Welcome to Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq-Welcome to Baghdad. The pictures broadcast in the United States and around the world last week showing the Iraqi people, with the help of U.S. Marines, tearing down Firdos Square’s 40-foot statue of the dictator who brutalized this country for 24 years were magnificent.

But those pictures are only symbolic of the real appreciation that is being showered upon U.S. forces by the Iraqi people in this capital city and around the country.

While we are proud to be liberating another people from tyranny, it is still difficult for us, as Americans, to appreciate the relief and exhilaration of the Iraqi people who have suffered under this brutal regime for so long. Imagine living every day in fear of imprisonment, torture, rape and execution. These people were unable to speak, write or travel freely and lived with the constant fear that the secret police might-for little or no reason-snatch you up in the middle of the night.

Homemade Flags

Those who met such a fate were either executed, or thrown in squalid prison cells for months only to be tortured by having their feet beaten, hooked up to battery cables, deprived of food and water, and, if sleep was permitted, it was only in their own waste. Imagine having your children taken from you or your daughter summoned to one of Saddam’s son’s palaces only to have her innocence violently stolen. Under Saddam, too many Iraqis suffered the indignity of having their children imprisoned or being forced to watch their wives being raped. Imagine living under such fear and repression one day and the next day being liberated from it.

Maybe that explains why leaders of the Baath Party that carried out such brutality are now, in some cases, the targets of retribution. Some have had their homes looted or businesses taken over. Others are not as fortunate. In Baghdad, a Baath Party official was hanging from a light pole on a street corner. He had a placard around his neck indicating that could be the fate for others if they are caught.

But mostly, the Iraqi people are celebrating their liberation by welcoming the Marines and other U.S. forces with open arms. I was with the 5th and 7th Marines as they entered Baghdad and were greeted by little kids walking up to them and handing them flowers. It is one of the most moving things I’ve seen so far in this war-children greeting their liberators with flowers and homemade American flags. We’ve seen it several times and it’s the kind of thing that gets you choked up because the people are so thrilled to get rid of this brutal regime.

So much so that the intelligence the Marines have received hasn’t only been from the U.S. government, but also from Iraqi civilians who volunteer it. In Baghdad, and along the road to the capital, the Marines have been meeting civilians who give them information regarding the locations of weapons caches, Republican Guard forces, Baath Party leaders and other fighters. Special Operations personnel are working with the internal resistance and locals have shown up to warn Marines about nearby Fedayeen and expose their positions.

At this writing, organized resistance from Iraqi units has almost ceased to exist. We’ve seen some of Saddam’s regular forces drive their anti-aircraft guns, armored vehicles and artillery pieces to fields and other places where they park them, abandon them, and walk home.

The U.S. military now controls the countryside. We were up in four armed helicopters this week-two Hueys and two Cobras-looking for targets of opportunity, which must be confirmed enemy positions, armor, or other enemy resources. The Marines shot up half-a-dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers and a few anti-aircraft sites and returned with most of their ammunition. There are fewer targets in the countryside outside of Baghdad and almost nothing left to shoot at except the so-called Fedayeen.

That’s not to say it is safe-it’s not. It is largely the Fedayeen who are keeping this country from freedom and in many cases the Fedayeen are not even Iraqi-they’ve been identified as Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi and even Sudanese and Somalis. They have gone through the so-called Salman Pak education center-a terrorist training camp in southern Baghdad and the Iraqi civilians are referring to them as “the foreigners.”

The Marines still have a lot of work to do here before they can go home. But their morale is high and they are ready for the task. When I spoke to Major Craig Watson, the operations officer for the 3rd battalion, 5th Marines, he said that although they have been engaged regularly since crossing the border, “the Marines have done an outstanding job. I just can’t say enough about their performance here.” The people of Iraq are saying the same thing.