Midnight Tuesday, found me at a base in Kuwait, waiting for a plane to Iraq. Due to the nature of the military flight and security concerns, the exact take-off time isn’t posted until the last moment. So one inevitably spends hours in limbo waiting for the word. It was twilight by the time we got off the ground. I caught about forty-five minutes sleep on the cramped, bumpy plane ride, and when the ramp went down again, the sun was shining in Iraq. It was almost exactly as I remembered it. Lots of sand and even more concrete than the last time, cast in all shapes and sizes from t-walls to various forms of blast shelters, gates, houses, towers, even fence posts. Except for a little graffiti (in English) they are unpainted. dust coated everything, including the inside of my mucous membranes.
We found our gear and waited for a ride. Eventually, our escort arrived and we loaded into his SUV for the short ride to camp victory. On the way, we passed the remnants of saddam’s bunkers and palaces, one of which stands noticeably unfinished, surrounded by construction cranes. “That’s the one Saddam called ‘the Victory Over America Palace.'” our escort explains. It looks like the former dictator had been a little too optimistic.
A half hour later we were dropping our gear inside the camp victory Media Operations Center, and had barely had time to sit down when a two-star general showed up. His name is Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of Task Force Marne, about twenty thousand troops making up the “Multi-National Division Center.” based at Camp Victory. The commander briefed us briefly on the progress they are making in his territory, an area roughly the size of West Virginia which stretches from the Iranian Border southwest of Baghdad to Kirkuk. In the last week, there have been zero casualties for the first time – not just zero coalition deaths, but zero Americans wounded. That’s the first time this has happened since the war started in Iraq almost five years ago.
The reason for this progress is twofold. First, Task Force Marne has been agressively rooting out and destroying the remaining elements of Al Qaeda in their area. In the last month, they’ve rounded up more than fifty suspected Al Qaeda, disabled ten IED’s and established a presence in several areas once considered to be extremist safe havens.
The second reason is directly linked to the first. Keeping AQ’s head down has given the local citizens some breathing room – and they’ve used it to form new “concerned citizen’s groups” around the area. These groups are taking a stand against their enemies – the insurgents – by cooperating with the coalition and even patrolling their own streets without direct U.S. assistance. It’s exactly what the military has been hoping for – Iraqis taking responsibility for their futures – proof that American forces may be working themselves out of a job.
But there is more fighting left to do. As the General was giving us a tour today of one of several new patrol bases that have been established to support the local population, word came in from a local that a dump truck parked nearby was wired with explosives – before the Americans were notified, Iraqi security forces got the word and went to check it out. That is significant in that they took the initiative without immediately coming to us. It shows they are feeling more comfortable in their role as the protectors of their country.
Sure enough, the truck’s cab was lined with explosives and wired to detonate if anyone opened the door.
The Iraqi forces then came to the Americans, who assisted them in destroying the threat with a hand-carried portable anti-tank missle. Frustrated insurgents, watching from somewhere nearby, fired a volley of shots at the Americans then fled. The vehicle went up in a cloud of thick black smoke, and the terrorists fled.
It was interesting watching the reaction of the locals when the shooting started. We were a half mile or so down the road interviewing the leader of the Concerned Local Citizens group when the sound of gunfire reached us. Before that, the street had been teeming with children and Iraqi laborers had been busy working to convert an old livery to a medical clinic. When the shooting started, everyone quickly ran inside a building, leaving only the soldiers remaining in the street.
After five years of war, the Iraqi people are nothing if not well-trained.
Well, It’s now 8pm, and I’ve been awake pretty much constantly since six am – the day before yesterday. So I’m going to sign off and get some sleep.