The following is IWP Director of Development John Wobensmith's informal report of a September, 2003 visit to Iraq arranged by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Reports of chaos throughout Iraq are, to borrow Mark Twain’s remark, greatly exaggerated. So are reports of anti-Americanism. That’s the observation of an intense three days spent visiting Baghdad, Al Hillah, Babylon, Mosul and Tikrit.
From September 21-24, 2003, I was part of the first non-official group visit to Iraq, arranged by the Pentagon but paid for by the participating individuals. We met with the Coalition Provisional Authorities, the senior military commanders and their staffs in Baghdad, and commanders in the field. We chatted informally over meals with the troops, and held discussions with the local Iraqi Governors and Council-members. We visited several reconstruction projects and talked to ordinary Iraqi citizens.
We saw tremendous progress underway throughout Iraq. There is a reconstruction plan in place; it is effective and it is working. The Iraqi people know this, and their attitude toward the Americans and Coalition allies is very positive.
There are currently 21 Coalition nations providing troops, including Ukraine, Hungary, Honduras, El Salvador – and Poland, whose forces have just taken over the Central South Command (below Baghdad) from the U.S. Marines. Our Coalition allies now have military control of the entire southern half of the country.
Some specific observations:
First, the American military at all levels are awesome! Morale is impressively high. I talked randomly to more than 50 individual soldiers at various commands and my 16 colleagues had similar discussions with others. They showed no fear. They were confident about their mission, highly motivated, and have quickly adapted to the local environment. Reenlistment rates are above 100%. The 101st Division, for example, has had the highest reenlistment rate ever. The senior military leadership is truly outstanding. We were especially impressed with the three operational commanders we met.
In Mosul, Major General David Petraeus, Commanding General of the 101st Division, has established the best rapport that I have ever seen by a senior military leader with the local Iraqi civilian leaders. His experiences in Haiti and Kosovo had taught him the paramount importance of reestablishing normalcy, and he quickly engaged his troops in a cleanup of the city. They repaired the roads, painted out graffiti, and started fixing up key buildings. They have restored hundreds of schools for the opening of classes.
We saw similar efforts in Tikrit under Major General Raymond Odierno, Commanding General of the 4th Infantry Division, and with Brigadier General Dempsey in Baghdad. They, too, had established solid relationships with the new Iraqi leadership. U.S. commanders throughout the country have helped influence the local councils by ensuring the inclusion of women, of Kurds and Sunnis as well as Shiites.
Why has the military been successful? It is because the U.S. military leaders are real heroes to the Iraqi people – liberators, not conquerors. We freed the Iraqis from a brutal dictator who killed their families and friends. Local officials and ordinary citizens everywhere told us just how much they appreciate our military, and that they definitely want our efforts to continue. The people also have already seen the results of U.S. leadership in restoring the fractured infrastructure – schools, hospitals, roads, water and electrical power plants, key buildings – that Saddam had allowed to collapse.
Our visit showed clearly what his priorities had been: he used Iraq’s oil profits to build palaces, air strips without airport facilities, and weapons depots. As we flew over the country in the evenings, we saw lights everywhere. While electrical power supply is still a problem, it is obviously being restored. We also saw cars everywhere. Iraqi oil is flowing again, gradually restoring the country’s main source of revenue.
I saw only limited physical damage from the war. The precision bombing caused little collateral damage; indeed, in many buildings – including some of Saddam’s palaces — there was evidence of precise targeting even within individual edifices. A new Iraqi police force is on the job in the major cities. The U.S. has trained more than 40,000 police so far; eventually the force will number 70,000. I had heard the Iraqi police had no arms or equipment, but every officer we saw was armed. We learned that they had recently received 10,000 Glock pistols; 40,000 more are coming. They were wearing new uniforms – now being manufactured in-country – and are increasingly taking part in military raids on pro-Saddam holdouts.
The Iraqi people are showing their trust for their police and the U.S. military by providing information on the locations of arms caches and identifying terrorists. This is allowing more effective intelligence and resulting in the capture of Saddam loyalists in greater numbers.
The most emotional part of our tour was a visit to one of the mass graves at Mahawil, where Saddam’s regime disposed of many of its 300,000-plus victims – buried alive or shot in the head. As we stood on the dirt mound looking out over the burial ground, I reflected on what a tragic ordeal that the Iraqi people have endured. We spoke with one of the few Iraqis who survived being buried alive, and to others who had lost children, brothers, sisters, or parents. I looked them in the eyes and saw their haunting memories of those horrible events. It certainly strengthened my resolve that we can’t let it happen again.
Iraq today is not engulfed in roiling chaos, despite some media reports. It is a country on the cusp of a new and better future – a future of freedom. The message from our troops was that to ensure the continuing trust and faith of the people in Iraq and throughout the region, we must finish the job and help restore the country. Our politicians must seriously consider the implications of walking away:it would destroy the hard-won credibility that our military and Coalition allies have established.
There is much yet to be done, but from my visit I can say that the U.S. efforts are working. I felt immensely proud of the incredible efforts by the brave Americans and other Coalition forces who are helping to restore order and rebuild Iraq for the Iraqi people.
John C. Wobensmith, a retired official with the National Security Agency, is Director of Development and lecturer in intelligence studies at The Institute of World Politics.
(Photo: Member of the U.S. Air Force 447th Expeditionary Security Unit patrolling the International Airport in Baghdad. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.)