Back in Iraq

Posted: Apr 16, 2004 12:00 AM

 AR-RAMADI, Iraq -- This week in a primetime White House news conference, President Bush described recent fighting in Iraqi areas of ar-Ramadi and Fallujah as "tough." It is tough, war always is. During my first 40 hours on the ground, anti-Iraqi forces haven't stopped shooting at the Marines, making it more difficult to get around.

 But that's not to say progress isn't being made and those who are inciting the violence aren't being brought to justice -- it is, and they are. And it would be refreshing if just one member of the vaunted White House press corps or one of the television channel's chattering chumps would show a sliver of confidence in America's armed forces and their ability to defeat the terrorists with whom they are engaged in Iraq. I can report that the troops here -- specifically members of the 1st Marine Division out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the Army's 1st Brigade from Fort Riley, Kan., with whom I am traveling -- are "performing brilliantly," as the president said Tuesday night.

 In fact, in ar-Ramadi, it's going a lot better than some might perceive. While much of the media's attention has focused on Fallujah, where four American civilians were killed, here in ar-Ramadi, Marines and soldiers are socking it to the enemy. "The fighting has been intense, but we've been kicking butt everywhere we go," is the way one Marine sergeant described it to me.

 Earlier this week, these young Marines and soldiers were engaged in a violent, early-morning firefight with anti-Iraqi forces that resulted in four enemy dead, nine detainees and 16 weapons captured. Fighting with them were friendly Iraqis who aren't going to let their cities and towns become safe havens for terrorist cells. Those anti-Iraqi forces, it should be pointed out, are a mixture of foreign fighters, some Baathist loyalists and members of terrorist cells. While the press back home complains that Iraqis are "rising up" against American forces, they overlook the fact that there are a lot of foreign fighters involved in, and inciting, this violence. They've come into this country to disrupt and prevent democratic reforms from taking place.

 During last week's attack, 12 U.S. Marines were killed. Now, several days later, members of the 1st Marine Division returned to that same neighborhood and captured nine more terrorist leaders. One of those terrorists who was wounded in the previous attack had been treated in a hospital and was recuperating in the home of a "friend" when U.S. Marines, with the cooperation of Iraqis in the neighborhood, knocked on the door and took him into custody. 

 "One more terrorist off the street and one less bad guy who, later on, could have injured a Marine, sailor or soldier," was what a Marine squad leader told me.

 During that engagement, it was very clear that the enemy had no intention of taking on this Marine battalion, which did everything but send out invitations for a fight. They went in to root out the terrorist cells who have been operating out of ar-Ramadi and Fallujah, which because they have basically been left alone for much of the last year, were easy places for terrorists to find sanctuary.

 But knowing the Marines were coming in to eliminate problem residents, the people in ar-Ramadi neighborhoods have been very supportive, freely opening their homes for Marines to search. Among both the terrorists and the friendly Iraqis, there is a new and very healthy respect for the 1st Marine Division.

 But getting that respect didn't happen by accident, and it wasn't luck. The Marines and soldiers who are pulling terrorists out of these neighborhoods and denying them sanctuary earned that respect. They've trained and continue to work hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys. They don't just go in, drop artillery and kill everyone, including civilians. They surgically remove the terrorists and limit the damage to the infrastructure, which makes a big difference to the population.

 It should also be pointed out that many of the Marines accomplishing this mission had been home for only five or six months before they turned around, put their flak jackets and helmets back on, and returned to Iraq. The troops that are here are adequate to the task. You can sense among the local civilian population a tremendous respect for these units -- they're organized for the kind of operations they're conducting, and they're succeeding.

 And just to check my own assessment with somebody who's been here since the Marines returned, I asked Lance Cpl. Baggett of the 1st Marine Division, "Are we winning?" His answer: "Yes, sir, no doubt about it." Let's see which American newspaper is willing to splash that revelation across its front page.