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 The New York Post  March 7, 2006



BAGHDAD -- AMONG the many positive stories you aren't being told about Iraq, the media ignored another big one last week: In the wake of the terrorist bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, it was the Iraqi army that kept the peace in the streets.

It's routinely declared a failure by those who yearn for the new Iraq to fail. But an increasingly capable Iraqi military has been developing while reporters (who never really investigated the issue) wrote it off as hopeless.

What actually happened last week, as the prophets of doom in the media prematurely declared civil war?

* The Iraqi army deployed over 100,000 soldiers to maintain public order. U.S. Forces remained available as a backup, but Iraqi soldiers controlled the streets.

* Iraqi forces behaved with discipline and restraint - as the local sectarian outbreaks fizzled, not one civilian had been killed by an Iraqi soldier.

* Time and again, Iraqi military officers were able to defuse potential confrontations and frustrate terrorist hopes of igniting a religious war.

* Forty-seven battalions drawn from all 10 of Iraq's army divisions took part in an operation that, above all, aimed at reassuring the public. The effort worked - from the luxury districts to the slums, the Iraqis were proud of their army.

AS a result of its nationwide success, the Iraqi army gained tremendously in confidence. Its morale soared.

After all the lies and exaggerations splashed in your direction, the truth is that we're seeing a new, competent, patriotic military emerge. The media may cling to its image of earlier failures, but last week was a great Iraqi success.

This matters. Not only for Iraq's sake, but because standing up a responsible military subordinate to an elected civilian government is the essential development that will allow us to reduce our troop presence in the next few years. Much remains to do - and much could still go wrong but I, for one, am more optimistic after this visit to Baghdad.

Let's go deeper and probe into the growth of Iraq's army. On Saturday, The Post conducted an exclusive interview with the commander of Iraq's ground forces. It was Lt.-Gen. Abdul Qadir's first sit-down with the press - he's been a busy man.

The general looks like a vigorous, good-natured grandfather in uniform. But his affable dignity masks a heroic past. An armor officer with extensive battlefield experience, Qadir stood up to Saddam, stating that his adventure in Kuwait was destined to fail. The reward for his integrity - the patriotism of the honest soldier - was seven years in prison. Only his history of combat valor saved him from death.

Now Saddam's in prison and Qadir's determined to build a better Iraq.

SITTING in his office in the Defense Ministry - an ornate building whose marble halls and crystal chandeliers predate Saddam - Qadir beamed with pride at the performance of his troops over the previous 10 days.

"Not one unit had sectarian difficulties," he stressed. "Not one. And when we canceled all leaves after the mosque bombing - we expected trouble, of course - our soldiers returned promptly to their units. Now it is as you see for yourself: Iraqis are proud of their own soldiers."

Any nation would rather rely on its own forces than on a foreign military in its streets - no matter how well-intentioned that alien force may be. I asked the general when he thought American troops should leave Iraq.

"We must not be in too great a hurry for you to go," he said, stressing that patience and cooperation were crucial to ultimate success. American troop levels could be reduced in the next few years, but with over 40 years of military service and as a member of an old Sunni-Arab military family Qadir has no illusions about the challenges ahead.

Iraqi combat units have made significant progress, but sustaining that success depends on building a reliable logistics infrastructure, on building up communications and intelligence capabilities and on developing a training system that aims at Western standards.

Given the mess Saddam left behind, Qadir's mission is formidable. And the progress to date is impressive to any knowledgeable observer.

QADIR'S principal Ameri can adviser, Col. Tom McCool (whose family lives in Pelham), said of the recent mini-crisis, "It's a good-news story. The Iraqis performed every bit as well as we expected." A firm believer in the general's vision and abilities, McCool stresses that Qadir's a "true soldier," not a political hack, personally incorruptible.

Paraphrasing one of his own U.S. Army superiors, McCool said, "The Iraqi army has to build an airplane while it's already flying. And they're doing it amazingly well."

If Qadir and McCool are confident, so is Brig.-Gen. Dan Bolger, our Army officer charged with "assisting the Iraqis in forming their military." On the day of the Samarra bombing, Bolger expected trouble and headed out into the streets with the Iraqi military.

Instead of widespread strife in the districts of Baghdad he visited, he found "the most average day in the world."

BOLGER'S a story himself. He looks like a taller, more-muscular Gary Cooper and has a distinguished career behind him as an Infantryman. But he's also written a rucksack full of superb books ranging from military history to fiction, and he's one of the most respected thinkers-in-uniform of his generation.

He's the right man for his assignment. In an exclusive interview with The Post, Bolger stressed that the coverage of the past few weeks - and of the Iraqi army overall - had been just plain inaccurate.

Building a military from scratch and changing its culture profoundly is incredibly difficult, yet Bolger's impressed that, after some undeniable birth pains (before Bolger's tenure), the Iraqi army's development is accelerating impressively.

"We bail the Iraqis out less and less," he told The Post, observing that the Iraqis want to do things by themselves - although they'll need some U.S. support for the next few years. "They want us to make a long-term commitment," he said, referring not to a heavy U.S. troop presence, but to a mutually beneficial strategic partnership.

Sitting behind his desk in a Spartan office in Baghdad, Bolger exploded another myth that the new Iraqi military's been infiltrated by militia members. "It's actually hard to penetrate the army," he said. "They're not garrisoned locally, but mixed into truly national units and deployed around the country." In the recent flare-up, sectarian issues had not been a problem in a single Iraqi unit.

Bolger mused about the terminology Iraqi officers employ. They refer to terrorists as "terrorists," but call the native insurgents "criminals" and despise them. He stresses that the Iraqis have it right: "The criminal element is an underestimated element in the violence. A lot of these people are just predators."

Bolger's a man whose judgment I trust, having known him for 20 years (we all knew back then that Dan was destined for high rank). If he's confident, I'm confident. And Dan believes that, if we have a reasonable amount of patience, the new Iraqi military will emerge as the best in the Arab world - and a firm ally in the region.

AS I head home after far too short a stay with our wonderful soldiers, I can only offer Post readers my honest assessment:

Serious problems remain. No question about it. We'll hear more bad news (some of it may even be true). But from my heart I believe that the odds are improving that, decades from now, we'll look back and see that our sacrifices were worth it. I found Baghdad a city of hope, its citizens determined not to be ruled by terrorists, fanatics, militias or thieves.

We are doing the right thing.

Nor do I say this lightly. I just learned that the son of an old friend was seriously wounded in Iraq and evacuated to a military hospital in Germany (the latest news I have is that the young man will make a complete recovery - let's pray that it's so).

This is a gigantic struggle for indescribably high stakes. We're trying to help a failing civilization rescue itself, to lift a vast region out of the grip of terror and fanaticism, and to make this troubled world safer for our own citizens. Don't let anyone tell you we're failing in Iraq.

The future remains undecided, but the last few weeks may have been a decisive turning point - against our enemies. Iraqis, military and civilian, stood up for their own country, for reason, for peace.

What more could we ask?

Ralph Peters says he has been privileged to spend the last few weeks with America's men and women in uniform.






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