On April 9, 2003, an Associated Press photographer caught Saddam Hussein's statue falling in Baghdad's Firdos Square while Marine Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch smoked a celebratory cigar in the foreground. It was an "Iwo Jima" image of the Iraq War.
Like the successful assault on the heavily defended island in World War II, the taking of Baghdad represented an important victory with lots of hard work yet to be done. The U.S. assault, launched just 19 days earlier from the Kuwaiti border, was the most effective takedown of a heavily defended regime in the history of the world. Sustaining less than 200 fatal U.S. casualties, the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and the 1st Marine Division, with lots of help from the Air Force and Navy, spearheaded the drive, slashing through and around Saddam's divisions at high speed.
Approaching Baghdad, Jim Mattis' Marines and Buford Blount's soldiers "head-faked" an attack from the south and drove into Saddam's capital from the flanks. In the end, Army Col. Dave Perkins went beyond the permission given by his bosses and drove his armored task force, called the "Wild Bunch," in a "thunder run" right into the nerve center of Saddam's government. Within hours, the Baghdad government had evaporated. Col. Perkins and his Marine counterparts had established a formula that would carry the United States through five years of an excruciating occupation, until final victory in 2008.
The formula for victory required equal parts courage, endurance and ingenuity. The Americans' courage was as magnificent as that exhibited in any war this nation has fought. When Sgt. 1st Class Paul N. Smith died at his machine gun, holding off hundreds of attackers at Baghdad's Airport; when Cpl. Marco Martinez wiped out an enemy squad single-handedly; when Pvt. Dwayne Turner, a medic, after being shot twice, continued to treat his wounded soldiers until he collapsed; when Staff Sgt. David Bellavia became a fighting machine in Fallujah, ending his battle with a knife fight; when Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe continued to rescue his soldiers from a burning Bradley tank while he himself was on fire; when Cpl. Kip Yeager pulled his dying comrades from doorways in Anbar province's deadly towns and finished their fight with his M-4, America's fighters as easily could have been at Normandy or Guadalcanal or Hue City.
In the Iraq War, raw courage was the foundation of America's victory. More than 1 million Americans served. Some saw fighting on a daily basis. For others, heat, separation from loved ones and long hours were the elements of sacrifice. The war required an element of endurance that was unprecedented in modern times. Many Americans served multiple tours. Some tours were extended. Yet while the "experts" at think tanks predicted that the Army and Marines would "break" from the multiple battle tours, our uniformed citizens proved them wrong. They fought with grim purpose long after a good piece of the nation's politicians and media leaders had abandoned the war.
In the end, it was U.S. ingenuity and character that won the Iraq War. In 2004, when the Marine attack was halted in Fallujah and al Qaeda swarmed into Anbar province like rats to a dump, the Sunni insurgency hit full flame. Yet two years and hundreds of firefights later, the Sunni tribes abandoned their al Qaeda allies and joined America's forces to wipe out al Qaeda. They "awakened" in the fall of 2006, or, more precisely, chose the Americans over al Qaeda. Their choice was logical. While their al Qaeda "allies" took the tribes' women, imposed taxes on them and killed recalcitrant tribal leaders, the Americans followed firefights with the distribution of humanitarian aid.
Marines and soldiers inoculated babies, stocked Anbar's lakes with fish and built clean-water facilities and schools. Notwithstanding Western Iraq's move to the American side in early 2007, Congress moved to the anti-war side, and Capitol Hill's liberals waited for President George W. Bush to throw in the towel like a contrite President Johnson in 1968 or a browbeaten President Ford in 1975. But Mr. Bush, whose legacy would be defined by the word tenacity, refused to quit and "surged" five additional brigades into eastern Iraq in the spring of 2007. The surge supported Gens. David H. Petraeus and Raymond T. Odierno in their campaign to secure the neighborhoods of Baghdad against the Shiite and Sunni "wolf packs" that were paralyzing the city and the government. The surge worked, keeping U.S. and Iraqi troops up-close and personal in the troubled neighborhoods.
When Gen. Petraeus reported that huge drop in violence and Iraq's progress in September 2007, anti-war presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph R. Biden and Barack Obama went limp on the subject of the surge. The war was the president's, Gen. Pretraeus' and their troops' to win. They won.
The last impediment to Iraq's nationhood was extremist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Mr. al-Sadr seized Iraq's oil center, the city of Basra, in early 2008. The American-trained 1st Iraqi Division, aided by U.S. airpower, went to Basra and wiped out Mr. al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The Washington Post and New York Times had predicted an al-Sadr victory in Basra.
Instead, his forces were smashed and massive tonnages of Iranian-made weaponry were seized. Following his whipping at Basra, Mr. al-Sadr received just 5.9 percent of the vote in the national elections, while Nouri al-Maliki, derided by The Washington Post and New York Times, won overwhelmingly. It was a capper for those newspapers, which in 2003 had predicted a bog-down in the attack on Baghdad just a few days before the city fell. In 2006, they had declared that Anbar province was lost just three days after the Sunni tribes awakened and switched to the American side. For five years, the war was marked by the papers proclaiming defeat early and often.
The final disservice to America's troops since they won the Iraq War has been the lack of acknowledgment of victory by these two American publications, the popular media and the White House. Now, against a backdrop of turbulence in the Middle East, Iraq's status as a friend of the United States with a representative government and a dislike for al Qaeda accrues to the benefit of America's security and economic interests.
The victory in Iraq takes on more shine with each passing day. We have more than 1 million Americans to thank, more than 4,000 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. They are the men and women who wore our nation's uniforms at a difficult time, in a dangerous place.
Former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in 2003-07. He is author of "Victory in Iraq" (Genesis Press, 2010).
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