Marine Corps Cpl. Tireak Tulloch watched in dismay at the start of the New Year as al Qaida-backed fighters swarmed into Fallujah, Ramadi and other parts of the Sunni Triangle where he and fellow Iraq veterans fought the war’s most decisive battles.
Tulloch, now a network engineer with the Long Island Rail Road in Huntington, N.Y., feels most badly for the Iraqi troops left to defend the embattled territory in Sunni Muslim-dominated Anbar province west of Baghdad.
“We were kind of in the big brother role,” Tulloch said. “Now your little brother is out there getting beat up, and big brother is not there to have his back. There’s a good amount of frustration that I have and the Marines I’ve talked with have. That inner Marine in all of us wants to throw our packs on, go back over there and take care of business.”
Just over two years after the last U.S. combat platoons left the region, the Iraqi security forces they fought with and helped train are facing an offensive by insurgents linked to al Qaida in areas that saw some of the worst American casualties of the war.
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Iraqi forces under the Shiite Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki are fighting Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with the renewed violence in Anbar fanned by civil war in neighboring Syria.
The al Qaida rebel gains have left many American vets wondering whether the long U.S. military engagement in Iraq, in which 4,489 Americans died between March 2003 and December 2011, was worth it.
Marine Cpl. Jesse Law, who wears a bracelet with the names of four friends who died fighting in Iraq, restores antique Harley-Davidsons in Waxahachie, Texas, near Fort Worth. He went into Iraq with the original 2003 invading force and had two subsequent deployments.
In his second stint, for seven months in 2004 and 2005, he led foot patrols in the Anbar town of Al Qaim, hard on the Syria border over which hundreds of al Qaida-linked warriors have flooded into Iraq in recent weeks.
“I feel like we pulled out before the job was done,” Law said. “Whatever our stated goal was over there, which was a bit unclear, we didn’t accomplish what we set out to accomplish.”
Staff Sgt. Damian Musante was among 400 Marines who fought in the Third Battle of Fallujah, where 22 Americans died and 331 were wounded in the second half of 2006.
“I fully expected it to fall again. I’m surprised it took this long. It was Indian country as soon as we were leaving,” Musante said, using the military slang for enemy territory.
Eight of the 23 members of Musante’s platoon suffered serious wounds. He was point man on a rifle squad that went house to house in search of high-value targets, delivering “hard knocks” that battered down doors and walls.
“I think we were creating insurgents faster than we were killing them,” said Musante, who works at a power plant in Los Angeles County. “Being in somebody else’s country illegally and then breaking (stuff) kind of pisses people off.”
In October 2004, a sniper shot Marine Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers in the left side of his face as he was helping residents leave Fallujah in advance of the U.S.-led Operation Phantom Fury.
For almost seven weeks in November and December, more than 13,000 U.S., Iraqi and British troops clashed with nearly 4,000 insurgents in the Second Battle of Fallujah.
That conflict, which saw the heaviest urban combat for Americans since the Vietnam War, left 107 U.S. and allied troops dead and more than 600 wounded.
The offensive retook the Sunni stronghold from insurgents, who had forced U.S.-led forces to retreat from the city in April 2004 during the First Battle of Fallujah.
Like many of his fellow Marines who fought there, Bowers was distraught to see al Qaida militants seize the town and the nearby provincial capital of Ramada on Jan. 3. But he believes that Iraqi government forces will eventually prevail.
“Faith is one of the few things you have in your ammo pouch that keeps you going,” said Bowers, who now advises nonprofit veterans’ groups in Washington. “I do have faith that the Iraqi forces are going to be able to deal with them in the right way.”
Iraqi tribal leaders working with the government forces said last week that their fighters had regained control of most of Ramadi, but that the al Qaida-linked insurgents still held large parts of Fallujah.
“I’m disappointed because we all fought so hard to achieve objectives that, as it turns out, were quite precarious,” said Marine Sgt. Andrew Van Wey, a rail traffic controller for BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, who fought in Operation Phantom Fury in western Anbar province. “We lost a lot of guys doing it. We’d like to think they didn’t die in vain, but this kind of takes away from that.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said that Vice President Joe Biden was talking with Maliki and other Iraqi leaders about increased U.S. assistance.
“Iraqi citizens, regardless of their background or their political allegiance, overwhelmingly reject al Qaida,” Carney told reporters.
He said the Obama administration was working with Congress to get more Hellfire missiles shipped to Iraq and to accelerate other military aid.
Stephen Long, a national security professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said increased U.S. assistance could incite further violence.
“American involvement will only embolden the insurgents and help them recruit locals to their cause,” Long said. “It may prevent Maliki from doing what is more important – building political support among moderate Sunnis.”
Douglas Ollivant fought in Operation Phantom Fury as an Army major. He later was an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, who was then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, and played a key role in executing the U.S. troop surge that helped stabilize the country in 2007.
In Washington, Ollivant served as Iraq policy director on the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Now a strategic consultant to Iraq’s central government and to provincial leaders, Ollivant thinks some of the recent reports have exaggerated the significance of the al Qaida gains in Anbar.
“I don’t think we know the whole story yet,” Ollivant said. “I see this as an event, but not a sea change.”
Ollivant said al Qaida-backed insurgents will have more difficulty retaining territory than they encountered in gaining it.
“So long as they were acting as a terrorist organization, hiding in the shadows and not surfacing, clearly the Iraqi security forces had huge problems dealing with them,” he said. “Now that they’ve come out of the shadows and are holding ground in Fallujah, Ramadi and Karma, they will be much easier to deal with for the conventional (Iraqi) army.”
Ollivant said the civil war in neighboring Syria is exacerbating the problems in Iraq’s Anbar province.
“It is the influx of fighters and money and jihadist energy from Syria that has really metabolized the problem,” he said. “Iraq’s al Qaida franchise kind of took over the whole region, and it’s dividing resources between Iraq and Syria.”
At a briefing last week, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was asked how he would respond to Iraq war vets who are questioning their service there in light of the upsurge in violence.
Odierno, who held increasingly senior command positions during three deployments to Iraq, expressed disappointment at the recent turn of events.
“At a time when it was believed that we needed to go there, our military went,” he said. “We prepared, we went, I believe we left it in a way that enabled it to move forward. We eliminated a ruthless dictator, which we tend to forget about. We raised our right hand and did our job. We left it in a way that was important.”
Memorializing service members who lost their lives in Iraq, Odierno added: “Many of them died doing the things that they wanted to do.”
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Gary Chapla, now on permanent disability caused by post-traumatic stress disorder from his Iraq war service, fought in the Third Battle of Fallujah during the fall of 2006.
Two of 36 troops under his command died in combat – Marine Cpl. Mark Kidd and an Iraqi soldier. He knew most of the 22 Marines overall who perished in the battle.
Chapla, who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., agrees with Odierno that the Americans who lost their lives in Iraq did not die in vain, and that they performed their duty honorably.
But that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from feeling upset by seeing the black al Qaida flag hoisted in Fallujah, Ramadi and other Anbar hubs.
“I’m pretty disgusted about it,” Chapla said. “A lot of American blood was spilled taking back Anbar, and now it’s like Saigon during Vietnam. It fell back to the enemy once we left.”
Van Wey, the Marine from Fort Worth, said he just didn’t think that Iraq, or for that matter, much of the Middle East where the Arab Spring has produced sectarian strife, was ready for democracy.
“We went over there and screwed up the status quo,” he said, “then all hell broke loose.”
Hannah Allam, David Goldstein and Michael Doyle in Washington and Nancy A. Youssef in Cairo contributed.