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Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 21 Nissan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Stay the course in Iraq ... 10 minutes with Oliver North | Oliver North's background is known well. Combat-decorated Marine. Host of Fox News Channel's Sunday night "War Stories." Best-selling author. Syndicated columnist. Talk show host. Reagan administration counterterrorism coordinator. Political candidate.

North, who spent much of the last year with U.S. soldiers in Iraq as a war correspondent, will be the keynote speaker at St. Barnabas Health System's fund-raising dinner Thursday, April 22, at the Omni William Penn Hotel. I talked to him this week as he drove to his office in the Washington, D.C., area:

Q: When you follow what's going on in Iraq right now, are you pleased? Angry? Worried? What?

A: What you've got there is a thug. (Muqtada) al-Sadr is a thug. We keep calling him a "cleric" in our publications and our broadcasts. This guy is nothing but a Mafia don who's throwing his elbows about. He's figured out that after democracy comes and you've got municipal and federal and provincial governments running the country, his power is diminished considerably.

Q: Is this just one bad cleric?

A: No, no, no. Al-Sadr is one of many. We keep calling them "clerics" when in fact they are Mafia dons. Remember, this guy is wanted by Iraqi authorities for murdering another Shia cleric.

Q: So it's like a gang war?

A: Exactly. Yeah. It's gang warfare with AK-47s and RPGs instead of Saturday Night Specials and knives out in L.A.

Q: What's the difference between the reality of Iraq, as you saw it or understand it, and the information we get from the media here?

A: What we see in the media, of course, is the helicopter crash, the burning Humvee, the tank that ran over the mine. That's because of the nature of the news business. What you're not seeing are the 2,500 schools that have been opened by the military. You're not seeing the fact that there are more people with electricity today than ever had it before. More people with clean running water and sewers. You're not seeing the infrastructure improvement.

Nobody reports that we have 250 convoys a day that run safely all over the country. That the trains are running again. That we've got petroleum products moving through pipelines that haven't been used in years. All that good news is being masked by a soldier killed here, a Marine killed there.

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It's very unfortunate, because that's the impression the American people have, and so you end up with politicians talking about "quagmires" and all the rest of it. The fact is, this is nothing like Vietnam.

The Iraqi people have far greater affection for us than you'd ever be led to believe by reading the newspapers. There is an enormous affection for the American people. In fact, probably more than in any other Islamic country in that part of the world. That includes Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Q: So you are optimistic about the ultimate outcome?

A: I am very optimistic. I have great confidence that ultimately this is going to work out a lot better than anybody can see today. Two years from now, you and I could have this conversation, and we'd say, "Why was everyone so worried?" -- if we stay the course. If we bail on these guys -- which, quite frankly, would be a disaster not just from a political perspective but a national disaster -- it would be like saying after Pearl Harbor, "You know what? We can't win this war. Let's go make peace with the Japanese and the Germans."

Q: What's the worst-case scenario that worries you the most?

A: It's just that. The worst-case scenario is a failure of resolve -- not militarily. ... The problem is political. And it's going to be a failure of resolve, not of the troops fighting the war. You're constantly hearing how bad the morale is, that troop morale is the pits. Let me tell you, the best barometer of troop morale is the re-enlistment rate. The re-enlistment rate for the Army brigades and Marine regiments is unprecedentedly high.

Q: You obviously don't think that the United States or the Bush administration has bitten off more than it can chew in Iraq?

A: No. Look, the long-range problem here isn't going to be Baghdad. I am absolutely confident that we're going to have a democratic outcome. Free enterprise is already thriving. It's mind-boggling to see what's going on out there.

When I rolled into Baghdad on the morning of April 10 last year, the city was bereft of any kind of economy at all. It wasn't because we had bombed it to oblivion, Saddam (Hussein) wouldn't let it. The only people who could prosper were the Baath Party officials.

What's happened since then is the economy has exploded. There's not a storefront in the country that doesn't have something to sell. Whether it's air conditioners, auto parts. Every Japanese auto dealer has opened car dealerships out there.

It's wild. Of course, it is a bit of the Wild West. You've got rampant lawlessness because there are not enough police that are well-trained. But the FBI is out there training people right now in Jordan and soon to the north of Baghdad. You've got the DEA out there. You've got the ATF out there. You've got lots of volunteer cops, some of whom are reservists and some who are out there on contracts.

Q: Do your think the June 30 hand-over deadline is realistic and will be met?

A: I just got asked that on the air at Fox. Somebody who doesn't get it said, "Well, doesn't this political decision to turn things over to the Iraqis affect the morale of the Marines?" No. They know what their job is there.

Q: Will the hand-over really just be done on paper? Is it really going to be a hand-over?

A: Yes. This is not going to be a "puppet regime" as the folks in The New York Times put it. This is going to be an interim government. There was a piece last week in the L.A. Times or New York Times about "incompetent boobs drawing up this constitution." You know what, if you go back to the history of the United States, how long did it take us to come up with the Constitution after the Revolution was over in 1781? Six years. Fifty two of the smartest people on the planet Earth, working rough and tumble, throwing their elbows around. ... G-d, if Madison and Mason and Franklin and those guys couldn't get it done for years, why are we so hard on the Iraqis for getting it in a few months?

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald