- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

Just days ago, I was in Iraq with Marines and soldiers who have left their families to defeat terrorists. They are defending America’s interests and safety, building a democracy and befriending the Iraqi people. It’s a difficult job, no doubt about it. These young men and women — America’s finest — work long hours of tough, physical labor in the hot sun, sometimes for days before they get to shower or sleep.

Most of these young Americans are in their early 20’s. They are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and the lives of their fellow soldiers and Marines. If that weren’t enough, they also carry on their shoulders the hopes and dreams of Iraqi citizens who yearn for freedom and safety after years of torture and oppression under Saddam Hussein. It’s a lot of responsibility for them. After all, the biggest decision of their peers back home is what movie to see on Friday night.

Yet they accept this responsibility willingly and carry out their difficult mission with a positive attitude and an optimism that has always embodied the American spirit.

Back home, there is nothing but a relentless stream of pessimism and criticism from the media and Congress who have put their indignation into high gear after seeing photographs of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The media’s “compassion” for these imprisoned miscreants and suspected terrorists is a front for their journalistic jihad against the administration.

Administration officials have rightly condemned the repugnant behavior at Abu Ghraib prison. President Bush called it “abhorrent.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was “totally unacceptable and un-American.” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “the president is sorry for what occurred.” Yet that is not enough. The piranhas in the press are calling for Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation. Liberal senators on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees — eager for the same media attention given to the September 11 Commission — rushed to the nearest television camera and demanded full-scale investigations. But their outrage seems directed more to score political points than to find the “truth.” Let’s face it, they have politicized the war in Iraq.

John Kerry made sure of that when he manipulated 1st Lt. Paul Rieckhoff into delivering the Democrat response to the president’s radio address last weekend. Lt. Rieckhoff, a guardsman who spent 12 months in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry, criticized Mr. Bush and his civilian leaders saying, “When we got to Baghdad, we soon found out that the people who planned this war were not ready for us. There were not enough vehicles, not enough ammunition, not enough medical supplies, not enough water…. There was not enough body armor, leaving my men to dodge bullets with Vietnam-era flak vests.”

“Mr. President, our mission is not accomplished,” Lt. Rieckhoff said in a war protest that was today’s equivalent of tossing your medals, er uh, ribbons — (what’s the difference, really) — over a fence.

Lt. Rieckhoff’s address was planned, facilitated and promoted by John Kerry’s presidential campaign. I don’t know what Lt. Rieckhoff’s experience was or wasn’t in Iraq, but in all the time I was there, I did not see what he saw. To the contrary — I saw armor save the lives of American soldiers and Marines. Morale was high, supplies sufficient.

And when Mr. Kerry was finished exploiting Lt. Rieckhoff, he climbed into the echo chamber and said he was “disturbed and troubled” by the “disgraceful” abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison and insisted the president immediately “owed the world an explanation” since the response of the administration has been “slow and inappropriate.”

Give John Kerry this much — he’s got chutzpah. It’s an interesting demand from a man who said he committed “atrocities” in Vietnam; knew of others who committed atrocities; and 30 years later has never explained himself, or explained why, as an officer, he failed to hold those accountable for crimes they supposedly committed.

The media feeding frenzy around the Abu Ghraib prison photos and Mr. Kerry’s exploitation of Lt. Rieckhoff create a false impression of is really happening widely in Iraq.

Over the past two years, I have spent nearly six months with U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. During the march to Baghdad last year, I saw hundreds of Iraqis taken prisoner — many of whom turned themselves in to American forces knowing they would fare better in U.S. custody than in Saddam’s army. They were all treated humanely.

In battle, I watched a Marine risk his life to rescue a wounded Iraqi woman. Troops in the units with which I was embedded treated the Iraqi people with dignity and respect.

U.S. forces have played soccer with the kids, befriended the Iraqi people, and built schools with supplies sent by the American public. I have seen Marines give their last Meals Ready to Eat to hungry Iraqi children.

I’ve also seen why these troops are in Iraq. I’ve looked into Saddam’s mass graves — a site that makes you sick to your stomach. I saw the videotaped evidence of atrocities committed by Saddam, Uday and Qusay — tapes showing innocent Iraqis having their tongues cut out, or being blindfolded, bound and marched off the edge of two- and three-story buildings. I saw Iraqi schools turned into ammunition depots and mosques used as bunkers.

After theSeptember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, I visited the Pentagon and Ground Zero at the World Trade Center in New York City. I’ve met some of the families whose lives changed forever that day.

Yes, some soldiers made mistakes at Abu Ghraib Prison. They will be held accountable, and rightfully so. But those mistakes are aberrations of the highest order compared to thousands of kindnesses U.S. troops show the Iraqi people daily. Let’s keep it in perspective and remember who the real enemy is.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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