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FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL <br> VIOLENT DOWNWARD SPIRAL LEAVES MANY ON THE FRONT LINES WONDERING IF IRAQ CAN EVER RECOVER

Every day now, the news from Iraq seems like the same as the day before, only worse. Another roadside bomb kills more U.S. troops. Another car bomb kills a few more Iraqis, most often security officers trying to build a country out of chaos.

It all seems oddly numbing. It lacks the stark emotional impact of, say, the cry of someone scared for his life.

Sadly, we're hearing such cries out of Iraq all the time all of a sudden, from reporters and troops alike.

Together they try to make sense out of all the redundant bloodshed, but they can't. They only end up fighting to avoid becoming part of it -- while inadvertently showing the world how very far away the end of the Iraq war probably is.

The first strong voice describing daily life for an American in Iraq arrived by accident, in a private e-mail from Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi to her friends.

Fassihi has written eloquent newspaper accounts of what she calls "the situation" in Iraq, but none carried the passion and the authority that this e-mail did. With no editor looking over her shoulder and her journalistic self-sensor turned off, Fassihi wrote from the heart and made America feel what it was like to live in a state of siege.

"I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling," Fassihi wrote. "And can't and can't."

The result?

"Now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive," she wrote. "In Baghdad, I am a security personnel first, a reporter second."

Not surprisingly, Fassihi's e-mail quickly shot like lightning into the blogosphere, onto talk radio and into conversations across the country. Supporters of the Iraq war argued that when she wrote that Iraq might be "lost beyond salvation," she lost her objectivity and showed which side she's on.

And while that argument may prompt long discussions in the nation's journalism schools, Fassihi's observation doesn't seem quite so harsh in light of what's been written and what's happened since her e-mail appeared earlier this fall.

In mid-October, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins weighed in with a piece echoing Fassihi's observations.

"For the dozens of newspaper and television reporters trying to make sense of the place, Iraq above all is a shrinking country," he wrote. "Village by village, block by block, the vast and challenging land that we entered in March 2003 has shriveled into a medieval city-state, a grim and edgy place where the only question is how much more territory we will lose tomorrow."

Filkins spared readers his personal observations of Iraq's future, instead choosing to simply relay his own experiences:

"Oct. 27, 2003: Attacked by a mob.

"Dec. 19, 2003: Shot at.

"May 8, 2004: Followed by a car of armed men.

"Aug. 28, 2004: Detained by the Mahdi Army."

Filkins contrasted Iraq with other countries where he's worked, where "being an American was a kind of armor." In Iraq, he said, it's the opposite. Americans, and anyone who associates with them, are targets.

The biggest targets of all, of course, wear American uniforms. And they, like Fassihi and Filkins, are beginning to talk about what it's like to live with a bull's eye on your back.

In a remarkable piece in the Oct. 10 Washington Post, reporter Steve Fainaru interviewed a dozen Marines from a battalion based in Iskandariyah, 30 miles southwest of Baghdad. All said they were frustrated with the war. Some portrayed it as endless.

Lance Cpl. Jeremy Kyrk, 21, of Chicago, told Fainaru that Iraqi insurgents were playing under a much looser set of rules than U.S. troops.

"They don't give us any leeway, they don't give us any quarter," Kyrk said. "They catch people and cut their heads off. They know our limits, but they have no limits. We can't compete with that."

Lance Cpl. Carlos Perez, 20, of Long Island said he'd like to help the Iraqis.

"But they don't seem like they want to be helped," he said. "I've only been here two months, but every time you go out, people give you bad looks and it just seems like everybody wants to shoot you."

Of course, you can't gauge the opinions of all 136,000 American troops in Iraq by listening to two corporals in Iskandariyah. But those gripes are by no means the only sign that the growing guerrilla war in Iraq is weighing heavily on American soldiers.

The worst sign of all came when the Army opened an investigation into whether a U.S. Reserve unit defied orders and refused to go on a convoy mission in central Iraq.

While circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear, relatives of those in the Reserve unit complained about the poor condition of trucks in the convoy and the lack of armored escorts. The wife of one Reservist called the convoy "a suicide mission."

All these troubling signs come amid a presidential election in which both major candidates vaguely vow to stay the course in Iraq. Given that the alternative could be a civil war in the middle of the world's most troubled region, in the country with the world's second-largest oil supply, that's perfectly understandable.

Yet neither candidate describes in detail what "staying the course" might mean.

"I think the Iraqi people want us to leave once we've helped them get on the path of stability and democracy and once we have trained their troops to do their own hard work," President Bush told the Associated Press last week. "It's very difficult for me to predict what forces will exist, although I will tell you that Iraq's leadership has made it quite clear that they can manage their own affairs at the appropriate time."

Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry said American forces could leave Iraq within four years.

"The U.S. has no long-term designs on staying in Iraq," Kerry said in the first presidential debate last month. "Our goal in my administration would be to get all of the troops out of there with a minimal amount you need for training and logistics, as we do in some other countries in the world after a war to be able to sustain the peace."

Those rosy assessments run counter to the view from the field, and counter to history.

"I feel we're going to be here for years and years and years," Lance Cpl. Edward Elston, 22, of Hackettstown, N.J., told Fainaru. "I don't think anything is going to get better; I think it's going to get a lot worse. It's going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We're going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. . . . We're always going to be here. We're never going to leave."

Military analysts are only slightly more optimistic. In a recent Knight Ridder report, Iraq's own defense minister said he expected American troops to stay for 15 years. Meanwhile, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said American troops would be in Iraq for a decade.

Indeed, history shows that it often takes a decade or more for insurgencies to play themselves out. When America occupied the Philippines in 1898, for example, the resistance lasted 15 years and cost 4,234 American lives.

After Algerian rebels rose up against French rule in 1954, the war of resistance lasted eight years and cost the lives of 18,000 French soldiers. And when Lebanon broke down into civil war in 1975, 40,000 people died in the chaos over the next 15 years.

Given the nature of the Iraq insurgency, it's easy to see why it will probably last a long time, too. It's a multiheaded Hydra, with Baathist supporters of Saddam Hussein fighting alongside Shiite insurgents and foreign terrorists. And you can't drag a multiheaded Hydra to the negotiation table. You have to kill it, head by head, if you want to win -- if you can.

You won't hear this from Bush or Kerry, but Fassihi, for one, is beginning to wonder if victory is even possible.

"For those of us on the ground, it's hard to imagine what, if anything, could salvage (Iraq) from its violent downward spiral," she wrote. "The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes, and it can't be put back into a bottle."

Jerry Zremski was embedded with V Corps for about five weeks during the beginning of the war in Iraq.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com