RAMADI, Iraq -- "We're here to win." That's how a U.S. Marine corporal put it when I asked him what he was doing in Iraq. He spoke looking squarely into our TV camera -- a more intimidating experience for him than the RPG fire he had just faced on the streets of this beleaguered city. When I pressed this 20-year-old from the heartland of America to tell me what "winning" meant to him, he was straightforward: "That's when these people don't need me to guard this street so their kids can go to school -- when they can do it themselves."
The young corporal and I were standing outside a small elementary school in this shattered city, the capital of the largest province in Iraq. Al Qaeda terrorists had told local authorities -- on pain of death -- not to allow this female academic institution to un-shutter its doors. Apparently, little girls learning math and science pose a significant threat to radical Islamic jihadists.
Defiant parents appealed to the newly reconstituted Iraqi police for protection from the terrorists, and the police turned to Lt. Col. Bill Jurney, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. The little school is in his "A/O" (area of operations) in downtown Ramadi -- a city of more than 400,000.
Jurney told the police that if they would man a new security sub-station in the same block as the school, his Marines would "back-stop" the cops. Despite murderous threats from Al Qaeda thugs, the police agreed. Aided by U.S. Navy Seabees, soldiers of the "Ready First" Combat Brigade of the 1st Armored Division and the Marines of 1/6, a police sub-station was constructed, literally overnight, in an abandoned building.
When the terror cell that had ruled this neighborhood for months attacked the new Iraqi police post, their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jabbar Inad al Namrawee, led an all-Iraqi QRF (quick reaction force) into the battle. In the ensuing gunfight, Jabbar was shot through the calf by an AK-47-wielding terrorist. By the time the battle was done, more than a dozen terrorists were dead and the police, who call themselves "The sons of al Anbar," earned new respect from Ramadi's war-weary civilians.
Now, little more than a week after the fight, Jabbar is back at work, with fresh scars on his leg. His policemen patrol this neighborhood's streets, the little school has re-opened and Jurney's Marines are providing pencils, notebooks and backpacks to the children, as well as kerosene to heat their classrooms.
Opening police stations and girls' schools on the mean streets of Ramadi may not appear to be great victories to the critics of this war. But they are precisely the kind of events that need to happen countless times for the United States to claim victory in Iraq. Maj. Scott Kish, who leads the Civil Affairs Group attached to 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, notes that these actions "spawn success" because they "encourage Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny."
Getting the people of Iraq to take charge of their own destiny hasn't been easy. Though the Iraqi people voted in overwhelming numbers in last December's national elections, no one in Mesopotamia -- other than exiles who have returned since Saddam's demise -- has experienced living in a democracy. Western institutions of civil governance and discourse are as unfamiliar to the people here as the language spoken by their liberators. It has been an especially difficult transition in al Anbar -- long a stronghold of Sunni opposition to U.S. forces and more recently, the democratically elected Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
After the all-out, U.S.-led fight for Fallujah in 2004, Ramadi became the home base for Al Qaeda, and the call to civil war. Everyone here -- Americans, Iraqis and foreign-supported terrorists -- knows that if Ramadi can be secured, half the battle for the future of Iraq will have been won.
Despite reports in the U.S. media to the contrary -- the week we arrived in Ramadi a Washington Post headline blared "Anbar Picture Grows Clearer, and Bleaker" -- the war here is being won. A predominantly Shia army and the Sunni police now man a Joint Coordination Center with their U.S. Army and Marine counterparts. Terrorists who once engaged in hours-long gunfights with U.S. units have been reduced to planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and occasional sniper, rocket and mortar attacks. Ramadi is still a dangerous place, but less so today than in any of our five previous trips to this city.
The Iraqis and Americans working together in Ramadi have no doubt that they can prevail in this fight. But privately, they wonder if Baghdad and Washington have that same vision. One U.S. officer told me, "the Iraqi security forces have plenty of courage, but some of their troops and cops out here haven't been paid for three months. Their problems are getting beans, bullets, Band-Aids and bucks from Baghdad."
Helping the Iraqis overcome those "five B's" must become a priority for Washington. Brave young American riflemen have shown the Iraqis how to fight and protect civilians. Now the civil leadership in Baghdad needs to be shown how to keep its own troops fed, equipped and paid. Only then can U.S. troops be sure that they really are winning.