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Three Years After Baghdad's Fall, Troops Note Progress

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2006 – Three years ago April 9, the world looked on, captivated by compelling television images of Iraqis ripping down a towering statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and burning images of the Iraqi dictator on the streets.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
The statue of Saddam Hussein topples in Baghdad's Firdos Square on April 9, 2003. Three years later, Iraqi forces increasingly are taking the lead in securing their country.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lauded it as an important sign of things to come. "We're seeing history unfold and events that will shape the course of a country, the fate of a people and potentially the future of the region," Rumsfeld said during an April 9, 2003, Pentagon press briefing. "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside (Adolf) Hitler, (Joseph) Stalin, (Vladimir) Lenin and (Nicholae) Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators.

"And the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom," he said.

Three years later, troops who were involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom's early days and are serving in Iraq again today said Rumsfeld's words still ring true.

The toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square was just one -- but perhaps the most symbolic -- part of the city's fall from the grip of the brutal dictator who had ruled it with an iron fist for more than three decades. Days earlier, coalition troops captured the city's airport, named after Saddam, and renamed it Baghdad International Airport. They also took the Presidential Palace in downtown Baghdad and began moving freely through the city.

Eight months after his larger-than-life image was pulled from its podium in downtown Baghdad, Saddam was pulled from a "spider hole" near his hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 13. About 600 members of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, along with special operations forces, captured him after receiving intelligence that the former dictator was in the area.

Saddam is now standing trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Three years later, as the anniversary of Baghdad's fall is commemorated as "Iraqi Freedom Day," troops serving in Iraq say they're proud of what it paved the way for throughout the country.

Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin McCoy remembers the hectic days of the coalition advance into Baghdad, when he served as an intelligence noncommissioned officer for the 3rd Infantry Division. "You hardly had time to breathe," he said from Camp Victory, Iraq, where he now serves in Multinational Corps Iraq's space operations cell.

McCoy recalled the celebrations as Baghdad fell from Saddam's grip and said he's glad he and his fellow troops helped bring it about. "The world is a better place without him," McCoy said. "It's something I was proud of and I'll always keep in my mind, that I played a part in it -- not just then, but again, for a second time."

Army Lt. Col. Thomas Murphree, who was serving in Kuwait at the time as theater distribution commander, said seeing images of Iraqis pulling down Saddam's statue in Baghdad assured him, "They didn't like him or his regime." "We did the right thing then, and we're still doing the right thing," said Murphree, who returned to Camp Victory, Iraq, in January as deputy transportation officer for Multinational Corps Iraq.

Army Sgt. Maj. Linda Allen, serving in Multinational Corps Iraq's Coalition Analysis and Control Element, remembers how surprised she was by the speed of the coalition advance into Baghdad in 2003. Working from Camp Virginia in Kuwait, Allen was part of the intelligence group supporting U.S. 5th Corps and said everyone was bracing for a major fight that never came.

While seeing images of Saddam's statue being toppled in Baghdad "was pretty exciting," Allen said she and other troops in the theater recognized their work in Iraq was far from over. "It represented the end of the conventional war, which meant we could now concentrate on the longer-term part of what we still had to do," she said.

The soldiers agreed that life has improved for the Iraqi people and continues to get better as they increasingly take the lead in their country's security and rebuild it, working together with the U. S. and coalition. Iraq is forming a unity government, its economy is recovering after 30 years of dictatorship and lack of infrastructure maintenance, and more than 241,700 Iraqi security forces are now trained and equipped.

"Life is a hell of a lot better today for us and for the Iraqis," Murphree said.

The soldiers noted the contrast between how most Iraqis live today and what they witnessed when they entered Iraq in 2003. "When we were first here, you could see that it's a very poor country and it was a hard place to live," McCoy said. "Now it's a whole lot better."

Allen remembers the shock she experienced rolling into Iraq from Kuwait in late April. "I remember how devastating it was coming up to Iraq and running across the civilians," she said. "They were hungry. They had no place to live and no water to drink. Every child we passed was motioning to their mouth because they were hungry."

"That's why we're here," she said. "We're here to help these people have a better way of life."

The soldiers say they're witnessing evidence of that better life throughout the country. "You see a lot of new buildings going up and police stations being built and improvements in the health-care system," said McCoy.

"It's getting better day by day," agreed Murphree. "But it doesn't all happen overnight."

Just as the rebuilding process after Hurricane Katrina is moving along more slowly than hoped in Murphree's hometown along the U.S. Gulf Coast, he said it's going to take longer than people would like in Iraq too. Unlike southern Mississippi, Iraq has older technology that was neglected throughout Saddam's regime, he said.

"We're working with 20 years of neglect, so it's going to take some time, but it's definitely improving," he said.

Since liberating Iraq, the United States has helped the Iraqis build or repair aging sewage treatment plans for 5.1 million Iraqis and funded projects that have improved access to clean water for 3.1 million people.

These infrastructure improvements are important to assuring that Iraqis have the basics that Americans take for granted - "a job, the ability to take care of their families and have a roof over their head and a safe place to live," Murphree said. And he said it's also a critical component to establishing a new, democratic government in Iraq.

McCoy said he was encouraged that nearly 11.9 million Iraqis, three-quarters of the country's population, turned out for the parliamentary elections in December. Since June 2004, when the coalition transferred sovereignty, the Iraqi people elected an interim government, drafted and ratified a constitution and elected a four-year, constitutionally based government.

"It's good to see people getting involved in their government and their future," McCoy said. "I think it's great," agreed Murphree. "We're giving them the opportunity they want."

Just as during the fall of Baghdad, Allen said she still recognizes that the U. S. has much left to accomplish before its mission in Iraq is finished.

"There's still a ton of work to do, and we're not leaving anytime soon," she said. "But there's a lot of progress and it's a whole lot better than it was three years ago."

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