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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 20:36 GMT
Head to head: Iraq veterans
As Iraqis vote in a general election seen as a defining moment for the US mission in Iraq, the BBC speaks to two former US army officers about their experiences on the ground, and their hopes for the future:

Jonathan Powers and Garrett Reppenhagen
Powers (l) and Reppenhagen had very different experiences in Iraq

Captain Jonathan Powers served for a year in Iraq in the early stages of the war. After returning he founded War Kids Relief, a charity that rebuilds orphanages in Iraq.

Garrett Reppenhagen was a sniper. He served in Iraq for a year and returned home about four months ago. He now works for a public education group, Alliance for Security.

On withdrawing the troops:

GR: "We are coming to a time now when we seriously need to think of withdrawal plans... I think that troops on the ground right now are instigating and motivating the insurgency to attack coalition forces rather than helping to keep the peace in Iraq, so I think that in a lot of cases we do need to draw down.

JP: "We talk about exit strategies, we talk about pulling out, I think it is more important that we talk about setting objectives that are attainable so that the soldiers know what they are doing there... Talk about pulling out after you have set those goals and then guys will feel like they have accomplished something, not just spent 14 months of their lives and lost their friends."

On their Iraq experiences:

GR: "When I got on the ground a lot of people were very receptive to US forces. We weren't offered chocolate or candy but we had a lot of people begging for food, we had a lot of people trying to sell us things. When I left Iraq, those same people that were begging and trying to sell us things were throwing rocks at us. I have had a woman actually tell me that if she were strong enough she would kill me herself and that was a very different shift on what we had when we went in."

JP: "We arrived in May 2003 and we were literally seen as liberators. They were joyous, we were doing reconstruction efforts, but in the lack of planning following that we saw things fall apart. Six months later we lost our first guy to a roadside bomb and that just continued the downhill spiral until we ended up in Najaf where there was pretty much a revolution by Sadr's militia. One of the things we initially saw on the ground there were hearts and minds efforts, and we went away from that."

On how US defines victory:

GR: "What I saw was... a battalion of soldiers whose constant everyday mission involved staying alive for one year in Iraq and it didn't involve improving infrastructure or helping anybody. I was in Kosovo for nine months where I ended up protecting schools, delivering medical supplies, defending churches, making sure that two very diverse ethnic races were getting along and basically existing together peacefully and those were very decent goals. We didn't do any of that when I got on the ground in Iraq."

JP: "I think I was there at a very different time, I was there before things fell apart as much as when Garrett was there. I think victory is establishing a secure government in Iraq that when we leave isn't going to turn into the next Afghanistan, the next training camp, so when I can go see the parents of my friends who didn't come home they are not going to say 'Was my son's sacrifice all for naught'?".

On President George W Bush:

GR: "I think that he doesn't have a very good grasp of what victory is in Iraq. He doesn't really understand what the Iraqi people think and what the American people think. Especially as a democracy I think more than ever we have to have our leadership represent what the people believe and what the people feel."

JP: "There have been some great achievements just in the government and in the constitution, but that means nothing to the Iraqi on the street who is living in their own sewage and gets two hours of electricity a day - they are not so worried about freedom and democracy they just want their standard of life back."

On reasons for war:

GR: "I think at this point I am somewhat past that [discussing reasons for war]. America realises and I think the polls show that there is a real distrust for the administration. I think the original two or three reasons why we went to war got shot down, and as we continue to find more and more reasons to be at war, yes it is frustrating - but it is something that I have simply just accepted now."

JP: "I was looking for WMD when I hit the ground in Iraq, and by the time we left we were liberators and freedom-givers and that was not why we initially went. It was frustrating, but when we got on the ground and you saw the poverty that these people live in - you left the gold palaces to find kids sleeping in the streets - that became your mission, that became the reason you were there."

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