Amid continuing insurgent violence in Iraq and a bitter debate in the United States about bringing its troops home, many U.S. servicemen in Iraq say they are torn between wanting to leave as soon as possible and wanting to stay to help stabilize the country.
U.S. soldiers stationed at Forward Operating Base Yusifiyah had only one wish for this Thanksgiving: A day with no military or civilian casualties from roadside bombings or mortar or rocket attacks anywhere in their area.
But it was not to be.
Minutes after VOA arrived at the base, the deafening booms of two mortars exploding nearby shook the soldiers into action. Some of the soldiers cursed, as they grabbed their weapons and Kevlar helmets, waiting for orders from their superiors.
Suddenly, a panicked Iraqi soldier runs into the base. He tells an Iraqi interpreter that two mortars have landed on the homes of civilians, who live down the road. There are many casualties he says, including several children.
"Happy Thanksgiving," Specialist Ryan McCarthy mutters, saying he was saddened but not surprised by the news.
"Normal day here. Stuff like this happens every day," he said.
Outside the wire, as U.S. troops call the area beyond the razor wired walls of their operating bases, is the town of Yusifiyah. Its 20,000 residents are almost all Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraqi politics and society before the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Angered by their sudden loss of status and feeling marginalized by the rise of rival Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis have been the backbone of the country's two-and-a-half year-old insurgency. The daily violence has killed or wounded tens of thousands of Iraqis and U.S. troops.
Just in the "triangle of death," which includes the towns of Yusifiyah, Mahmudiyah, and Latifiyah, more than 40 Iraqis and three American soldiers were killed on Thanksgiving Day in various insurgent attacks. As is often the case throughout Iraq, the target of the attacks apparently was American forces, but resulting casualties were mostly Iraqi.
U.S. troops here say they know that the mounting death toll on both sides is sapping public support in the United States for continuing the U.S. mission in Iraq. A recent Harris Poll suggested that a majority of Americans do not think Iraq will be successful in establishing a stable democratic government and would like the troops to come home in the next year.
The question soldiers here struggle to answer is does the presence of more than 140,000 American troops in Iraq cause more violence and casualties or are American soldiers vital to the task of reconstructing and stabilizing a country, which would otherwise descend into civil war if the coalition forces left?
U.S. Army combat medic's assistant, Private First Class Joshua Francis Mansfield, has been in Iraq for almost a year and has watched helplessly as fellow soldiers died from terrible wounds. But Private Mansfield says he still believes that U.S. troops have an obligation to stay and to make certain that Iraqis enjoy a better life than they did under Saddam Hussein.
"I think we are still doing something good. I think we need to be here. I know that most of the Iraqi people want us to be here, too. You can see it on their faces when we go by, how they smile and wave," he said.
As Private Mansfield speaks, he is busy helping the chief medic attend to an Iraqi army soldier, who has been rushed to the base after being hit in the leg by shrapnel from the mortar that fell on an Iraqi house. The soldier's mother and brother stand over the soldier, quietly sobbing and thanking the American medic team for saving his life.
The soldier is one of countless wounded civilians and Iraqi security personnel, whom the medics here have patched up over the past year. The locals say they prefer to go to the Americans for help rather than to Yusifiyah Hospital, where medical care is too expensive for most people and rudimentary at best.
But Specialist McCarthy says if Iraqis are being wounded in attacks aimed at U.S. troops, he wonders if Americans are patching up people who would not have been wounded if the U.S. military was not here.
"You see stuff like this and it makes you feel responsible somewhat. But hopefully, we can improve their quality of life, which is what we are here for," he said.
Other soldiers speak far more bluntly, when they talk about the toll the daily violence has taken on themselves and innocent Iraqis.
At another Army base about 25 kilometers south of Yusifiyah, Sergeant Edward Cervantes is trying to collect information on a car bombing at a hospital in Mahmudiyah, which has killed more than 30 Iraqis and wounded four U.S. soldiers.
Sergeant Cervantes acknowledges that there is still much work to be done in Iraq, but after serving two combat tours in Iraq, he says he can now only think of going home.
"Anywhere in America. Just ready to get out of here," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested this week that a troop reduction may begin fairly soon, but a significant pullout is unlikely until the end of next year.
The Bush administration says the United States must keep a strong presence in Iraq until more Iraqi forces can be trained to take over security duties and the country's new government, to be elected in December, has a chance to settle in.