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Reflecting on 3 years in Iraq On the anniversary of the war, WNY troops and civilians look at how the conflict has changed their lives

It has been nine months since Terrence Crowe was killed in combat, and his family on Grand Island still firmly believes the United States must stay in Iraq to finish its job there.

But Rosemary Peterson, the wife of an Amherst soldier, thinks it's time for the troops to come home.

Retired Army Lt. Col. James N. Thorpe -- who served in Iraq and remains glad that America overthrew Saddam Hussein -- agrees with Peterson.

Three years after the invasion of Iraq, that's just a sampling of opinions held by the troops, their loved ones, the men and women who pushed for war and those who argued for peace.

While the most recent Gallup poll shows that 57 percent of Americans think the Iraq War was a mistake a percentage that's been growing for three years there's no consensus as to how America should end the war.

That goes for Washington policymakers and independent experts, too.

President Bush, who advocated the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to prevent him from using weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to be there, remains resolute.

"We will not lose our nerve," Bush said in a speech in Washington last week. "Our goal in Iraq is victory and victory will be achieved when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks against our nation."

Yet there's growing concern, even among Republicans, about Bush's gung-ho Iraq policy. Several leading Republican figures, including James A. Baker III secretary of state when Bush's father was president -- and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani this week joined an effort to develop what Baker called an "honest assessment" of the American effort in Iraq.

And while many prominent Democrats have chosen their words carefully when discussing Iraq, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter, said American troops should leave Iraq before year's end.

"In my judgment, victory is not likely," Brzezinski said in a speech at the Center for American Progress this week.

Acknowledging that an American pullout could mean civil war in Iraq, he added: "Is that worse than staying the course if staying the course means a more and more difficult war of attrition?"

That wide range of opinion can be heard, too, in the voices of people from Western New York who have experienced the war in some way. Three years after the start of the war, here is what they have to say:

>Lt. Col. James Otwell

You might say the Iraq War made Jim Otwell a new career. The onetime Buffalo firefighter and Army reservist became a leading Army Civil Affairs officer in Iraq shortly after the invasion. Now he's back in Baghdad, working for the State Department and helping the Iraqis rebuild their fire departments and emergency management services.

Otwell's views on the war are as mixed as anyone's. He strongly supports the Iraq invasion and insists American troops must stay until the country is stabilized. But he decries all the mistakes he has seen.

Above all, he said, the administration didn't have in place the experienced management personnel or a strong game plan to rebuild Iraq once Hussein's government fell in April 2003.

Worse yet, he said, some of those mistakes continue to be made.

"I still see a lack of leadership, and power struggles between the Department of State and the Department of Defense," Otwell said in a telephone interview this week.

Nevertheless, with sectarian violence increasing in Iraq, Otwell said it's crucial that America stay the course.

"If America pulls out, I believe civil war will ensue," Otwell said. "If we stay here, we may be able to avert it . . . If we move out, it's a lot worse than what we have now."

>Cpl. Mark P. O'Brien

Few know the sacrifices that soldiers make the way Mark O'Brien does. In November 2004, while on patrol in the Sunni Triangle, the young Marine heard the blast of a grenade -- and looked down to see his right arm shattered and his right leg blown off above the knee.

Days later, upon seeing his parents at a military hospital outside Washington, he scrawled a phrase that told his story.

"I have no regrets," he said.

And he still doesn't. And he doesn't think America should have any regrets, either, about invading Iraq.

"We stopped a madman," O'Brien said, referring to Hussein. "I saw it myself. I guarded mass graves of the Shia he slaughtered."

O'Brien acknowledged the reconstruction of Iraq hasn't gone nearly as smoothly as the war that toppled Hussein, but he said no one should be surprised.

"People forget how long it took to rebuild Germany after World War II," O'Brien said. "People are so impatient."

And so O'Brien counsels patience -- and wishes he could still be part of the American effort to bring peace to Iraq, which he said could come once the Iraq military is rebuilt.

>George Crowe

If anyone has the right to be bitter about the war, it's George Crowe.

The war claimed the life of his son, Lt. Col. Terrence K. Crowe, a feisty 44-year-old from Grand Island, who was killed in Iraq last June while fighting with the 98th Division of the Army Reserve.

But Crowe's views on the war haven't changed.

Crowe, 75, a retired Army reserve colonel from Grand Island, remains steadfast in his belief U.S. troops should finish the mission in Iraq.

Many Americans don't have the stomach to fight a long, drawn-out war and are looking for an easy way out, Crowe said. But if you walk away from the problem now, he said, it will just rear its head again -- and with more force.

"If anything," Crowe said. "I'm firmer in my beliefs that we have to see this through to the conclusion."

>Rosemary Peterson

Three years ago, Rosemary Peterson of Amherst wasn't sure how she felt about the war. She knows now.

"I think it's time we start pulling out," said Peterson.

Her husband, Army Reserve Capt. Donald W. Peterson, served for a year in Iraq. Although he has safely returned stateside, he's at a base in Kentucky, rehabilitating from a back injury. His wife and two children, ages 5 and 15, have seen him only a handful of times over the past year and a half.

So Rosemary Peterson has kept the household going -- handling the finances, driving around the kids, keeping up on home repairs. Even having her husband home on leave meant having to go through his painful departure again.

Her frustrations are shared by countless military families.

"We're ready to be back together again as a family," Peterson said.

>Lt. Col. James Thorpe

Thorpe used to serve in the same Army Reserve unit as Otwell -- the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion. But the two former colleagues see the war differently.

Thorpe, who's now 42, back in Buffalo and retired from the military, agrees with Otwell the war was worth fighting.

"If I were an oppressed Iraqi -- which was the majority -- then I would have welcomed assistance in overthrowing a tyrant," he said. "I saw first-hand the abuses heaped upon the Shias. People wanted to show me scars from wounds inflicted upon them by Saddam's security forces."

The trouble is, America didn't stabilize Iraq in short order, Thorpe said, so before long, the Iraqis soon came to resent the occupiers.

After Saddam's capture, America should have declared victory and told the Iraqis that U.S. troops would be leaving in a year, Thorpe said.

"I would say that the time to depart has already passed," he said. "We have removed the dictator; it is now time to allow these people to take responsibility for themselves. If the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds cannot maintain a peaceful existence, then it is up to them to fix the situation."

>Attiya Aljibouri

Attiya Aljibouri sees a dim future for his native Iraq, at least the near future.

Aljibouri, a teacher in Iraq before coming to Western New York five years ago, is worried about the corruption he sees in the new Iraqi government.

"The security doesn't come if the political situation doesn't get better," said Aljibouri, 48, of North Tonawanda. "They're thinking more about their positions than what they're doing for Iraqis."

And he, too, would like to see U.S. troops pull back -- to the country's borders to keep more insurgents from entering. Let Iraqi forces and police patrol the cities, he said. Maybe that would help cut down on U.S. casualties and defuse some of the fighting on the ground, he said.

Iraq wouldn't have been able to bring down Saddam Hussein without the United States, Aljibouri said. And until the country's situation improves, he said, Iraq will need America's help for a few more years.

"Then, the American troops can withdraw with all the happiness and pleasure of the Iraqi people," Aljibouri said, "and we will stay your friends forever."

>Colin Eager

Colin Eager and other peace activists will rally in Lafayette Square today, just as they have done to mark each anniversary of the war.

The peace movement has been decrying the cost and casualties of the war.

The public and politicians are finally listening, said Eager, executive director of the Western New York Peace Center.

Now, in the weeks and months ahead, activists will apply more pressure on politicians, he said. The message: bring our troops home.

"The real need is for peacekeepers there to prevent an all-out civil war," Eager said.

"The U.S. Army is not a peace-keeping force."

>Pvt. Randy Hamilton

Hamilton was in the Iraq War for a short time. But now he wants no part of it.

"As far as the war goes, I see no reason for us to be there," said Hamilton, who retired from the military shortly after his tour of duty as an Army mechanic in Iraq ended in August 2003. "In fact, I never saw any reason for us to be there."

Asked about the Bush administration's claim that Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were justified war, Hamilton said: "It's a big country. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack."

But three years after the invasion, still no needle has been found in that haystack.

Hamilton, 24, married and living in Lily Dale, may have been speaking for the nation as a whole when he said, "I just hope everybody who's over there comes back as soon as possible."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com

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The Rev. Darius Pridgen

From his pulpit at True Bethel Baptist Church, the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen has a sobering view of the situation in Iraq.

Pridgen has delivered the eulogies for two local soldiers killed early on during the conflict -- Army Pvt. David Evans Jr. and Marine Lance Cpl. Tomorio D. Burkett.

The pastor always has had questions about the entering a war in Iraq. Yet, now is not the time to withdraw American troops, he said. It would be like a child messing up the playground with his toys, then leaving without cleaning up, he said.

"We're already in Iraq, and to leave before there's resolution, we have done the people of Iraq a disservice," Pridgen said. "I think the majority of the congregates here feel the same way."

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