- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

“What do you want for Christmas?” the young Marine asked. It was the middle of the night and we stood atop a heavily sandbagged “strongpoint” known as “Outpost Horea” in downtown Ramadi, Iraq — long the bloodiest city in that very bloody country. In the dark, the Iraqi soldier standing watch beside the American looked toward us as a cold breeze rustled through the camouflage netting over our heads.

“What do I want for Christmas?” I repeated, somewhat surprised by the question. “I want you to get home safely.”

The 21-year old Tennessean, girded in 65 pounds of armored flak jacket, night-vision equipped helmet, grenades and several hundred rounds of ammunition reflected on that for a moment and replied, “So do I.”

Then, quietly, from the young Iraqi soldier beside us, words in broken English that stunned me: “As do I — but not too soon.”

That exchange just a few days ago in Iraq reflects a dramatic transition sweeping this wartorn country and a fraction of the good news so underreported from the war on terror.

While politicians and the mainstream media here at home focus on negative news, and attacks on President Bush, young Americans and their Iraqi counterparts quietly go about the dangerous task of building a new nation from the ashes of Saddam’s dictatorship and the ravages of Jihadist terror.

During six prior trips to Iraq, the cooperation between the U.S. military and the soldiers of the new Iraqi government was never so evident as now. In Ramadi, the former terrorist stronghold, American and Iraqi troops now live and operate side by side — sharing the hardships and dangers that once were the sole purview of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. All this bodes ill for the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose al Qaeda in Iraq failed to prevent this month’s legislative elections.

The new government of Iraq, now forming in Baghdad, is an imperfect democracy in its early stages. Though less vulnerable than before to homicidal suicide terrorists and makers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it could still be undone — not by Jihadists seeking to exploit Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish rivalries — but by partisan political fratricide and a failure of will in the United States. The young warriors manning lonely outposts in Ramadi would be shocked to learn opponents of the Bush administration condemn the president for eavesdropping on terrorist phone calls and insist on an “immediate” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Though much of the press, most Democrats and too many weak-kneed Republicans claim to see few gains in Iraq, it is amply evident to those serving there. Many of the soldiers, sailors and Marines with whom I was embedded on this trip to the war are on their second, third or even fourth tour of duty in the war on terror. Their sense of purpose and accomplishment is as palpable as the danger they face and it pervades every level of command. In this holiday season, they especially miss their families and loved ones back home, but appreciated last week’s visit from Vice President Dick Cheney who also traveled to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, with a simple message: “With Christmas and Hanukkah just around the corner, I wanted to come and let you know how impressed we’ve been with the tremendous progress you’ve made.”

That was certainly the sense of the troops and combat commanders I spent time with on this trip. Col. John Gronski, commanding officer of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, of the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit out of Pennsylvania told our Fox News camera, “We’re seeing some great inroads… at the very least we’ve got the people of Ramadi, the Coalition forces and as you saw, the Iraqi Army leadership sitting down together in a room and sharing ideas on how to make the security situation better.”

When I asked Lt. Col. Roger Turner, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, now on his second tour in Iraq, to reflect on the sacrifice made by so many in this war, he responded: “Sure this is still a dangerous place. But we’re making it safer every day. We have an extraordinary stake in a safe, secure and democratic Iraq. This isn’t the time to stop.”

Meanwhile, here at home, the president’s critics demand the impossible.

No one election and no single act of government will turn Iraq from violence to peace overnight. Even the birth of our Lord and Savior did not end violence. After the Baby Jesus was born, King Herod, after being duped by the Wise Men, ordered the execution of all males under 2 years of age to “ensure” the death of the One who could challenge Herod’s authority.

“Good will on Earth and peace toward men,” is the message of Christmas. It is a goal toward which men and women of good will work, and for which we pray. Nobody wants peace more than the young American warriors serving in harm’s way in Iraq. They know what the politicians in Washington and the potentates of the press seem to have missed: that progress toward peace must be judged over time.

These troops have been away from family and friends for many months and look forward to coming home — but not before their job is finished. Supporting their mission as we pray for their safety would be wonderful gifts this Christmas season.

Oliver North, a nationally syndicated columnist, is host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel and co-founder of Freedom Alliance, a foundation that offers scholarships to dependents of military personnel killed in action.

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