Update from Iraq

Posted: Jul 30, 2004 12:00 AM

 RAMADI, Iraq -- "The terrorists' goal is to hamper police work, terrorize our citizens and show that the government is unable to protect the Iraqi people," said Hamid Bayati, a deputy foreign minister in the interim Iraqi government, explaining the intent of terrorists who detonated a car bomb in the town of Baqubah, which lies about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad this week, killing 68 people and injuring dozens. Then to show his resolve and that of his fellow Iraqis, Bayati declared that the outcome the terrorists are hoping to achieve "will not happen."
The bombing in Baghdad was aimed at a group of people who were waiting outside a police station -- new potential recruits for the Iraqi Police Force. Because these recruits, once trained, will patrol the streets, gather intelligence, provide security and confiscate weapons, they represent a direct threat to the terrorists, who only want to cause chaos. Therefore, they, like officials in the interim government who are restoring order and building democracy in Iraq, become targets. It's a sign of desperation and, frankly, a sign that progress is being made to build the institutions of government that will serve the people of Iraq.

 Here in Ramadi, the Iraqi Police Force and National Guard are out in force. They are doing a much better job, and it is noticeable that they have progressed since I was here in April. They patrol streets, guard checkpoints, and search neighborhoods to root out and capture insurgents. They're growing more effective every day, thanks to the training they have received from the Marines and other police and security units with the coalition forces.

 The Iraqi National Guard and the Iraqi Police make up two of the four Iraqi security forces. Since the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June, there seems to be more progress being made, and the members of the Police and Guard are taking more responsibility and pride in their work. As one Marine put it, "The Iraqi Police realize it is up to them to provide safety and security for their fellow citizens," so it gives them incentive.

 In Ramadi, the hard work is paying off. Yes, it's still dangerous, and more security forces are needed. But the Iraqis who have been through training and are now patrolling the streets are getting better at their jobs every day. They are learning to provide their own security and, of course, the Marines have taken a lot of terrorists and weapons off the streets.

 Last week, I reported on what was probably the biggest gunfight the Marines have seen in this part of Iraq since April. It began during a routine patrol along the main highway near the government center when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated to start an ambush on a Marine convoy. The firefight lasted over four hours and resulted in nearly 75 enemy insurgents being killed, captured or wounded.

 But Ramadi is a study in contrasts. While Marines and soldiers engaged the enemy in a violent gunfight one day, the next day was quiet. Marines went out on a much more typical patrol in Ramadi, and it turned out to be a very calm day. That same city in which troops were being targeted just 24 hours earlier, was, the next day, peaceful and still. Locals were walking around on the streets, opening their shops and greeting U.S. forces warmly. In fact, a few Iraqis even offered us vegetables.

 I asked Cpl. Jared McKenzie -- the 1st Section Leader of the 3rd Mobile Assault Platoon in Weapons Company -- about that. McKenzie and his unit arrived here in Iraq in February from Camp Pendleton. He estimates that since his arrival, just under six months ago, he's been on approximately 150 patrols -- which means he and his fellow Marines don't get much downtime.

 McKenzie told me that most patrols do not involve gunfights -- that they are uneventful and calm. "Sometimes it can be confusing, but you just have to be aware of what may happen," McKenzie said. "We go out there every day ready for whatever comes our way. We're infantry, so this is what the Marine Corps trained us to do. They taught us to always be prepared."

 I asked McKenzie if those infrequent, but sudden transitions from peace to violence affect morale. He told me that "morale is very good. In our platoon, we work as a family, as one unit." 

 Morale was boosted further two weeks ago when Gen. Michael Hagee, the commandant of the Marine Corps, visited his Marines in Iraq. I asked Sgt. Michael Williams of Weapons Company, who has been here since February, how important that visit was.

 "It was extremely important to morale and to all the Marines. It reminded us that the people back home really support us, especially our higher-ups," Williams said.

 When I spoke to the commandant, he showed great pride in his Marines. Their job, he said, "is difficult. But, are they making a difference? Are they helping the Iraqis to help themselves? Absolutely," he said. "And, if you call that winning, then we probably are."