In February 2006, I stepped off the tarmac in Baghdad and onto the ramp of a C-17 cargo plane. I expected I would eventually return to Iraq, a country that was host to so many influential events in my life, but I doubted I would be returning anytime soon. I would soon become a student at Georgetown, and I could not fathom leaving the tranquility of the university for the chaos of a country in conflict.So I was as surprised as my family when I found myself walking through an airport in Iraq the Friday before last. I was there to serve as the research assistant with a fact finding delegation.

The U.S. military was aware of our trip, but we did not receive any military protection because we were in Iraq as private citizens. We relied on Iraqi guides, who were tasked with getting us around without our being arrested or kidnapped.

Driving through Iraq without weapons was a new experience for me. I’m used to the rather heavy security of the U.S. military. As it happened, we did see a couple American convoys coming down the road. Many of the U.S. Army’s Humvees have been given to the Iraqis, and most Americans now ride in hulking vehicles designed to protect them from every imaginable threat. The massive vehicles look quite threatening. Unable to see the soldiers’ faces, I could barely catch a glimpse of the helmet of a gunner peeking out from behind the barrel of a 50-caliber machine gun. We pulled off to the side of the road to let them pass, lest we be suspected of driving a suicide vehicle and be shot.

I’ve never felt so distant from the U.S. Army – or so threatened by it.

Interestingly, controversy has always surrounded the acquisition of those trucks, called Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs. They are expensive, and they look menacing – not the image counterinsurgency forces like to promote.

But American actions in Iraq are mostly political. U.S. domestic political forces demanded we better the quality of armor. I don’t want to sound as though I think American soldiers and Marines should be vulnerable to attack, but it is odd to see American soldiers riding in their giant protection machines listening to hip-hop on their iPods while the Iraqis wait on the side of the road.

The Iraqi security forces, despite higher casualties, have decided to blend in a bit more with their countrymen. Some of them wear masks to hide their identity, but they wear lighter armor and look more approachable than the Americans. On the other hand, many of them are loyal to Tehran, so you take your chances with them as well.

Iraq is a country facing a number of crises at once: terrorism, insurgency, Iranian meddling, displaced persons, sectarian political divisions and the five-year presence of foreign troops conducting operations on Iraqi soil. Despite these challenges, life does go on, and Iraq certainly does not seem like a country teetering on the edge of failure. The challenges are great, but Iraqis and coalition forces have thus far demonstrated a resolve to finding ways to meet those challenges.

I found myself wondering what would become of Iraq in the near future. The Status of Forces Agreement negotiations are stalled. With parliamentary elections expected in early 2009, the current government, heavily influenced by Tehran, has little incentive to work with the United States. In the United States, calls from politicians and media commentators for rapid consolidation and redeployment of U.S. troops are getting louder.

Political leaders say the military must move out of the picture so political processes can get to work. Most Americans want little to do with the small nation we invaded five years ago.

We met a lot of people with sad stories. A female journalist told us how both her husband and father were killed – her husband by terrorists and her father by Iraqi police, who penetrated his skull with an electric drill. Others spoke of long incarcerations in American prisons. Many described friends and family members killed by the various factions of violent extremists in Iraq.

A political figure in Diyala told us he used to support Al Qaeda for its opposition to the United States, but could no longer bring himself to support a group that killed other Muslims – “even their own fathers and brothers” – because of its extremist views. He said he now recognized the United States was a necessary partner in the fight against such extremists and the subversive activities of the Iranian regime.

Upset at Americans’ apparent desire to place domestic politics ahead of Iraqi security, he looked tense and exasperated as he asked, “What about Iraq? You came to this country. You tore it apart. You cannot just leave us without accepting responsibility! You cannot leave us to deal with the Iranians and the criminals alone.”

William Quinn is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and a former staff sergeant in the United States Army. He can be reached at AIMLESS FEET appears every other Tuesday.

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