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Baghdad Airport

by Geraldo Rivera | Dec 03, 2007

About to leave this battered country, I'm struck by the fact that it widely defied my narrow expectations. While Iraq remains war-torn, the streets no longer run red with blood, the air isn't being split by bullets and the streets aren't erupting in violent blasts; at least those combat cliches are no where near as true as they were until just a couple of months ago.

Sure there is the occasional boom in the night and even the odd rattle of gunfire, but trust me after nine visits since the invasion of March 2003, Baghdad and environs are far better and safer than they were before the surge began.

Violence is down to a level that is a fraction of what it was during the year-long religious war which began with the destruction of the Golden Dome of Samarra in early 2006. There are still more murders than in most places, but not by much. Severe security and social problems continue to plague this colonially cobbled together country, which will continue to warp in and out of crisis as the land of the two rivers has done every generation or so since Hamarabi thirty centuries ago, but right now it is doing hugely better than most people feared as recently as a few weeks ago.

So what went right?

In the clarity of hindsight, Al Queda in Iraq was as stressed out as captured documents indicated the terror group was at the time of the death of AQI leader Zarkawi earlier this year. And the combination of our surging military offensive and their apparently malignant weakness coincided with the coming of Petreaus, the best, most highly evolved and competent leader since Eisenhower.

And like Ike, Commanding General David Petreaus has none of the flash, bang or swagger usually associated with heroes. He's not a Patton, but he has achieved far more with his understated acumen, astute analysis and disciplined war fighting-as-business approach than any dashing tank corps commander could have done in the circumstance.

Patient, steady and seemingly immune to either shrill ideologues or partisan politicians so accustomed to America as loser they forgot how to win, Petreaus widened our arsenal by going high tech and low. Certainly, he took full military advantage of developments like evolved armored vehicles and men, surveillance and so forth the need for which previous commanders and their bosses in the Pentagon took scandalously long to recognize as necessary. But the technology paled compared to his not so secret weapons: cash and concrete.

Seeing the difficulty the insurgents were having in penetrating the heavily fortified International Zone in Baghdad, Petreaus and his surging troopers created mini IZ's in neighborhoods all over the city, walling them off, setting up checkpoints and creating defensible space out of sprawling suburb. America's deep pockets also became a potent weapon AQI couldn't match. We spread the dough ray me, bypassing the dysfunctional, inept and corrupt central government, bringing billions in aid money to the far corners of the capital regardless of religious sect.
By beginning to provide essential services like water, sewers, garbage pickup and power, Petreaus also created jobs, which gave thousands of young Iraqis a personal stake in peace.

While previous American leaders threw money around like sailors in a brothel, Petreaus disburses our hard earned tax dollars through his military commanders. His neighborhood-based colonels, majors and captains have become the de facto government. They know their turf and they know the local players. There is accountability, fiscal discipline and way less corruption than Iraq's hodge podge government will ever achieve.

As I write this, we've left the improbably garish main airport building and boarded a jam-packed Royal Jordanian F28, a small twin engine jet of the sort used at regional airports for short hops back in the States. After personally wrangling, bribing and wrestling our 25 pieces of heavy luggage into the small cargo compartment, and then being searched on the tarmac for the fourth time, we have given each other high-fives as the little jet roars down the runway of the still almost deserted Baghdad International Airport. On the way up, we are experiencing the reverse of the tight, missile-defeating spiral we did coming in.

Now we're finally at cruising altitude and Baghdad is behind us. I just sighed.

Despite the profound improvements, there are still few tension relievers as effective as watching Iraq fading off in the distance.

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