Baqouba, Iraq — It is nearly Christmas and most of the young Americans with whom we have spent this month of December are going to miss the holiday with their families.
For many, it is their third nativity season away from home since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003. Though you may not have noticed it beneath your tree, the troops here have sent you a gift that is far more valuable than a new hand tool or iPod. It’s a present that they made by hand, with extraordinary care so that you can use it every day for the rest of your life — and that your children can use after you are gone.
Haven’t heard about this gift? It’s no wonder. As things turned around here in the “land between the rivers” — Iraq disappeared from America’s televisions and dropped off the front pages of our newspapers.
When our FOX News team was here in Iraq exactly a year ago, Sheikh Sattar — the chief instigator of the Sunni “Awakening” — was still alive and the citizens of Al Anbar Province were just beginning to cooperate with Coalition Forces. Last December, the city of Ramadi had a well-deserved reputation as the most violent place on the planet. The streets were full of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and there were daily attacks against U.S. soldiers and Marines by snipers, mortars, rockets, and roadside bombs. At home, Republicans had taken a drubbing in the Congressional elections and the “experts” had decided that Iraq was descending into an abyss of sectarian conflict.
The masters of the mainstream media contended that the campaign in Iraq was “lost.” The Associated Press, in a piece headlined, “Many U.S. Troops in Iraq Oppose Escalation,” baldly stated that we were “embroiled in civil warfare between majority Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that no number of American troops can stop.” America’s newspapers and television screens were full of stories about U.S. and Iraqi casualties and liberal partisans were demanding that President Bush “bring the troops home — now!”
Then, in February, the first U.S. “surge” troops arrived in Iraq. Within weeks, U.S. casualties spiked — and the potentates of the press proclaimed that the additional troops were “too little too late.” Radical Islamic web sites agreed — and predicted that the toll of dead and wounded would force the Americans to abandon Iraq just as they quit Vietnam, Beirut and Somalia. Osama bin Laden declared that the “American infidels” were being “driven from Mesopotamia.”
They were all wrong. So was I. In January, 2006, after nearly a month embedded with U.S. troops in Al Anbar Province, I had written — and said on FOX News — that “dispatching more combat troops to Iraq isn't the answer. Adding more trainers and helping the Iraqis to help themselves, is.” General Petraeus did both and it was exactly the right move. The “surge” in combat power – and trainers — has changed everything.
Since the beginning of December, 2007, we have been traversing the length and breadth of Iraq, interviewing hundreds of Americans and Iraqis — both civilian and military. In our travels, we have documented stunning progress in bringing security and civil law and order to this country. This week, Basra Province reverted to full Iraqi control as British troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq’s southernmost prefecture.
While we were in Baghdad we accompanied a U.S. trained and supported Iraqi Special Operations unit on a nighttime raid to apprehend a terror suspect — a feat that would have been impossible last year. In Fallujah, the former Al Qaeda stronghold, Iraqi police in blue uniforms watched as we stood on a residential street, rebuilt from the rubble of vicious urban combat. In Ramadi, where we previously dodged gunfire on multiple occasions, we dined with Sheikh Mohammad al Heiss, the new leader of the Sunni reconciliation movement and then went to the souk to buy Christmas presents for my grandchildren. On a street, where terrorists tried to kill us last year, we walked without flak jacket or helmet — something that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
“The momentum is in the right direction,” Major General Rick Lynch, Commanding General of Task Force Marne, told me — and his troops know it. This year the 3rd Infantry Division, perhaps the most committed unit is the U.S. Army, exceeded its reenlistment goal by a whopping 17 percent. As one young officer put it, “There is still fighting to be done, but the troops don’t ‘re-up’ for a losing battle.”
So, your Christmas present — the triumph we are now witnessing in Iraq — is not quite finished, but the troops are sending it to you anyway. This country’s neighbors are less than enthusiastic about a democracy next door. We have seen the sophisticated IEDs and rockets that Iran builds and sends into Iraq to kill and maim. Though Iraqi oil production now exceeds pre-2003 levels, the democratically-elected government in Baghdad isn’t doing enough to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. From the ground up, this country is being transformed more rapidly than anyone believed possible and America is gaining a new ally in the struggle against radical Islamic terror.
That’s your Christmas present this year from America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines here in the land between the rivers. In case you are wondering what this gift cost, know that it demanded extraordinary sacrifice requiring some to give all — and all to give some.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel and the founder of Freedom Alliance, a foundation that provides support for the troops and scholarships to the dependents of servicemen killed in the line of duty.
Lt. Col. Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. "Counterfeit Lies," is his novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North.