RAMADI, Iraq–Our men and women in uniform, doing extraordinary work day in and day out, are winning the ongoing battle for Iraq. Some days, in some places, the battlefront requires house-to-house searches, military "hardware" and courageous actions by the most awe-inspiring fighting force the world has ever known. I witnessed the tenacity and skill of our Marines, soldiers and sailors firsthand in the recent Operation Matador. Other days, in other places–and more commonly–the battle is won with a smile, a shared canteen, a soccer ball, a "human experience," heart to heart. America’s men and women in uniform are so remarkable because they play the dual roles of warrior and diplomat in the midst of a constant struggle between life and death.
Just the other day, Marine Lt. Dave Russell, a veteran of the recent Operation Matador, told me, "We get along very well with the Iraqi people. The children are always running up to us, looking for candy, pencils, footballs, whatever you want, and our interaction with the Iraqi populace on a whole has been extremely positive." Just a few weeks ago, Army Maj. Mark Bieger sent a U.S. helicopter on a life-flight mission in a vain attempt to save a young girl, a victim of a terrorist attack in Mosul. That helicopter could have been needed for force protection or medevac for U.S. troops. Bieger, husband and father of three, took the risk because he valued that one young Iraqi life so much. The Iraqi people have come to trust our troops–that we do not intend to stay any longer than necessary; that we desire to help them be self-sufficient and leave as soon as possible.
One remarkable development is the role in security and policing operations performed by Iraqi men who desire peace and who share the black-and-white, "peace or death," view of the First Battalion, Fifth Regiment. When I was last here eight short months ago, Iraqis were beginning to be trained. Today, Iraqis man check points and take part in patrols with U.S. forces and our Marines have come to trust their Iraqi "brothers" to "watch my back." I asked one young Marine corporal who had just returned from one such joint patrol about how the Iraqi soldiers were working out. "Better than I expected, sir," came the response.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his band of roving terrorists remain a threat, in large part because they are supported and promoted in mosques here in Iraq and throughout the region–Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia–by imams who hate the freedom they see taking root in Iraq and anyone–Muslim or not–who supports it. They concoct stories of American atrocities against Muslims–or they just read Newsweek–to recruit kids to go blow themselves to smithereens in an Iraqi marketplace, in the ghastly hope of taking a few peace-loving fellow Muslims–or possibly a few Americans–with them. In a new level of depravity, the terrorists have taken to videotaping the self-destruction of their own youth and the ensuing mayhem, seemingly to be used later as propaganda to recruit the next batch of suicide bombers.
But this wave of violence, real as it is, represents neither the people, nor the future, of Iraq. The people of Iraq see it contrasted against the hope Americans bring, and they are siding with us. This violence is a "hearts and minds" campaign, aimed at the all-too-eager international media, itching for a story to show how the Americans are "failing" and to dishearten freedom’s allies.
It won’t work. During Operation Matador, I asked Marine Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, commanding officer of the Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment, if he thought the terrorists actually had a hope or if they were acting out of desperation. He told me, "It’s more desperation than anything. They know that things are going well in other parts of Iraq and they think it’s time to make a last-ditch effort out here, and it’s my job to make sure they don’t succeed."
Thanks to the professionalism, dedication, skill and incredible character of the men and women wearing the uniform of the U.S. military, he’s got a good chance.
The United States still does not have an ambassador in Baghdad, a vacancy that hampers communications and coordination between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, but in the battle for the people of Iraq, our men and women in uniform–in the towns and on the front lines–are our best ambassadors. Our Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen rescue wounded comrades; weep openly over loss; pass out candy, teddy bears and soccer balls; and share their food, water, hugs, smiles, and dreams for a better future for all God’s children. They are the best ambassadors we have, and they are doing yeoman’s work in assuring a brighter future here in this dusty, unforgiving land. Marine Staff Sgt. Darin Patterson of the Fifth Civil Affairs Group said, "it’s always a step forward, whether it’s just one 1 or 2 inches, it has to start somewhere." It starts in the heart of an American — the dedicated, tenacious, devoted, tender heart of an American.