It was seven years, five months and 11 days in the making. But now, Operation New Dawn has dawned in Iraq.
American-led coalition forces pushed northward from bases in Kuwait before dawn broke on March 20, 2003, with the target of removing Saddam Hussein from power and uncovering what were alleged to be caches of weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi dictator had stockpiled. On the first count, the mission was accomplished. On the second, no such success.
I was in Kuwait in the days before the invasion. Soldiers I spoke to were convinced Saddam had weapons of mass destruction but would not use them for fear of a reprisal from American forces.
Many of our Coastal Empire friends, neighbors and loved ones have been called to duty time and time again in Iraq. Effingham County’s own Alpha Battery of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 1/118 Field Artillery Battalion were over there for more than a year, serving capably and admirably. Many more tens of thousands Guardsmen and Reservists have been to serve overseas since the global war on terrorism commenced.
Though inspectors and search teams never uncovered any nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in post-Saddam Iraq, he had used chemical and nerve gas against Iran in the Persian Gulf War and later turned those weapons on the Kurds in northern Iraq. He also had aggressively waged two wars in the Persian Gulf, initiating the protracted and bloody war with Iran in 1980 and 10 years later, invading Kuwait.
Over the course of the first few years of the war, I spoke to countless parents and family members of soldiers who didn’t return home to flag-waving and jubilant celebrations. To the last, they all said they didn’t want their loved one to have died in vain. Even if they didn’t support their soldier joining the service and going off to war or they were in support of the invasion, they all wanted the mission to succeed, for America to make sure Iraq could become a home for democracy and freedom it had not known before.
I remember talking to the parents of a soldier who was part of the team that yanked Saddam from his rat hole and eventually brought him to justice. They were proud of their son’s service, proud of his role in history and hopeful that the overall mission truly would be accomplished.
The declaration of the end of combat operations — more have been more than 4,400 soldiers killed in Iraq since the invasion, with 3,483 of them killed in combat action — doesn’t mean soldiers are completely out of harm’s way. American servicemen still will be conducting counterterrorism operations with Iraqi partners, but with the Iraqis in the lead. It is still going to be a dangerous place, though not nearly as volatile and treacherous as it was four years ago when Alpha Battery soldiers were in country.
The new commander in Iraq is also an experienced and able combat leader. Gen. Lloyd Austin was the assistant division commander of maneuver for the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion. The Georgia native is now in command of the 50,000 troops still in Iraq. He’s been in combat zones much of the last seven years, having served as commander of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan and as commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps. He also replaced Gen. Ray Odierno, whom he is succeeding as top commander in Iraq, as commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq two and a half years ago. It’s safe to say Austin knows the landscape in Iraq as well as any soldier or leader in the chain of command.
The troops and the mission ahead lie in good hands. American forces are scheduled to leave Iraq for good by Jan. 1, 2012. There is still work to be done in securing Iraq’s future and its neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria, remain less than friendly to the United States.
But at least now we know Iraq won’t be posing a danger to the rest of the region anymore. And we can thank the men and women in uniform for making that happen and for bringing freedom to a nation that had known very little of it before.