Iraqi prisoners Friday as part of an effort to reduce the prison population in the wake of the scandal.
In interviews after the photos were published, troops serving in Baghdad expressed deep frustration. But while the scandal poses an image problem, the soldiers say, the deteriorating security situation and the halting progress of their nation-building chores pose a far greater threat to U.S. success in Iraq.
Most said the photos have not undermined their relationship with Iraqis. But they worried that a group described by one sergeant as "a few stupid privates" has tainted the collective mission in the eyes of the world, including an American public bombarded with the images in the news media.
"We just hope we're all not judged by the actions of a few," said Staff Sgt. John Wayne Thomas. "I think most Americans know we're here doing a job. The Iraqis were hitting at us before any of that came out."
'We need to get back to our mission'
Haggart had never left the United States before volunteering for the Oregon National Guard last year after hearing it would deploy to Iraq within months. "I wanted to be a part of history," he said.
The unit, mostly men from Oregon's lush Willamette River Valley, is attached to the army's 1st Cavalry Division that operates in Baghdad. His platoon arrived in March for a one-year stay.
Haggart and his platoon mates watched over a checkpoint Thursday in the Karrada section of Baghdad, separated by a thin strip of scrub from the Tigris River. Fine dust swirled suspended in the hot wind, casting the city in a misty light.
"We need to stop publicizing this so much," he said of the prison scandal. "Now we have the beheading of a civilian in retaliation for it. This abuse was a terrible thing and it needs to be punished, and someone will be turning big rocks into small ones in Leavenworth for a long time. But we need to get back to our mission."
Across town at the turbulent Sadr City slum in eastern Baghdad, soldiers echoed Haggart's concerns .
"It's hard to see how there was such a breakdown," said Lt. Mike Beckner, the platoon leader. "Where was the chain of command? It's a scar on the whole military."
The conversations, however, quickly turned to challenges the troops face every day on the street. Heavy fighting in the neighborhood, once receptive to the American occupation, began before the revelations of abuse, continued sporadically over the past the month and erupted again this week.
Beckner's focus, like those of his enlisted men, is less on Abu Ghraib than the clash between their expectations of Iraq and the reality . As members of a tank crew who have become mechanized infantry, his troops had expected to be patrolling the neighborhood in Humvees on what amounted to police missions, he said.
But insurgents loyal to the rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr are using rocket-propelled grenades in ambushes, so the vulnerable Humvees have been stashed at the neighborhood council offices.
"Everyone said this was the friendliest neighborhood around," said Sgt. James Touchton resting in a council building turned military camp. "Then, a few days later, we were having more firefights than the people who were here before us had in a whole year."
The fighting has worked against the American effort to win over Iraqis by improving their daily lives. In this case, Touchton and his comrades, using giant hoses, are responsible for unclogging Sadr City's antiquated sewers, which are plugged by garbage.
The soldiers in Sadr City have been shocked by living conditions in the district, and are increasingly skeptical that their "civil affairs" mission can achieve much. "Basically, the solution to this is to move everybody out, blow up everything and start again," said Staff Sgt. Phillip Gonzales.
"One day, we're soldiers, the next day politicians," Touchton said. "We sometimes shook hands with young Iraqi guys. They are probably the same hands that pull the trigger on the RPGs."
Sgt. Brian Hambright, the burly squad leader of the Oregon National Guard unit, served in the Marines during the first Gulf War and left with a sense of unfinished business. In Springfield, Ore., he works in the city roads department, filling potholes and fixing sidewalks. Beside his wife and two children, he most misses the green of his home state, he said.
"It made me angry," Hambright said of the pictures. "That's not a very professional way to feel, and that's what we're all about. But I feel angry and frustrated."
In the Sheikh Omar neighborhood, a collection of cement homes and car-repair shops near the checkpoint, Hambright and his men escorted a local leader earlier this week through streets thick with trash in a show of solidarity. Children scampered through open sewers barefoot, he said, and the stench was powerful.
"We can help them," he said. "We can help them clean up and have pride in where they live. That would spread to other places."
Spec. Dainon Jensen, a 25-year-old from Portland, Ore., predicted that the scandal "will blow over after people are punished. What we're doing here is going to have to work. If America will ever be secure, places like Iraq will have to govern themselves. That's what America really has to give."
A few nights ago, Jensen's sister, Kelsey, wrote him from Portland to ask about the scandal. But that has been the only message on the subject that he has received from family or friends.
"Most of them are about when I'm coming home," Jensen said.
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