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Feb 17th Baghdad Update

by Geraldo Rivera | Feb 17, 2007

Camp Liberty
Baghdad, Iraq
February 17, 2007

"I made Baghdad the top security priority," said President Bush Friday. "In other words, it is important in order to achieve our objective that the capital city of this grand country be secure. And I sent reinforcements to our troops, so they can accomplish that mission."

The key is Baghdad. That's why the embattled President and our military commanders chose this blood soaked place to make our stand, to surge our forces in an aggressive effort to curtail the wretched violence, disrupt insurgent activity and deny the extremists the safe haven some of these neighborhoods have been providing.

And so far so good - on the fourth day of operation law and order...and even as Secretary of State Condelezza Rice arrives here in Baghdad on an unannounced visit... The level of violence in the usually blood soaked Iraqi capital is far lower than it has been for months.

Murders are down 80% since the operation began on Valentine's Day, according to the city Coroner's office, from a typical gory 40 or 50 a day to about 10. Secretary Rice this morning calling it a 'good start'.

She also cleverly turned the political pressure on the President into pressure on the Iraqi government, saying, "Some of the debate in Washington is in fact indicative of the concerns that some of the American people have for the prospects of success if the Iraqi government doesn't do what it has said it will do."

And the best news is that has not been a single American killed in this new battle of Baghdad so far.

Walking the neighborhoods Friday with Brigadier General John Campbell - the Deputy Commander for Maneuver - it's easy to see what's different since the surge began.   For one thing, the Iraqi forces are involved in protecting their own city.  Both the improving army and the still shaky and much maligned Iraqi police, who have a rough reputation as extremist thugs.

But backed by and watched over by their own army and ours, the combined forces are out and working the streets.  That's the other big innovation. Although our guys have already conducted more than 20,000 patrols since the Operation began, they're not just patrolling and going home to a big safe base like Camp Liberty.  Now they're based in the neighborhoods.

Although the enemy has made the skies over Iraq very unfriendly in recent weeks, shooting down five of our choppers, our side has adapted, as Major General Joseph Fil told brother Craig as they flew out of Camp Liberty to eastern Baghdad. "We know what they're doing and we've altered our tactics and procedures because of that."

"It hasn't stopped you from flying on your chopper?"

"No, not one bit."

General Fil, the Commander of the Baghdad Operation met up with his Iraqi counterpart, Lt. General Abou at the scene of one of the bloodiest recent bombings, the attack on the Rusafa market, which killed 150 innocent civilians and wounded 300 more.

"This market used to be the most beautiful we had before," General Abou told General Fil through an interpreter as they toured the still devastated area. "But because of the thugs, the mad dogs, most of the people and the vendors, they are vanished from here. They're too frightened to continue."

Driving in one of the awesome Stryker vehicles that have kicked some serious butt in Baghdad, I went out to another troubled neighborhood now being policed by a battalion of the 82nd Airborne. They have taken over an abandoned high-rise building and now overlook a huge chunk of town on the edge of Sadr City.  And to Battalion Commander Lt. Colonel Richard Kim, the fact that the kids feel safe enough to play soccer in the streets is a good sign.

At day's end, flying over Baghdad with General Campbell, there was a melancholy reality check.  Despite the eerie quiet of the last four days, we have occasion to reflect on the profound price our troops have paid a price in this godforsaken land.  Out in Faluja we attended a memorial for 23-year-old Sgt Russell Andrew Kurtz.  Killed in action on February 11th, three days before operation law and order began. When they played 'taps' it broke my heart.

The Iraqi Prime Minister today called the Operation a "brilliant success." Secretary Rice was more measured; saying that what's really important is how the Iraqis use this initial success to get their act together.

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