WASHINGTON -- Nine years ago this week, our Fox News team accompanied U.S. Marines as they swept into Baghdad and then north up the Tigris River to seize Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. It took less than three weeks to drive the tyrant from power in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it appeared then that the force of American arms could ensure a new era of tranquility in a part of the world where brutality and anti-American despots had ruled for too long. But it was not so.
The Dec. 13, 2003, capture of the deposed dictator, dragged filthy and bedraggled from a "spider hole" within sight of his palace in Tikrit, failed to quell a rising insurgency. During the following spring and through the autumn of 2004, the U.S. Marines and soldiers we lived with in Anbar province were in daily gun battles with well-armed Sunni insurgents waging jihad against the "invaders." To the east and in Baghdad, Shiite militias launched a campaign of terror against their Sunni countrymen and coalition troops. At home, critics of the war and the Bush administration prognosticated that the fights for Fallujah and Ramadi were prelude to all-out civil war. But that didn't happen, either.
In the spring of 2005, we were embedded with the Marines when they launched Operation Matador in Qaim, where the Euphrates River enters Iraq from Syria. Their mission: stanch the flow of weapons, munitions and suicidal Islamist militants flooding into Anbar province from Syria. Interdicting the Damascus-supported ratlines turned out to be a very good idea. Five months later, we documented the first free national legislative election in Iraqi history -- and a better than 70 percent turnout.
U.S. military operations along Iraq's border with Syria didn't end the insurgency, but they made the subsequent "awakening" in Anbar -- and then the rest of the country -- possible. By the time we were covering the "surge" five years ago, the bloody operation in Qaim was all but forgotten by those who once predicted catastrophe in Iraq. The reporters who didn't make it to Qaim in 2005 ought to go there now. This desert town on the banks of the Euphrates is once again the scene of a flood from Syria. But now it's a torrent of refugees fleeing the sanguinary carnage wrought by Bashar Assad.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.