- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

It wasn’t supposed to be this way — packing up for an eighth trip to document the war in Iraq. The war I’m going back to was supposed to be over by now. I’ve said as much in this column and on the air in hundreds of broadcasts for Fox News Channel while embedded with U.S. and Iraqi troops. But it’s not over.

At this time of year, I should be running through a mall with my wife, Christmas shopping for our eight grandchildren. Instead, I’m running through an equipment checklist with my field producer, Andy Stenner and combat cameraman, Mal James.

Essential personal gear has changed remarkably little in the nearly four decades since I started packing up for war. Each of us carry a 45-pound flak jacket with four ceramic plates, a Kevlar helmet, desert tan combat boots, four pairs of socks, four green T-shirts, two sets of field clothing, flame-proof Nomex coveralls and gloves, a poncho-liner, ballistic eye protection, camel-back water bag, first-aid kit, web-belt, shaving gear, baby-wipes, hand sanitizer, tiny blue-lens Sure-Fire flashlights and extra batteries. All this is jammed into our backpacks.

Broadcast equipment — cameras, computers, satellite telephones and transceivers, solar panels, charging devices, power inverters, connectors, tools and seemingly miles of multicolored wires — are all carefully stowed in five hard Pelican cases. We’ve packed up and moved this stuff so often in Iraq and Afghanistan we can now “offload” all 375 pounds and 44 cubic feet in less than a minute from a helicopter on a dusty LZ in the middle of the night — and be ready to “go live” from a gunfight a quarter-hour later.

When our combat coverage team left Ramadi, Iraq last December, there was reason to hope things would turn out all right. The Iraqi people had pulled off a largely peaceful and remarkably successful election. A democratically elected government — the first in Mesopotamia’s long history — was expected to take charge in Baghdad and bring political reconciliation, stability and economic recovery. But it didn’t.

In February, Sunni terrorists destroyed the famous Golden Mosque in Samarra — a revered Shia shrine. Within days, the Mahdi Army — Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s private Shi’ite militia, supported — some say directed — by Tehran, was back on the streets killing Sunnis. By last August, when thermometers along the Tigris and Euphrates pegged the dial at 130 degrees, it was apparent things weren’t working as they were supposed to in Baghdad — or elsewhere.

When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government failed to respond to the explosion in Sunni vs. Shia sectarian violence things could only get worse. And they have. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. elections, law and order nearly broke down totally in the Iraqi capital. Then last week a classified Marine intelligence report leaked to the media estimated U.S. and Iraqi forces are “no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in Al Anbar Province.”

Neither this leak — nor its bleak assessment — should surprise anyone. The Bush administration’s opponents have been leaking with impunity whatever they deem necessary — no matter how highly classified — to bring down the administration. Unfortunately, it’s equally apparent the White House, Pentagon and State Department — focusing on globe-spanning mini-summits from Asia to NATO to the Middle East — failed to embrace a simple reality in the Marine intelligence report: The war in Iraq cannot be won by military means alone.

The Marines and soldiers we will join in Al Anbar win every battle. There is no Ba’athist, Sunni, Shi’ite, Jihadist, or Muslim Brotherhood militia, no terror organization or “insurgent group” that can beat U.S. Army soldiers or U.S. Marines in a gunfight anywhere in Iraq. But our troops have scant support from any other part of the U.S. government. Only our military is on a “war footing.”

Up to now, this war his been fought almost exclusively by soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines. U.S. Navy Sea Bees and Army engineers — not skilled professionals from the U.S. Energy Department — are repairing pipelines and hooking up wires to help rebuild Iraq’s oil and electrical infrastructure. Marines and soldiers — not experts from the Education Department — are opening schools and stocking them with textbooks. National Guardsmen from America’s heartland — not U.S. Agriculture Department specialists — help Iraqi farmers find better ways to feed their countrymen.

Engaging the rest of the U.S. government in winning this war must be a priority for the Bush administration. And, as President Bush emphasized firsthand in this week’s nearly aborted meeting with Mr. al-Maliki in Amman, time is not an ally for either government.

The Baghdad government must urgently assert control over renegade militias, initiate political reconciliation and put in place institutions of government that both provide security for the Iraqi people and protect their civil liberties. It’s a tall order. But unless they rise to the necessity, a “successful end” to this war will be problematic.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel. This is the first of several articles on his eighth trip to Iraq.

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