Zach Iscol was a Marine captain in 2004 when his platoon — a combined unit of 30 Iraqis and 20 Americans — seized the railroad station on the first night of the bloody battle of Fallujah.
They spent a week kicking in doors and fighting house to house, block by block, in some of the toughest urban combat of America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Half a dozen of Iscol’s men were wounded, but dozens of Marines in other squads were killed.
Today, with ground that Marines fought and died for under control of insurgents flying the banner of al-Qaida, and growing fear of another civil war, Iscol admits that he has conflicting views about the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
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“Part of me feels like we need to be supporting our allies … and part of me feels like we shouldn’t waste any more American blood in that part of the world,” Iscol, who retired from the Marines in 2007, said Friday.
His ambivalence mirrors the debate that has re-emerged in Washington as fighters with al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have overrun parts of Iraq’s Anbar province, including the provincial capital, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
The fighting has left hundreds of civilians, soldiers and militants dead and forced thousands of families to flee.
“There are a lot of things that can be done to help Iraq, but everyone is talking in the immediate term and there’s very little we can do in the immediate term,” said Douglas Ollivant, a retired Army officer who was a senior planner in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.
With declining U.S. leverage in Iraq since the withdrawal, the Obama administration has focused on trying to help without risking U.S. lives or taking sides in what amounts to sectarian fighting between the Shiite Muslim-dominated government in Baghdad and its tribal allies against Sunni Muslim insurgents in Anbar.
The Pentagon rushed 75 Hellfire missiles, which can be fired from Iraqi helicopters or airplanes, to Baghdad in mid-December. Officials said they would speed up delivery of 100 additional missiles, as well as Scan-Eagle surveillance drones, in coming weeks.
But Obama administration officials, Pentagon commanders and lawmakers in Congress have stopped short of calling for major new U.S. assistance to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government regain control, or to stop the spillover of violent extremists from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria.
Sending U.S. troops back, even as advisers, isn’t under consideration in either Baghdad or Washington.
Senior U.S. officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, have urged al-Maliki to show restraint and to seek support from local Sunni leaders rather than launching a military assault on Fallujah, which sits in the heartland of the Sunni minority, and risking a bloodbath.
Aides say the administration is pushing al-Maliki to accept a two-part strategy: using military force to battle the insurgents, while reaching out for political reconciliation with Sunni leaders and groups caught in the middle. But the administration is reluctant to get too involved for fear it will be drawn back into the conflict.
The administration also sought to break a logjam in Congress, where key lawmakers have blocked a White House proposal since July to sell as many as 30 heavily armed Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, and to lease 10 more.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has held up the sale out of concern that al-Maliki’s forces would use the helicopters against Sunni civilians, not just insurgents.
But Menendez and his allies signaled last week that they might reconsider after they received a letter from al-Maliki and a promise from the State Department to address their demand for U.S. monitoring of Iraq’s use of the helicopters.
“The question is whether the Maliki government would use those aircraft … only against violent extremists … and not to further sectarian political objectives,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday on the Senate floor. “With credible assurances, it would be appropriate to provide such assistance.”
Adam Sharon, a committee spokesman, said Friday that the administration was addressing Menendez’s concern so the sale could proceed.
Even if the Apache deal is approved, delivery of the first aircraft is likely to be months away. They thus probably will not be available for any military operation aimed at retaking Fallujah and Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold that once saw heavy U.S. fighting and casualties.
The Pentagon is also drafting a plan to begin training small groups of Iraqi soldiers in a third country, possibly Jordan, according to a senior U.S. official.
The plan, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is in the early stages and has not been approved by officials in the administration or in Iraq or Jordan, the U.S. official said. Iraq has periodically allowed U.S. special-forces teams into the country to train its troops, the only remnant of the once-vast American training effort.
Like the Apache helicopter sales, new training programs are not likely to help Iraq through its current crisis in Anbar.
The U.S. began secretly flying unarmed-surveillance drones over western Iraq in November and shared the intelligence with al-Maliki’s government. But al-Maliki, who is wary of appearing to be in America’s sway, ordered the flights halted last month and has not allowed them to resume, officials said.
With few Americans paying attention, or eager to re-engage with Iraq, its troubles may stay under the radar in Washington — except for those who fought in the unpopular war.
“We used to plant the flag in the ground and say, ‘These are our allies,’ ” said Iscol, the Marine captain who fought in Fallujah in 2004 and now runs a high-tech employment company in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Now, I’d say, ‘It’s in our national character that we turn our back on our allies.’ ”