WASHINGTON -- They are coming home. For the first time since March 19, 2003, there are no U.S. combat or combat support troops in Iraq. There is still a contingent of U.S. Marines guarding the biggest American embassy in the world and the largest military attache's office at any diplomatic mission. But there is no doubt in anyone's mind -- ally or enemy -- that the war in Iraq is over. The only uncertainty now: Who won?
Short answer: America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines -- and the American people whose sons and daughters served in Iraq. Though our commander in chief cannot utter the word "victory," it is. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- in Baghdad for a ceremonial "casing of the colors" for U.S. Forces-Iraq -- came close when he said of all who served during eight years and eight months of war: "You came to this 'Land Between the Rivers' again and again and again. You did not know whether you'd return to your loved ones. ... Your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside and to offer hope for prosperity and peace to this country's future generations."
All that is true. Young Americans wearing flak jackets, helmets, flight suits and combat boots not only vanquished Saddam Hussein's brutal, repressive army and defeated radical Islamist insurgents -- both Sunni and Shiite -- but also became the protectors of Muslim women and children. Over the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nearly 1.5 million American volunteers donned a uniform and served in one of the most difficult and dangerous places on earth. More than 4,480 of our finest died, and more than 32,000 were wounded, in the long process of liberating and securing Iraq. It was the courage, tenacity, skill and compassion of U.S. troops that motivated more than 750,000 Iraqis to volunteer for their own army, navy, air force, police and intelligence services.
Today's Iraqi security forces are the most effective pro-American institution in Mesopotamia. They have been trained and equipped by Americans to protect their country from internal threats while respecting the human rights of their countrymen. They are fast becoming a valued counterpoise to radical Islamist extremism and are essential allies in a part of the world where we need friends. Of equal importance, none of Iraq's military leaders wants to become part of a new Persian empire.
Is there still violence in Iraq? Certainly. But it is far safer to be a civilian in Iraq today than it is in Mexico. Would we -- and the Iraqi people -- be better off if the incredibly incompetent Obama administration had negotiated a status of forces agreement with Baghdad so U.S. troops could continue to train with and mentor their counterparts? Of course. But the ongoing debate by U.S. politicians and pundits over what could have and should have been done differently or better in the corridors of power in Washington or Baghdad obscures a most important fact. In Iraq, American valor, blood and treasure secured something unique in a part of the world that never has had a freely elected representative government.
Much is being said and written about Iranian intentions, aggression and influence in the region -- and how it can be deterred without U.S. "boots on the ground." American interests in Iraq are now the exclusive purview of Ambassador James Jeffrey and a contractor-supported staff of more than 16,000. Among them, our defense attache, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., head of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq. His agency now oversees the continued training of host nation security forces and the delivery of the more than $13 billion worth of military equipment that Iraq's government is contracted to purchase from the U.S.
None of this is good news for the ayatollahs in Tehran. And none of it would have come to pass but for the force of American arms borne by the best and bravest of this generation.
The parents, siblings, spouses, children and loved ones of the Americans who fell in Iraq and of those who were wounded should be told by the commander in chief that their sacrifice was not in vain. He ought to be the one to say that they fought a long and difficult campaign not for gold or oil or colonial conquest, but to offer others the hope of freedom. In so doing, they made our country safer and reminded us all that freedom is not free. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul in this Christmas season: They fought the good fight. They finished the race. They kept the faith. Thank them for their courage and service. They won.
Oliver North is the Host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel. On Sunday, December 18, at 9:00 EST, FOX will air the 100th episode of this award-winning documentary series: “A Tribute to our Heroes Who Served in Iraq.” North is also the founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.