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Opinion

Veterans watch as Iraq teeters on the brink

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Iraq,Iraq War,Veterans,Foreign Policy,Kevin Daley

"Going out across the desert I remember the feelings that you have, wondering if you're going to make it out alive," Rep. Scott Perry told National Journal. "Right now I wonder what that was all about. What was the point of all that?"

A Pennsylvania Republican, Perry is one of 17 Iraq War veterans currently serving in Congress. He deployed to Iraq in 2010 as commander of the 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion. His unit, designated Task Force Diablo, accrued 13,000 combat flight hours over 1,400 missions. Perry flew 44 of those missions, logging 200 hours in the air.

Perry's House colleague Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, flew helicopters in Iraq in 2004. On Nov. 12, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she piloted was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade that sent the chopper spiraling to the ground. Duckworth subsequently lost both her legs, and was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington. "I was hurt in service for my country," Duckworth later said. "I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow."

Two years after the American withdrawal, Perry, Duckworth, and thousands of Iraq veterans watch in anguish as the country is overrun by Islamic militants, while the West slowly mulls a response. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was shocked by the rapidity of the jihadi offensive, and the inability of Iraqi troops to repel their advances. Throughout the north and west, thousands of Iraqi troops abandoned their positions, dropping uniforms and weapons to join civilians in a mass exodus from major cities like Mosul and Fallujah.

Both cities saw some of the Iraq war's fiercest fighting. In November 2004, coalition forces launched Operation Phantom Fury to clear Fallujah of insurgents. The ensuing month-and-a-half-long battle saw dozens of coalition troops killed, in what the Pentagon called the heaviest urban combat the U.S. military had seen since the Battle of Hue in Vietnam in 1968. Similarly, Mosul was among the last areas pacified by American forces, and remained a bastion of opposition fighters for the duration of the American occupation.

By all indications, the militias will continue their march south. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the largest of the jihadi groups participating in the attacks, vowed to march on Baghdad in the near future. The Associated Press reported that spokesman Abu-Mohammad al-Adnani said the group has old scores to settle with Maliki's Shiite-led government.

In Washington, President Obama vowed Thursday to keep his options open, but is reportedly reluctant to reengage in Iraq, after touting the end of the war as his chief foreign policy accomplishment. While the Iraqi government has pressed the U.S. for greater support, senior administration officials have indicated they will continue to provide logistical support to the Iraqi army, and may pursue drone or air strikes. U.S. troops however, will not be deployed. U.S. officials in Iraq are currently preparing contingencies to evacuate the American embassy in Baghdad, an eventuality that recalls the American evacuation during the fall of Saigon.

Perry acknowledges the challenges. He told National Journal that he and his veteran colleagues in the House can affect public opinion, while acknowledging the White House and the nation are weary of war after a decade-long fight in the Middle East.

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Kevin Daley

Special to the Examiner
The Washington Examiner