updated 7/29/2005 4:14:30 PM ET 2005-07-29T20:14:30

It's hard to know what really goes on at war from television screens and newspapaer reports.  U.S. Army Commanders back from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan share their real-life stories about life and death decisions commanding troops with Hardball's Chris Matthews.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, 'HARDBALL' HOST: Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  And welcome to a Hardball Special Report, "Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line."   You know, every day we watch the news and we see the pictures that try to capture the reality of the war in Iraq, but pictures can't begin to tell the whole story.  We've learned that.  The human story of the being fought over there.

Tonight we've recruited three of the Army's top field commanders-they're just back from the front-to share their real-life stories to tell you what you're not getting on TV, and what they've been facing.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kelley of the 5th Special Forces Group, Colonel Donald Jackson, of the U.S. Army War College and Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rainey of the 1st Cavalry Division.

We also have an audience out there of enlisted soldiers, civilians, students and scholars who are going to be asking some questions during the next hour.

My first question is for Colonel Kelley:  Your battalion over in Iraq...I know nothing of what it's like, day to day, over there.  What was it like for you guys, day to day?

LTC. ROBERT KELLEY, 5TH SPECIAL FORCES GROUP:  I'd have to start, Chris, by explaining what my unit consisted of.  And for us, for a Special Forces battalion, the guys who do the heavy lifting, are a Special Forces team.  They've got a captain, they've got a warrant officer, and then they've got ten senior sergeants, all soldiers who've been in the Army several years.  They go through a selection and training process to come into Special Forces, and then day to day over there in Iraq, it varied quite a bit, because those teams were widely scattered throughout the country.  So when I go visit a team on the Syrian border, you find things that are very different there than when you go visit a team down near the Iranian border.

So you see local differences in the insurgency and the war that those teams fight, but at the same time, I saw national trends.

MATTHEWS: You know, we hear a lot about the different groups over there — the Sunnis, the Shi'a-when you have to fight them, is it any different for different groups?

KELLEY:  I actually met Jim in the battle of Najaf.

MATTHEWS:  That's fighting Shi'a.

KELLEY:  Well, it was mostly, but then what we found is that you had foreigners coming in there.  You had Iranians come in.  You had foreigners who came from Fallujah down to that fight.  So there are all these fights, it's different.  There's local differences, but in general they are not — some very tough fights, but they are not on par with our soldiers.

MATTHEWS:  What are their soldiers like, that come out and meet you?  Are they trained, are they irregulars, are they just hotshots?  How would you describe the guys you're fighting out there?

KELLEY:  It depends from battle to battle.  In Najaf, we found that the closer we got to the Imam Ali Shrine, the better the fighters got, the more hardcore they were.  You found more foreigners there.  So our guys — again the soldiers who are doing the fighting — in one block, they may be fighting a guy who picked up a rifle last week and was paid a certain amount of money or was motivated to join this particular fight.  And then a day later, or a block later, they'll be fighting a very disciplined, well-trained skillful guy — sometimes that guy's a foreigner.

MATTHEWS: Some of them are good, some of them good shots?

KELLEY:  Yes, there are some good shots.  Most of them aren't, but again in Najaf, we ran into some very good enemy snipers who got into some pretty intense sniper-countersniper fights between my guys and Jim's guys that were very interesting fights.  You go visit those guys, you go see what they're doing.  That's like a little war within itself; a sniper-countersniper fight was a little war within the larger battle of Fallujah.

MATTHEWS:  Same perspective, Colonel?

COLONEL JAMES RAINEY, 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION:  Well, just the same point of reference for everybody.  I had the privilege of commanding the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, which is a mechanized infantry battalion — about 850 men and women, tanks, best tanks, best Bradley Fighting Vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles we have in the Army, armored Humvees-a more conventional heavy force.  My battalion is part of the 1st Cavalry Division, Task Force Baghdad, that was responsible for Baghdad proper and a little bit of the surrounding area.
The area we operated in normally was a place called Taji, which is just north of Baghdad-almost entirely Sunni, lot of former regime, lot of former Baathists, Iraqi Intelligence Service guys, Fedayeen guys went top ground there, and Wahhabis.  So, pretty bad area — 685 square kilometers.  Day-to-day basis we had the IED and the counter-mortar fight, where the enemy would try and shoot mortars onto the bases to inflict casualties, destroy aircraft-things like that.

Then in August, we fought in the battle of Najaf as part of the larger joint force there-Army units and Marine units and all the air capabilities of the Navy, the Air Force, Special Ops-what we call a joint fight.  Put together a joint team with the Marines, fought 15 days-hard, tough urban combat down in Najaf.  Great victory for the Iraqis and for the coalition.

Then in November, again another joint fight, this time with the 1st Marine Division.  We moved over and with the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cav, and the infantry — 2/2 infantry, another one of the Army infantry battalions, but basically built around the 1st Marine Division-and fought the big battle in November with the foreign fighters, where they'd gone to ground and, you know, had declared that they were going to withstand the-

MATTHEWS: Who were the most ferocious enemy you faced over there?  Was it the Baathist regime people that were once in the Saddam army, or the Shi'a down south-who would you call your most fierce opponents?

KELLEY:  Again, there's different aspects of being a soldier:  there's the competence piece and there's the commitment piece.  So, those two components make up a good soldier.  The majority of the Shi'as were very committed, you know, fanatical, if you will-down in Najaf, especially.  And it's hard to fight guys like that, because they're going to charge you, they're going to attack you, they're going to accept great personal risk to shoot RPGs at your tanks and Bradleys.

But they're not very good, and we basically devastated that enemy down there.  And shortly into the fight, the countersniper stuff between Special Forces and Army snipers, Marine snipers and the enemy kind of came about because they lost their fanaticism after three or four days of just getting pretty much pounded by the Army and Marine Corps down there.  They stopped jumping out in the street and being fanatical and started hiding from us.

So they were very committed.  The closest to competent fighters that I saw over there with my forces was in Fallujah, the battle of Fallujah, where there were some foreign fighters, some experienced foreign fighters, lacking the ideology.

MATTHEWS:  Foreign, meaning what?

KELLEY: Other than Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  You mean, they're from Egypt or Saudi Arabia?

KELLEY: Yeah, and places that had fought in other places.

MATTHEWS: Is that your experience, Colonel Kelley, the same crowd-Fallujah was the toughest fighting?

KELLEY:  Where I was going to is, they were the most competent by terrorist or by foreign fighter standards.  They're not —

MATTHEWS:  Were they trained by Saddam, were they part of the old army that sort of snuck away after we came in?

RAINEY: Yeah, I'll tell you, the insurgency over there, if you want to understand it you have to be very comfortable with ambiguity because it's not-okay, this is the insurgent model.  It is a very complex grouping of people.  There are former regime elements.  You were a thug under Saddam, you don't just all of the sudden turn over a new leaf in the new Iraq over there, so now you're a thug and you're an insurgents.

You've got Shi'a, you've got Sunni, you've got some Islamists, whether they call themselves Wahhabis or Salafists, you have foreigners coming in and what it is each fight is-they come together and it is a marriage of convenience between them and ...

MATTHEWS: Colonel Jackson, you came in after the fighting in Fallujah, these officers were involved and these leaders were involved then.  How did you know with the people who was really on our side and who simply faded away when our guys came in there with all that firepower.

COL DAVID JACKSON, ARMY WAR COLLEGE: Chris, first of all, thank you for inviting us this meeting.  It is very difficult to tell who the bad guys are and who the good guys are and my job in both Najaf and Fallujah even before these commanders went to Fallujah and Najaf is to be prepared for what happens after the fight.

And civil affairs, we're responsible for number one, trying to keep people away from the fighting.  To keep people, local civilians, away from what we all kinetic, the combat operations.  And then once the combat operations are complete, then we come in there very quickly to try to rehabilitate the area, whether it's restoring power, power plants or power generation or power pumps.  In Fallujah it is little known that there were power pumps, water pumps that pumped water out of Fallujah.  When the Battle of Fallujah was over, much of the city of Fallujah was under water ...

MATTHEWS: Why was it under water?

JACKSON:  Because the pumps —kind of like New Orleans, kind of under the river — the pumps were not working ...

MATTHEWS:  So the city is below the river level.

JACKSON:  Yes.  Much of it, not all of it.  So we had to go in and help with the marines, the navy, the 1st Cav, and help pump that water out before we can even get people into the city.

MATTHEWS: How did you know who to trust, Colonel?

JACKSON:  It's difficult.  You had to develop relationships in Iraq.  Relationships is everything.  One of the challenges is maintaining relationships with Iraqis and my job, it's about relationships.  You have to go out — you can't go out like we do here in the U.S. and sit down and say let's start business right now.  You have to go out.  You have to sit down with them.  I've worked with several sheikhs, you sit down with them and those are local leaders that have a clan of people that listen to them and they trust them and they believe them.

And you go down and you sit with them and you develop this relationship over long periods of time and I was able to do that and many others, like these guys.  They were responsible for big areas.  You sit down with them and they would tell you, hey, this guy's not from my area or they would tell you where weapons were being stored and in the long term that is how you are able to weed out these insurgents.-that's where the instinctual thing comes in.

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