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U.S. soldiers head home, hope Iraq on track

CAMP ADDER, Iraq (Reuters) - Over “midnight chow” just hours before leaving Iraq, U.S. soldiers had no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead for the Baghdad government.

A U.S. soldier from the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, carries his bag to load into a vehicle as he prepares to leave Iraq for Kuwait, at Tallil Air Base near Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, August 15, 2010. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

They said they hoped the U.S-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and the combat mission that ends on August 31 were not in vain and that Iraq was on the right track to stability.

“I just don’t want to have been here for nothing. As I came over here I want it to be for something,” said Staff Sergeant Robert Vaught, a convoy commander from the 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry regiment at an air base in southern Iraq.

U.S. soldiers returning home said it was hard for the U.S. public to imagine what they had gone through and seen on the ground in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

More than 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since 2003, while at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have also died.

At the end of this month, the U.S. military will hand over security fully to the Iraqi armed forces after a 7-1/2-year combat mission, cutting down to 50,000 soldiers who will assist their Iraqi counterparts but no longer lead the fight.

Vaught believed Iraqi forces had improved sufficiently to deal with continuing bloodshed, but still faced a tough job.

Overall violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006/07, but Sunni Islamist-led insurgents still carry out attacks and Iraq is a fragile place.

“I would say the Iraqis have improved a lot,” said Vaught, sitting with fellow soldiers in the canteen at Camp Adder, a large base that served as a logistical hub for the withdrawal of tens of thousands of soldiers and mountains of military gear.

“Obviously they still need a lot of work but the only way to get that experience is to go through hardships,” he said, before departing Iraq.

“If I had to guess I’d say they’ll probably experience more than they have already once the full pullout takes place and that is something they have to tackle themselves,” he said.

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NO REGRETS

Sergeant First Class James Bartels, who bought some U.S. flags in the camp shop as a souvenir for his family home, also believed Iraq was improving despite the violence.

“One thing I do know is the opinion of those who have been here the first time, the second time, the third time (is that) the changes are dramatic,” Bartels said.

Others take heart that violence in Iraq has fallen.

Tensions have been stoked by the failure of political leaders to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in March, and by a stream of suicide bombings and other attacks by insurgents trying to exploit the political vacuum ahead of the end of the U.S. combat mission.

But in overall terms, fighting has ebbed substantially.

“Iraq is much different now,” said battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Scott Smith.

“It seems the Iraqis enjoy the hope of democracy, they understand it. The ability when you’re not happy with government decisions to express that thought and not go to jail for it,” Smith said, after serving six months in Iraq.

Iraq’s leaders have not yet resolved a number of politically explosive issues, such as tensions between majority Arabs and minority Kurds, and reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Nor have they been able to form a new government five months after the national election that produced no outright winner.

But truck commander Sergeant Barry Curtis had no regrets.

“I think we got them out. I think we got them on their feet ... I just hope they will be successful in their own freedom,” Curtis said, speaking after packing up his belongings for the move out of Iraq.

“I don’t regret any of my time spent over here on any of my three tours. I think we’ve done a good job.”

Editing by Peter Millership

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