Dispatch from the front

Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

SAMARA, Iraq -- While the intensity of this war has diminished considerably from what it was just several days ago, it is not over yet. Those Marines who are still taking fire and being wounded will attest to that. But great and historic progress continues to be made, and with each successful campaign, new evidence is unearthed justifying the president's correct and courageous decision to remove the terrorist threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

I'm reporting this week from the ancient city of Samara -- the fortress city on the Tigris River. This is a training site for the so-called Saddam Fedayeen, which was captured by U.S. Marines of the 5th Regimental Combat Team last week. In my last report, I wrote that it was the Fedayeen -- who have been identified as Syrians, Saudis, Sudanese, Somalis and Egyptians -- who were supplying Saddam's last line of defense. Not only were these "foreigners" -- as the Iraqi civilians have taken to calling them -- schooled in the ways of terror here, but also at the so-called Salman Pak education center -- a terrorist training camp in southern Baghdad.

The remains of this center are a testament to the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. After a single 2,000 pound bomb was dropped on this structure, it leveled the building and destroyed the headquarters, but left intact a house just 50 yards away. Once inside, the Marines found it to be full of terrorist training equipment. In addition, I found a French officer's pilot uniform and a French helmet at this facility.

Then there was the ammunition. It is fair to say that Saddam Hussein is to hand grenades what Imelda Marcos was to shoes. The weapons came from numerous countries -- places like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Italy. Nearly every country that has weapons to deliver was supplying Saddam -- save the United States and Great Britain. I don't think Saddam ever saw a hand grenade he didn't want to buy. He was willing to pay a premium price for them, and he forced his own people to suffer as a consequence.

It seems no building or structure was immune from conscription. During this war, we've been reminded of Saddam's penchant for using human shields and utilizing mosques and hospitals for his military infrastructure.

When I was with the Marines in Baghdad before we made our way north, we were at the sports complex that was in the center of the city, next to a school. But these buildings were no longer used for recreation or education. They became part of Saddam's war machine -- arms depots filled with weapons, munitions and military equipment -- including missiles. When such weapons are found, they need to be destroyed. So Marine engineers gather up the ammunition that doesn't have to be moved, tie detonation cord around it and destroy it in place.

Outside of Samara, there are suspicious containers that are being probed by intelligence specialists and chemical warfare experts. Eight MiG 21s were found disassembled and hidden about 10 miles from the airbase here. In addition, they discovered Scud missiles and Al Samoud missiles, which are capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.

We are going to find more evidence of these kinds of weapons with time. The critics need to realize that Saddam Hussein is -- or perhaps was -- a terrible criminal. He took his country and turned it into an arsenal. He repressed his people and turned them into paupers because he was spending all their money on munitions. Fortunately, those weapons are being found and destroyed.

In addition to getting rid of Saddam's arsenal, the Marines are moving into what is called a consolidation and reconstruction posture. Their mission is threefold. First, they continue to hunt for missing Americans; second, they are looking for weapons of mass destruction; and finally, they are searching for leadership targets that have not escaped to Syria.

Those who are surfacing are proving that Saddam was providing a safe haven for some of the world's deadliest terrorists. Last August, Abu Nidal -- the terrorist who targeted my family and me -- was found dead in Baghdad. This week, U.S. Special Forces captured Abul Abbas, the mastermind of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murderer of U.S. citizen Leon Klinghoffer.

Abbas was apprehended in October 1985 but escaped with the help of his friends. The story goes like this: The Achille Lauro pulled into port in Alexandria, Egypt, and Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, allowed Abbas and the three other terrorists to escape on a plane. He then called President Ronald Reagan and lied to him about it.

Navy pilots forced the plane to land in Italy, and U.S. Special Forces took custody of the four. At that point, the diplomats fouled things up and allowed the Italians to take custody. But instead of arresting Abbas, our allies the Italians put him on a plane in Rome, where he made his way to Yugoslavia to Tunisia to Damascus to Baghdad. But 18 years later, he is in U.S. custody, proving what Ronald Reagan said at the time, "You can run, but you can't hide."

This week, President George W. Bush and the American military won one for the Gipper.