MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Iraq has just held parliamentary elections, and the apparent winner is a coalition dominated by an unlikely politician, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. I say unlikely because until recently, Sadr was better known for leading a militia, the Mahdi Army, which fought and killed American troops. Here's one of those battles sounded like. This is our reporter Ivan Watson in Iraq in 2004.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
IVAN WATSON, BYLINE: We're on a rooftop at the edge of the Old City, and the fighting is raging in the center of the city between the U.S. military and militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. We just had about 20 rounds. You could literally hear them whistle over the rooftop where we are.
KELLY: Our next two guests have heard those bullets whistle by. They both fought against Sadr and his Mahdi Army. First, Eric Bourquin - he was an Army sergeant first class out of Fort Hood, Texas, when he arrived in Sadr City, Baghdad, in 2004.
ERIC BOURQUIN: My division - I was in the 1st Cavalry Division. It took over officially on April 4. And at the same time it happened that there was a big uprising initiated by Muqtada. And eight of my companions that were in my unit with me were killed while they were on their way out to rescue a platoon that I was in. We were pinned down where - pretty much half the platoon was wounded and all at the direction of this guy.
KELLY: So that's Eric Bourquin. Peter Salerno, master sergeant with the 162nd Infantry Regiment of the Oregon Army National Guard - he arrived in Iraq a few months later.
PETER SALERNO: When we went to An Najaf to fight the Mahdi Army, the way he was able to bring in, I mean, just busloads of reinforcements with impunity - he really became quite the nemesis in my book. And then after I became the night commission officer in charge, watching the flow of arms coming in from Iran - especially right before we left, we started seeing the explosively formed platters, the EFP IEDs, which were just - they're absolutely devastating. And there's virtually no defense against them. So, yeah, he was quite the enemy in my book. And it would have been - would have made my job a lot easier if he had somehow managed to get killed along the way.
KELLY: Sadr not only did not get killed along the way, he refashioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader and now the big winner in Iraq's election. We wondered how that sits with soldiers like Bourquin and Salerno. Bourquin told me he read this week's headlines in disbelief.
BOURQUIN: You know, it just led me down a rabbit hole of a whole lot of emotions and, you know, took me back to a lot of different places. This is a guy that we've been fighting against for so many years. And he's responsible for the death of quite a few of my friends and their friends and, you know, a lot of destruction. And now he wants to be a politician. And he's moving up along those lines.
KELLY: Peter, how about you? Where were you? How'd you hear the news this week that Sadr is coming out on top in the election?
SALERNO: Yeah, I did the same thing. I started going down the same rabbit hole. And, you know, as much as I don't like it, I just kept reminding myself that it is their country. At the end of the day, unfortunately, sometimes that's what democracy looks like.
KELLY: So when you think of Muqtada al-Sadr today as a up-and-coming rising politician who's going to it looks like control a lot of the political dynamic in Iraq, what thoughts cross your mind?
SALERNO: When my battalion left Iraq in March of '05, when we went down to Kuwait, it was right after the elections in 2005 in February. And I honestly believed that all the blood and treasure at that point had been worth it. My interpreters were coming in on Election Day, and they were literally crying. They were so happy. They were hugging us. They were telling us, this is the greatest day in Iraq. And I honestly thought we had done something good. And over the years, just watching it unravel the way it has has been absolutely heartbreaking - absolutely heartbreaking for me.
KELLY: Do you feel bitterness toward this man in particular, anger?
SALERNO: Not towards him in particular. I think it's been a confluence of events. I think our withdrawal was precipitous. I think there - (laughter) you know, you just watch the series of blunders over the years that, you know, we've made on our own. And it's regrettable. And like I said, it just breaks my heart.
KELLY: Eric, how about you? When you think today about Muqtada al-Sadr and the men who fought alongside him, do you feel anger? Do you feel bitterness?
BOURQUIN: I feel sadness. I'm angry at the fact that those young men will never be able to have the life moments that I've experienced and the trials and tribulations that we as adults have made it through. They'll never know the - you know, the love of a small child. So I get angry at that. I actually - I've got a lot of respect for the fighters that we fought because they went toe-to-toe with us knowing exactly who they were going up against.
And I would never tarnish the memory nor the honor of any of our fallen by looking at it or weighing it as not being worth it or not because I've been there. I've seen the terror and the destruction that have been sown. Also seen - I've seen the schools that we've built. You know, I've definitely seen a marked change from my first trip there in '04 to my last trip there in 2010, 2011. So there's been a considerable amount of difference. And it was all because of contributions of, you know, men and women that have made sacrifices like that.
KELLY: It's really interesting to hear you as a soldier express grudging respect for the militia that you were up against that was responsible for the deaths of your friends.
BOURQUIN: Oh, no, you bet it's...
SALERNO: Eric is absolutely correct. They're ingenious. (Laughter) I was always constantly amazed. They would conduct an ambush. We'd get hit. We'd come up with techniques to counter it. They'd counter it within a week. They were very smart, very smart fighters. (Laughter) They were a worthy opponent.
KELLY: Do you feel a sense of futility as we sit here in 2018 and look at Muqtada al-Sadr winning an election in Iraq or emerging as the front-runner when 14 years ago U.S. troops were there fighting and dying at the hands of his forces?
SALERNO: I would never call it futile in respect to, like, the soldiers I had killed. I couldn't - I just don't think I could go there. I could call it very saddening. I could call it democracy. I could call it any number of things. But I couldn't wrap my head around calling it futile.
KELLY: Sounds like you're still wrestling with quite where you land on the legacy of your service in Iraq.
SALERNO: Absolutely. It's...
BOURQUIN: Well, I don't think that legacy is complete yet either. I've tried to put myself in Muqtada al-Sadr's position. Now, by no means am I a politician or a cleric or anywhere near the influence that this guy has. I'm just, you know, a family man. But I do know what it was like when I was a younger man and I was fighting day in, day out. And I know the wisdom that's come along with that over, you know, my 15-year career in the military and just fighting the global war on terror multiple times. You know, where that's led me to believe and form the opinions that I have. And maybe he's - the reason why he's formed his Peace Brigades, he's laid down his arms and he's trying to do things through a political way is that he's tired of the death and destruction, and he's trying to achieve his means another way. Maybe it's democracy at work.
KELLY: All right, thank you to you both.
BOURQUIN: Thank you, ma'am.
SALERNO: You're more than welcome. Thank you. Eric, nice meeting your partner.
BOURQUIN: You, too, Peter.
KELLY: Eric Bourquin - in 2004 he was sergeant first class with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Hood, Texas. Also Peter Salerno - former master sergeant with the 162nd Infantry Regiment of the Oregon Army National Guard.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROB CROSS' "WE LEARN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.