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Life Under the Gun By: Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BADHDAD, IRAQ - He’s been a soldier for more than 26 years and fought in three wars and now an insurgency. As part of the Iraqi Special Forces he was wounded eight times in the Iran-Iraq War. He took a rocket propelled grenade in the lower left abdomen. Had it exploded it would have cut him in half. As it was his liver, stomach and intestines were damaged permanently. After a year recuperation he returned to the fight.

Despite travail, he stayed on duty and today is a prominent leader in the National Police. Brigadier General Najam is a bit of a legend in his own time. These days he, as do all of his contemporaries, live under constant threat of assassination. While he can and does deal with this in his own way, he feels the strain of the threats directed against his family. His fears are justified.

One of his superiors at the Ministry of the Interior has survived 14 assassination attempts. His brothers have been killed in attempts to intimidate him. He evacuated his family to Europe and returned here alone because he is dedicated to making Iraq into something it has never been: a country where individual rights and free markets are the norm, where all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity or religion can live together in relative peace.

While some critics in America deride these phrases as sophomoric and unrealistic, men such as General Najam risk their lives to bring the idealistic into reality. For them this is not a game, not a political contest to see who wrests temporary power from an opponent, nor is it a way of enhancing wealth. For them this is a Manichean struggle to save their country and their people from sliding into the abyss of a dark terror worse than that of dictator Saddam Hussein.

These men know what the Taliban did to the people of Afghanistan and they have seen what al Qaeda operatives do to Muslims who resist them. As US and Iraqi troops liberated al Qaeda controlled cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tal Afar, and Sadr City in Baghdad, they found scenes of unspeakable horror.

Basements and back rooms of houses had been turned into torture chambers with blood-splattered walls where men and women had suffered terribly before summary execution, often by beheading. These were not foreigners, infidels, or other outsiders but were ordinary citizens who refused to conform to the harsh Wahabbist beliefs imposed by AQI.

These hundreds paid with their lives, and men like Najam know that such terror would be multiplied a thousand-fold were AQI to conquer Iraq. As a consequence they are determined to fight to the death to prevent such tragedy.

Entering his third decade of combat, Najam and his contemporaries are stripped of illusion. Replying to a query about his satisfaction with America’s role, he replied bluntly, “No.” He quickly clarifies that he is extremely grateful and appreciative of America for removal of Saddam and establishing democracy. Nevertheless, he is terribly worried about commitment. “I fear that America will grow tired and abandon us,” Najam said. Such concerns have precedent. The historically minded will recall empty promises to Hungarians and Vietnamese. Contemporary Iraqis have only to look back a dozen years when America encouraged them to throw out Saddam.

When the Shi’a’s responded, foreign policy “realists” counseled a “measured, well-considered” response. As they had done in the past, such intellectually dishonest euphemisms condemned tens of thousands to their deaths and changed the immediate possibility of a small sacrifice into the certainty of a long-term, larger one.

Now these men are faced with a difficult decision. Stay in Iraq and fight for its freedom or flee to Europe (America denies many of these men asylum). That they choose to stand and fight is commendable. And it is our responsibility to stay until stability and freedom are attained.

Personal Notes from the Road

 On Monday I moved out of the Green Zone to Camp Victory near the international airport. I’m now staying with the 18th MP Brigade and after two days here will pass down the chain to their 95th Battalion.

I’m staying in one of Saddam Hussein’s minor palaces on the banks of an artificial lake. Last night I sat on the open courtyard at the back on the palace and watched a fat moon rise over Baghdad. We smoked cigars (I brought dozens out with me to share) and spoke enthusiastically about the mission and our own personal military backgrounds while listening to fish jump in the lake.

One of the officers, the Operations officer, LTC Tom Lombardo, from Buffalo, NY, remarked that a few days ago a rocket barrage hit all around them including on a small island in the  lake. A seagull was wounded, hit in one wing, and can no longer fly. He swims up to the edge and the soldiers feed him daily.

The soldiers have named the bird “Rocket.”

Tomorrow morning I join with some soldiers on a visit to a provincial police station. We’ll meet in the morning in what the troops call “full battle rattle” for the visit. We’ll roll out of the motor pool in Humvees for the trip.

FYI, this is my first war in which I have to travel unarmed. It is a very unsettling state of affairs but part of the embed rules.

More later on the visit.

Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu has been an Army Green Beret lieutenant colonel, as well as a writer, popular speaker, business executive and farmer. His most recent book is Separated at Birth, about North and South Korea. He returned recently from an embed with soldiers in Iraq and has launched a web site called Support American Soldiers to assist traveling soldiers.

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