Back to Iraq (First in a Series)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way — packing up for an eighth trip to document the war in Iraq. The war I’m going back to was supposed to be over by now. I’ve said as much in this column and on the air in hundreds of broadcasts for FOX News Channel while embedded with U.S. and Iraqi troops. But it’s not over.

At this time of the year I should be running through a mall with my wife of 38 years, Christmas shopping for our eight grandchildren. Instead, I’m running through an equipment checklist with my field producer, Andy Stenner and combat cameraman, Mal James.

Essential personal gear has changed remarkably little in the nearly four decades since I started packing up for war. Each of us carry a 45-pound flak jacket with four ceramic plates, a Kevlar helmet, desert tan combat boots, four pairs of socks, four green T-shirts, two sets of field clothing, flame-proof Nomex coveralls and gloves, a poncho-liner, ballistic eye protection, CamelBak water bag, first-aid kit, web belt, shaving gear, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tiny blue-lens Sure-Fire flashlights and extra batteries. All of this is jammed into our backpacks.

Broadcast equipment — cameras, computers, satellite telephones and transceivers, solar panels, charging devices, power inverters, connectors, tools and seemingly miles of multi-colored wires — are all carefully stowed in five hard Pelican cases. We’ve packed up and moved this stuff so often in Iraq and Afghanistan we can now offload all 375 pounds and 44 cubic feet in less than a minute from a helicopter on a dusty LZ in the middle of the night, and be ready to "go live" from a gunfight a quarter-hour later.

When our combat coverage team left Ramadi, Iraq last December, there was reason to hope that things were going to turn out all right. The Iraqi people had pulled off a largely peaceful and remarkably successful election. A democratically elected government — the first in Mesopotamia’s long history — was expected to take charge in Baghdad and bring political reconciliation, stability and economic recovery. But it didn’t.

In February, Sunni terrorists destroyed the famous Golden Mosque in Samarra — a revered Shia shrine. Within days, the Mahdi Army — Moqtada Al Sadr’s private Shiite militia, supported — some say directed — by Tehran, was back on the streets killing Sunnis. By last August, when thermometers along the Tigris and Euphrates pegged the dial at 130 degrees, it was apparent that things weren’t working the way they were supposed to in Baghdad, or elsewhere.

When the al-Maliki government failed to respond to the explosion in Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence, things could only get worse — and they have. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. elections, there was a near total breakdown of law and order in the Iraqi capital. Then, last week, a classified Marine intelligence report leaked to the media estimated that U.S. and Iraqi forces are "no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in Al Anbar province."

Neither this leak, nor its bleak assessment, should come as a surprise to anyone. Opponents of the Bush administration have been leaking with impunity whatever they deem necessary — no matter how highly classified — in order to bring down this administration. Unfortunately, it’s equally apparent that the White House, Pentagon and State Department — focusing on globe-spanning mini-summits from Asia to NATO to the Middle East — failed to embrace a simple reality in the Marine intelligence report: The war in Iraq cannot be won by military means alone.

The Marines and soldiers we will join in Al Anbar win every battle. There is no Baathist, Sunni, Shiite, jihadist, or Muslim Brotherhood militia, no terror organization or "insurgent group" that can beat U.S. Army soldiers or U.S. Marines in a gunfight anywhere in Iraq. But our troops have scant support from any other part of the U.S. government. Only our military is on a "war footing."

Up to now, this war has been fought almost exclusively by soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines. U.S. Navy Sea Bees and Army engineers — not skilled professionals from the U.S. Department of Energy — are repairing pipelines and hooking up wires to help rebuild Iraq’s oil and electrical infrastructure. Marines and soldiers — not experts from the Department of Education — are opening schools and stocking them with textbooks. National Guardsmen from America’s heartland — not specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — are helping Iraqi farmers find better ways of feeding their countrymen.

Engaging the rest of the U.S. government in winning this war has to become a priority for the Bush administration. And, as President Bush emphasized firsthand in this week’s nearly aborted meeting with Prime Minister al-Maliki in Amman, time is not an ally for either government.

The Baghdad government must urgently assert control over renegade militias, initiate political reconciliation and put in place institutions of government that both provide security for the Iraqi people and protect their civil liberties. It’s a tall order. But unless they rise to the necessity, a successful end to this war will be problematic.