Gregory Bull, Associated Press
For an entire night, Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley crouched low atop a roof as U.S. artillery slammed insurgent hideouts in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Lima Company had already taken heavy casualties, and dozens of American soldiers would be killed before the house-by-house battles ended in late 2004.
At dawn, when orders came to destroy a suspected enemy weapons cache, Archipley discovered his unit was on top of the same building and insurgents were holed up just floors below. The Iraqi fighters scattered as U.S. forces blasted the building.
Nearly a decade later, he watched in frustration from his organic farm north of San Diego as an al-Qaida splinter group seized control of Fallujah, Mosul and other Iraq cities that Archipley and his comrades risked so much to protect.
Iraq's opportunity "was squandered," he said. "I'm not sure what else we could have done."
This week's stunning advance left many U.S. veterans reflecting — with bitterness, frustration and sadness — on the sacrifices of a war that lasted for more than eight years and killed nearly 4,500 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
"In many ways it just feels like a waste — a waste of many lives, a waste of many years," said retired Army Col. Barry Johnson from his home in Potlatch, Idaho.
On the broad stage of Middle East affairs, the unraveling highlights the resilience of extremists and the risks of weakened central authority. It also raises wider questions about the future of Afghanistan after international forces withdraw later this year, as well as worries about the growing influence of militant Islamic factions among Syrian rebels.
But it's in the small settings across America — VFW posts, rehabilitation clinics, kitchen tables — where a different type of reckoning is taking place. Soldiers and commanders who served in Iraq struggle to make sense of the unfolding chaos.
Johnson stood on Iraq's border with Kuwait as the last U.S. military convoy rolled south in late 2011. Even then, he said, it was evident that Iraq's military and security forces were not up to the challenges at hand.
Those tests included trying to confront strongholds of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has managed to drive back better-armed Iraqi forces. Iraq's Shiite-led government — allied with both Washington and Tehran — is also increasingly estranged from Iraq's Sunni minority, which claims the Shiite leadership runs roughshod over their rights and concerns.
"It was clear that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military were not going to be able to sustain themselves and keep the situation from deteriorating," Johnson said.
Because the cities loom so large on the roll call of Iraq battlefields, their loss sharpens the sting.
Fallujah, a mostly Sunni city west of Baghdad, was the scene in 2004 of some of heaviest U.S. urban combat since Vietnam. It later became a centerpiece of Washington's efforts to recruit Sunni militias as allies against insurgents.
"Losing Fallujah ... I really just honestly wanted to throw chairs across the room because what I've done there has basically just been undone," said former Marine Sgt. Ben Colin at VFW Post No. 6776 in Albany, New York. "We just basically went there and did nothing, in my opinion."
In the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest, U.S. forces battled block by block against insurgents in 2009 before the deadline for American troops to leave major urban centers as part of the phased withdrawal plan negotiated with the Iraqi government.
Martin Schaefer, an Army reservist who did two tours in Iraq, groped for the right word to define his emotions near his home in Darien, Illinois. Not mad or upset, he said.
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