Iraqi's election will test many fronts and even after the results are in, it will be long journey for the war-torn country to create a functioning government, U.S. troops say.
"We need more encouragement and patience for these people who started with a larger handicap than our forefathers," said Mary Neason, a helicopter pilot from Hewitt, Texas, who flew security missions in Baghdad last year.
Msnbc.com reached out to U.S. military personnel who are serving in or have returned from Iraq to share their views on the region. Many of the readers in uniform who responded said they have taken a wait-and-see stance on the potential of Iraq's election and its aftermath.
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Not even American soldiers agreed on whether U.S. troops should stay or go, despite the Obama administration's vow to pull out most American forces after the vote, leaving only 50,000 soldiers behind. Obama's plan calls for all American soldiers in Iraq to return home by 2011.
A few readers were not sure that would work.
"We need to stay there and continue to assist them in forming their democratic government," said Mike Boger of Oakboro, N.C., who says he helped train Iraqi police forces from 2005 to 2007. "If we pull out, they will fade back into their past and never become a modern nation."
Nick Moore, an Army specialist who served in Iraq in 2005, wasn't as sanguine.
"It's a lose, lose situation," said Moore, who said he is now training in Grand Rapids, Mich., for deployment to Afghanistan. "At this point we're not doing anything but holding the hand of a country that does not want our help. The only way things will ever move forward in Iraq is if we leave."
'So many small victories'
Neason had high hopes for Iraq.
"There are always disappointments," explained Neason, who said she piloted security missions in Baghdad as an Army warrant officer. "However, in our imperfections we as Americans have provided the means for Iraqi children to question an evil 'norm' in a society that previously gave them no voice."
She said the election offered Iraqis a chance to find peace and prosperity after years of dictatorship, conflict and sectarian strife. She said the U.S.-led occupation helped usher in a new age for Iraqis.
"So many small victories, accomplishments and impossibilities that never make the evening news have changed the course of thousands of lives toward a direction of opportunities not offered to the Iraqi people in over 50 years," she said.
Sgt. Patrick Jennings of Massachusetts was less optimistic.
"I served twice in Iraq, first during the invasion in 2003 and again during the 'deadliest year' of 2006," said Jennings. "In late 2005, I was witness to the first Iraqi election and was proud to see the people standing up for their own land. That, however, should not be taken to assume I believe Iraq is a place greatly improved or internally willing to improve."
Dozens of servicemembers weighed in. Continue on to the next page for more responses:
I am currently deployed to Iraq. I have been here about 5 months now. I work closely with the Iraqi Army medics. We have training with them weekly. We share meals, stories of our children, and stories of their lives before and after the war. I am amazed to hear that their lives are better than they were before. They drive home without fear of being stopped by the police and arrested. They no longer have to search the Tigris River for loved ones who defied the government. The people of Iraq are resilient, loyal and deeply spiritual people. I see their hopes in the eyes of the children I meet on the streets. I see the pain of living in war in the elderly as they walk to market. And I see the determination to make their country great in their soldiers who sacrifice like we do. — David Branshaw, Chandler, Ariz.
I was in Iraq in 2005 and there for the first election that took place. Security in the country was non-existent. The government was not doing much during that time period because the U.S. forces were doing everything. I went back to Iraq in 2007 and the security had improved, but still needed improvement. ... The Iraqi government had not made much progress providing the basic needs of the people. I was back in Iraq in 2008-2009 embedded with the Iraqi National Police. ... Unemployment is one of the main reasons for problems in Iraq. I think the Iraqi government has improved a little since 2005, but still has a long way to go before they can truly become a government for the people. — R. Lucero, Roosevelt, Utah.
If the elections go off without a hitch, Iraqis should trust in their security forces more, and it should de-legitimize a lot of the insurgency out there. — Sgt. Kevin Reed, 1st Engineer Battalion, stationed in Tikrit, Afghanistan.
Nothing will change after the election. You have too many people over there who want to be in control. After thousands of years living the way they have, we can't just walk in and expect democracy to work after only seven years. Above all that, you'll still have jihadists who are willing to blow themselves up for their cause. ... The only lesson I learned from being in Baghdad is to not take life here for granted. After seeing how they have to live day to day, the little inconveniences here in the U.S., which used to bother me, no longer do. I challenge any American who complains about our government and economy to go live in Iraq for a year. We'll see how much they complain after. — Nolan Meadnis, Garden Grove, Calif.
I recently returned from Iraq in July 2009. I think the Iraqi people have come as far as they are going to with our influence. From here out, I think it is up to them if they want the changes or not. ... We need to realize that this is the time to get out. I do believe there has been drastic changes in the last year or so and the Iraqi people are starting to build confidence in their government and their military. ... I have faith in their country and want to see them succeed. — Specialist Patrick Umphries of Alfred, N.Y.
From October '08 to October '09 I was in the Baghdad area as a heavy equipment transporter system operator. ... Are we pulling out of there, yes. But will it stay calmed down, I think not. We can't stop something that has been going on for over 2,000 years. — Michael Miner, Fort Hood, Texas.