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The prospects for peace in Iraq seemed in be in place when Air Force Reserve Maj. Mindy Yu left the country in 2009. Museums and public pools were opening, marketplaces were bustling and the nation's fledgling security forces were taking the lead in defending their land.

"I was hopeful," said Yu, 34, a Piner High School graduate who enlisted in 2001.

But for Yu and other Sonoma County veterans, that optimism has been chilled by a deadly insurgent assault that swept out of Syria six months ago and now is poised within striking distance, less than 50 miles from Baghdad.

The veterans, from field troops to a top commander, won't say that America's nearly nine-year war — at a cost of almost 4,500 lives and more than $2 trillion — was wasted. War fighters are inclined to keep their emotions in check and many are averse to political debate, but they see many of the gains and much of the good they accomplished being undone by a relentless foe, an impotent Iraqi army and inflexible Iraqi leadership.

"It hurts," said Matthew Jensen, 31, of Santa Rosa, who served three tours in Iraq with the Marines and the Army and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder. "We thought we were going to be in the history books for liberating a country."

"If they can't defend their own country against a militant group, there's not much hope," said Santa Rosan Evan Kubota, 29, now a Marin County sheriff's deputy who served in Iraq in 2004-05 as an Army National Guard sergeant.

But the veterans say they are not surprised by the bloody onslaught wrought by the Sunni Muslim extremist faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group, known as ISIS, recently declared the formation of a caliphate, a religious state in which only Islamic law, or Shariah, applies, over the vast swath of Syria and Iraq it now controls.

"I don't think it comes as a surprise to anyone," said Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Gary Medvigy, who commanded a psychological operations unit in Iraq in 2003.

The concept of an all-powerful caliphate has echoed through 1,200 years of turbulent Middle East history, with the names of its fundamentalist Muslim proponents changing through the centuries. "They've been in power and been out of power," said Medvigy, 58, of Sebastopol. "When they are out of power, they kill to get back in power."

Americans fail to grasp the importance of tribal and religious allegiances among the people of Iraq, said Medvigy, who is also a Sonoma County Superior Court judge. The cradle of western civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq's current national borders were drawn by the British after World War I with little regard for the age-old hostilities between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims as well as ethnic Kurds within those lines, he said.

ISIS, a Sunni militia, now takes aim at the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled since 2006. Meanwhile, the Kurds have allied with ISIS and capitalized on the upheaval, expanding their autonomous territory in northeastern Iraq to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Medvigy, who says ISIS has made "frightening progress," faults Maliki for resisting U.S. diplomatic pressure to allow Sunnis a greater role in running the nation. Unless Maliki either steps down or "becomes more inclusive," there is little chance of stabilizing Iraq, Medvigy said.

"It's painful to see what's happening," he said, referring to a "frittering away of our capital" — in both lives and money spent on Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March in 2003.

Baghdad was occupied in three weeks, as cheering Iraqis greeted American troops. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 and executed three years later, but the occupation evolved into a bloody, inconclusive effort to tamp down insurgent groups that warred against one another and foreign coalition forces.

In the end for America, the last combat forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, on a timetable set by President Barack Obama.

When ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 10, international attention one again focused on Iraq, where the civilian and combatant death toll since 2003 is 193,000, according to the Iraq Body Count website.

Kubota, who was based in Mosul in 2005, said the northern city of 2 million people split by the Tigris River was never secure, even as elections took place that year. The enemy then was al-Qaida. Insurgents filtered in from neighboring Syria, Iran and Turkey, and mosques "played anti-U.S. propaganda along with the daily prayers," Kubota said.

"It's no surprise that it has become a starting point and stronghold for ISIS," he said.

Jensen said the ISIS onslaught was predictable, given the damage done to the Iraqi military, including the decimation of its elite Republican Guard. "We were told to kill them or capture them," he said. "We pretty much destroyed the whole (military) infrastructure."

But many Iraqis appreciated the American presence, he said, recalling soccer games with schoolchildren and "the tears on (civilians') faces when we pulled out."

Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brennan Avants, who served as a Humvee gunner in Iraq, said that he, like other veterans, believes that "we were pulled out before the job was done." But he also acknowledged the political failure to extend an agreement giving legal protection to U.S. forces, creating an unacceptable risk for Americans.

That left Iraq's "fledgling security apparatus" hard-pressed to defend a sprawling territory ringed by foes, said Avants, 36, a 1996 graduate of Petaluma's Casa Grande High School who is now a Blackhawk helicopter pilot stationed at Fort Carson, Colo.

"Honestly, with the turmoil next door in Syria, I am not really surprised that it has spilled over into Iraq," Avants said.

Yu's first tour in Iraq in 2006-07 involved bloody combat, with daily small arms fire and frequent encounters with roadside bombs. "My team and I sacrificed a lot. We lost people," she said. "We all left part of ourselves there, physically and emotionally."

Her second tour in 2008-09 was with a combat camera unit, which traveled the country, documenting for public consumption the military's humanitarian efforts and the hand-off of security duty to the Iraqis. "Iraq wasn't ready to go when we left, but the potential was there," Yu said.

Now, from a distance, she said it's "hard to fathom why they're giving up so easily" in the face of the ISIS assault. Analysts say that ISIS has so far had an easy time moving through Iraq's Sunni-dominated territory in the north and west, largely avoiding the Kurd-controlled northeast and Shiite-dominated areas of the south.

Most Iraqis are normal people who "just want to be able to live safely," Yu said. "I feel terrible for the people who have to deal with this violence."

Marc Deal, who served as an Army flight medic during the first Gulf War of 1990-91, said military veterans typically are circumspect about describing their experience. "We try to be a little bit self-governing," said Deal, 50, who is chief operating officer of the Santa Rosa-based Veterans Resource Centers of America, a nonprofit agency that serves about 10,000 veterans at 14 offices in California, Nevada and Arizona.

"We feel you did what your country called you to do," Deal said. "You gotta believe you were doing the right thing when you went over there."

But the parents whose sons and daughters never came home have no such restraint.

Mary Shea of Sonoma was stunned by the news last month that ISIS had taken Al Qaim, an Iraqi frontier town near the Syrian border, affording the militants a key link between the two countries. Her son, Army Ranger Cpl. Timothy Shea, 22, was killed by a roadside bomb there in August 2005.

"I'm having trouble with this, oh my God," said Shea, 64, a community college Spanish professor.

Timothy Shea's Ranger unit had been dispatched nine years ago by former Gen. Stanley McChrystal to secure the Iraq border and stanch the flow of al-Qaida infiltrators from Syria. "Tim was part of paying the price," Mary Shea said. "Now it's up in smoke."

More ominously, she said, Iraq's predicament is part of a mosaic of violence and chaos spread across the Middle East and Africa, fed by poverty, repression and a virulent brand of Islamic extremism.

"We should face it," Shea said. "We're on the cusp of World War III."

Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams forecast Iraq's peril seven years ago in a telephone call to his father, Herb Williams, a Santa Rosa political consultant and Army veteran.

"It's about time for us to leave," said Jesse Williams, 25, a Bronze Star winner on his second tour. "We've done our job."

Williams told his father that Iraqis had engaged in religious warfare for centuries before the United States was created and would continue it for centuries to come, Herb Williams recalled. Deposing Saddam Hussein was an appropriate mission, the infantryman said, but it wasn't America's job to keep peace among Iraq's contentious sects.

"Jesse was right, he was spot on," Herb Williams said.

Jesse Williams was killed by a sniper's bullet two months later and about 1,000 people attended his memorial service at the Wells Fargo Center for Arts.

He was the seventh of 10 North Coast men to die in Iraq.

The toll continues, even with one Middle East war nominally over and the other, in Afghanistan, winding down.

"We're still dying," said Jensen, who assists vets at Santa Rosa's Veterans Resource Center, noting that 22 veterans a day are committing suicide, according to Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit group started by three veterans in 2010. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported the same number in 2012.

Veterans are divided over how the U.S. should respond to Iraq's dilemma. There are about 750 troops now in Iraq, assigned to protect U.S. personnel and assist the Iraqi army.

Preserving Iraq's democracy is a key to stability in the region, Yu said, but she's conflicted over what to do. "A lot of smarter people than me are debating this," she said, adding that the U.S. must, once again, gets its allies involved.

Yu, Jensen and Avants said they would go back to Iraq, if called. "In a heartbeat," Jensen and Avants said.

Kubota ruled out boots on the ground, saying the U.S. military response should be limited to air power in support of the Iraqi army, a "relatively safe measure for American forces."

Medvigy, who now is assigned to a command in South Korea, where the U.S. has held communist North Korea in check for 60 years, said the best course is continued diplomatic pressure on Maliki to either accept a Sunni role in the government or to step down.

"Anything short of that would be very problematic," he said.

The two-star general is also a worried parent, with his daughter, Army 1st Lt. Elyse Medvigy, an Analy High School and West Point graduate, serving as a fire support officer with an infantry unit in Afghanistan.

She's the first female to serve in that role since the Pentagon allowed women to come under fire last year.

A photo of Elyse Medvigy hangs on the wall behind her father's desk at the Sonoma County courthouse, and he hopes the outcome of her fight will prove more lasting than the Iraqi campaign.

"I don't want to see the same thing happening in Afghanistan a year or two from now," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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