WESTERN IRAQ -- "These Marines are great. America ought to be very proud of its Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen; they're doing great work out here." So Marine Col. Stephen Davis, the commander of Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT-2), told me once we had a chance to talk near al Qaim, Iraq.
Davis is in charge of Operation Matador, an effort to bring law and order to the bulk of Iraq's vast, western al Anbar province, which makes up one-third of the country. What these Marines are doing now near the Syrian border is what they did months ago in Fallujah, and the progress is evident.
In Fallujah, the people are returning, life is improving, and civic pride is on the rise. It is a vastly different place from what it was when I was last there eight months ago. Just a few days ago, I filed reports for FOX News from Fallujah without a flack jacket and Kevlar helmet, something unthinkable eight months ago, when terrorists controlled the city. In the eight months between my visits, U.S. forces dislodged the jihadists that had turned that city into a hell on earth comprised of human slaughterhouses, torture chambers and weapons factories, where car bombs and suicide bombing vests were manufactured and stored to be used elsewhere in the country.
Now in Fallujah, an Iraqi-elected government is in charge and a certain semblance of normalcy can be felt. Security is improving and increasingly handled by Iraqi forces, led by Iraqi decision-makers. Even the public utilities are on the mend.
Marines working with city leaders told me that a new biohazard disposal incinerator was installed at a nearby medical facility; a chlorination facility was installed to fight the spread of cholera; and an information brief board was erected to improve communications among the citizens, government leaders and U.S. support elements. It is a far cry from a year ago, when the charred bodies of Americans were strung up from bridge girders and the hospitals were used as terrorist command centers.
In Fallujah, there is no doubt that progress is being made. Today, similar efforts to clean out terrorist encampments are taking place elsewhere in the country. Operation Matador is taking place in al Qaim and the surrounding area, and with some added elements of help, will turn this area into a success story, just as was done in Fallujah.
Here, Marines are precision warriors fighting against a ferocious enemy. In the first 48 hours of Operation Matador, U.S. forces took out more than 100 enemy fighters in and around the city of al Qaim. But it's not just Iraqis opposing U.S. forces. According to Marine Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, commander of the Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment, there are "some local fighters, but a lot of foreigners also."
Marine Capt. Joseph Arico, fire-support coordinator for RCT-2, told me: "The enemy is a group that does not want the Iraqi people to be free. They're suppressing them, and they're doing their damndest to prevent anyone from forming the government that (the Iraqis) are trying to establish." Arico continued, "From what I see, the foreigners provide the training and get the individual Iraqis who don't want this government established to work against us." Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that the jihadists "are in uniform, wearing protective vests, and their training exceeds what we have seen with other engagements further east."
The jihadists that were able to get out of Fallujah fled west, to the area around al Qaim. This vast western region of Iraq, bordering Syria, has been devoid of governmental control since long before Saddam's statue was pulled down. And therein is the main problem and the suggestion for fixing it. Where the new Iraqi government and security forces are able to take control, situations are improving. That dynamic must be brought here to al Qaim.
First, the Senate must quickly confirm Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq, so that he can more effectively facilitate communications between American military forces, the new Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces. The political clout of the ambassador will help the Iraqi authorities to establish a government presence in this region. Such a presence is desperately needed to improve security in the area that just saw the kidnapping of Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi, the brave governor of al Anbar province.
The presence of a U.S. ambassador will also help our fighting forces who are rooting out these deeply entrenched jihadists and shutting down the "ratlines" that supply the insurgency in other parts of the country.
Our Marines have improved the situation in Fallujah -- they are in the process of doing the same in al Qaim. With due support, they will leave Iraq better than they found it.