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Frank Gray

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Iraqis on Wednesday inspect damage in the aftermath of a Tuesday car bombing that killed many people and wounded dozens in a crowded outdoor market, in Baghdad's Sadr City.

Local vets say clashes bound to happen as US withdrew

– Local veterans of the Iraq war say the recent offensive mounted by insurgents was almost inevitable and was made possible by America's withdrawal of troops and disengagement at the end of 2011.

Five veterans who were interviewed for this story described themselves as sad and in some cases angry that so many people died for something that wasn't going to change, but none described themselves as bitter.

Mark Haney of Fort Wayne is a retired lieutenant colonel who spent more than five years in Iraq helping build infrastructure. He said he knew events like what is happening now were going to come about. He wasn't surprised by the continuing armed struggle.

“It also shows the policy our government pursued, of saying ‘It's over,' has failed as predicted,” Haney said. “It irritates me on a personal level. U.S. policy didn't take care of business. We tried to shove Iraq off to the side and forget about it.”

The parties left on the ground in Iraq, though, won't work to build a modern state, he said.

“They're going to have to learn to compromise. The U.S. policy of nonengagement didn't help at all,” Haney said.

Haney doesn't see the country collapsing in the face of insurgents with ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is dominated by Sunnis.

ISIL forces are small, perhaps 2,000. The areas quickly seized by ISIL have always been predominately Sunni and are sparsely populated. He doesn't think the insurgents have what it takes to take Baghdad, and he believes they are making a lot of propaganda noise to the keep the central government in Baghdad hunkered down.

“I don't see them taking Baghdad,” Haney said. “I don't know that they can hold on to what they have.”

Patrick Kemp, who also served in Iraq, said he was surprised the crisis took as long as it did to happen, but he also blames the American pullout for letting it happen.

“When you keep announcing ‘We're going to leave on this date,' they save their ammunition and wait,” said Kemp, who lives in Fort Wayne.

But Kemp said he wasn't angered by the turn of events.

“We went there to try to help,” Kemp said, and a lot of good people were able to leave Iraq. “What angers me is that so many lives were lost for something that isn't going to change,” he said of the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict.

“If we were going to commit, we should have committed,” Kemp said.

Whether the insurgents are able to take Baghdad depends on how many members of the Iraqi army decide it's important not to throw down their arms. He said he was involved in training the Iraqi army and found that many were there only for a paycheck, and “As soon as the lead flies, they lay down their gun(s) and run.”

Nicholas Hayward, who is from LaGrange County and now lives in Virginia and worked in intelligence in Iraq, said he thought there was no guarantee that something like the current events would happen, but “when you have such a strong sectarian divide, you're going to have this infighting.”

Hayward also blamed the American pullout in late 2011.

“The government wasn't ready to take on the large situation it had there,” Hayward said. The United States needed to stay engaged and help guide the new government, he said.

“We walked in and spun their culture 180 degrees. What do you expect? When you give them freedoms, you open up avenues for this to happen. It was going to happen no matter what.”

As for Americans' opinion of what is happening and whether it was a wasted effort, Hayward said, “If the American public has anyone to be mad at, it's themselves, because they didn't want to stay there and hold their hand. The political landscape would not permit what needed to be done.”

Hayward, though, doesn't see the insurgents taking Baghdad. There might be sectarian violence, he said, but the insurgents won't march into the city.

America should treat the conflict like a playground fight and wait for the opposing groups to shake hands and agree to get along, he said.

“How long is the fight going to go on? A few months? Fifteen years?” The conflict between different groups is thousands of years old, Hayward said.

Jeremy Rockstroh of Fort Wayne, who provided security in Iraq, also believes an uprising by insurgents was inevitable.

“It's a shame it's happening,” he said, “but the population has had issues for 5,000 years. Ten years isn't going to take care of the secular battle.”

“At the same time, they asked us to get out,” Rockstroh said. “They asked us to leave. They said they had it covered.”

Regarding Baghdad, Rockstroh said ISIL has structure and leadership.

“Don't underestimate what they're capable of,” he said.

Andrew Hollins of Fort Wayne, who worked in intelligence for the Navy during the Iraq war, says he isn't enraged or angry at the turn of events.

“It doesn't seem like we should have expected anything else,” he said. The factions in Iraq will continue to fight, he added.

If the country expects to become stable, it is going to need outside help, Hollins said, but no one wants to do it.

fgray@jg.net

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