- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

RAMADI, Iraq.

“The terrorists’ goal is to hamper police work, terrorize our citizens and show that the government is unable to protect the Iraqi people,” said Hamid Bayati, a deputy foreign minister in the interim Iraqi government. The terrorists had detonated a car bomb in Baqouba, a town about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad last week, killing 70 civilians and injuring dozens. To show his resolve and that of his fellow Iraqis, Mr. Bayati declared the terrorists’ hoped-for outcome “will not happen.”

The bombing in Baghdad was aimed at a group waiting outside a police station — potential recruits for the Iraqi police force. Because these recruits, once trained, will patrol the streets, gather intelligence, provide security and confiscate weapons, they represent a direct threat to the terrorists, who only want chaos. Therefore, the recruits, like interim officals restoring order and building democracy in Iraq, become targets. It’s a sign of desperation and, frankly, a sign progress is being made to build the institutions of government to serve the Iraqi people.

Here in Ramadi, the Iraqi police force and national guard are out in force. They are doing a much better job, and they have noticeably progressed since I was here in April. They patrol streets, guard checkpoints and search neighborhoods to root out and capture insurgents. They grow more effective every day, thanks to their training by the Marines and other police and security units with the coalition forces.

The Iraqi national guard and police make up two of the four Iraqi security forces. Since the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June, there seems to be more progress, and the police and guard are taking more responsibility and pride in their work.

As one Marine put it, “The Iraqi police realize it is up to them to provide safety and security for their fellow citizens,” so it gives them incentive.

In Ramadi, the hard work is paying off. Yes, it’s still dangerous, and more security forces are needed. But the Iraqis who have been through training and now patrol the streets get better at their jobs every day. They are learning to provide their own security, and the Marines have taken a lot of terrorists and weapons off the streets.

Last week, I reported on what was probably the biggest gunfight the Marines have seen in this part of Iraq since April. It began during a routine patrol along the main highway near the government center when an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated to start an ambush on a Marine convoy. The firefight lasted more than four hours and resulted in nearly 75 enemy insurgents being killed, captured or wounded.

But Ramadi is a study in contrasts. Marines and soldiers engaged the enemy in a violent gunfight one day, but the next day was quiet. Marines went out on a much more typical patrol in Ramadi, and it turned out to be a very calm day. That same city in which troops were targeted just 24 hours earlier, was peaceful and still. Locals walked around the streets, opening their shops and greeting U.S. forces warmly. In fact, a few Iraqis even offered us vegetables.

I asked Cpl. Jared McKenzie — the 1st Section leader of the 3rd Mobile Assault Platoon in Weapons Company — about that. Cpl. McKenzie and his unit came to Iraq in February from Camp Pendleton. He estimates that since his arrival, he has been on about 150 patrols, which means he and his fellow Marines don’t get much downtime.

Cpl. McKenzie told me most patrols do not involve gunfights — but are uneventful and calm. “Sometimes it can be confusing, but you just have to be aware of what may happen,” Cpl. McKenzie said. “We go out there every day ready for whatever comes our way. We’re infantry, so this is what the Marine Corps trained us to do. They taught us to always be prepared.”

I asked Cpl. McKenzie if those infrequent, but sudden transitions from peace to violence affect morale. He said, “Morale is very good. In our platoon, we work as a family, as one unit.”

Morale was boosted further two weeks ago when Gen. Michael Hagee, the commandant of the Marine Corps, visited his Marines in Iraq. I asked Sgt. Michael Williams of Weapons Company, here since February, how important that visit was.

“It was extremely important to morale and to all the Marines. It reminded us that the people back home really support us, especially our higher-ups,” Sgt. Williams said.

When I spoke to the commandant, he showed great pride in his Marines. Their job, he said, “is difficult. But, are they making a difference? Are they helping the Iraqis to help themselves? Absolutely,” he said. “And, if you call that winning, then we probably are.”

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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