I was about ready to call for a Saint Bernard dog to find me. (Laughter.) I feel like I've been en route here for a half-hour. (Laughter.) I hope you all didn't come the same way I did. (Laughter.)
It is very nice to see you all. I appreciate your being here. And also a special greeting to those who will be watching on the Pentagon channel.
Tomorrow, March 19th, will mark two years to the day since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the changes in Iraq since that day and about the great sweep of freedom that is moving across that region and what it means for our country and the American people.
First let me say that the positive changes underway would certainly not have happened, they wouldn't have taken place without the hard work and the dedication of America's men and women in uniform, their families and indeed the efforts of all of you who have devoted your lives to our country's defense. I want you to know that we are grateful -- and your country is grateful -- to you for your able service.
And I might mention that a few weeks ago, a staff sergeant with the 1st Cavalry Division received a Silver Star for heroism. He had rescued some folks out of a trapped -- a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle. And at his medal ceremony, he asked the permission to kind of break tradition and see if he couldn't have his father, his proud father, pin his medal on. And his father was a DOD civilian employee also working in Iraq.
The story is a useful reminder of the many civilian and military personnel who are risking their lives every day to help build a more peaceful future in Iraq as well as Afghanistan and to eliminate a threat to the civilized world.
I also want to mention our sorrow and condolences to the family of Officer Feltis, who was a member of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, and who lost his life in the line of duty.
The men and women who serve are doing important work -- it's noble work. Indeed, when one thinks of Iraq today compared to what it was just two short years ago, the changes are truly remarkable. Think of what the Coalition faced back then:
· Saddam Hussein and his vicious regime had twice invaded its neighbors; he was paying rewards to the families of suicide bombers;
· He defied 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions;
· Was regularly firing -- weekly -- firing at U.S. and British aircraft and their air crews; and
· He had looted literally billions of dollars building lavish palaces while his people, the Iraqi people, suffered starvation.
The opponents of that regime were forced to whisper dissent, fearful of a midnight “knock on the door” from the Iraqi police service. Other Iraqis, who did receive those “knocks on the doors” that were so feared, were among the some 400,000 men, women and children who were callously put into the -- at the moment we believe hundreds of mass graves that have been discovered across that country.
Through an unprecedented combination of speed, precision and flexibility, U.S. forces, with Coalition support, seized Baghdad, having marched farther and faster than any armed force in military history.
And they did it while:
· Avoiding large numbers of civilian casualties,
· Averted a refugee crisis,
· Prevented Iraq from firing Scud missiles at neighboring countries, which could have ignited a region- wide war.
Since the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Coalition has engaged in a test of wills with an enemy determined to derail Iraq's progress. The extremists have beheaded aid workers, they have attacked symbols of hope, and they tried to make Iraq's election day one of bloodshed and terror.
Their goal was to force the Coalition into retreat, but their mission failed. “The enemy sought to test America and the Iraqi people's will -- and they found it firm.”
The Iraqi security forces successfully protected 5,000 polling places, providing the inner perimeter and the outer perimeter.
Millions of Iraqis -- the security forces showed courage, the people in the polling places showed a great deal of courage, and the voters showed courage. As they walked to vote they passed graffiti on the walls saying, "You vote, you die.” But they voted.
And day-by-day the Iraqi people are building a future that safeguards the liberty that their citizens deserve, and on which the world's security increasingly depends.
History teaches that political and economic freedom go hand in hand. Today, unleashed from Ba'athist control:
· The Iraqi economy is growing,
· Property values are rising,
· Refugees are returning home,
· Foreign investment is increasing.
Indeed, in the hearts of the Middle East, Iraq is a country offering freedom and opportunity in place of what was a cauldron of tyranny and terror.
In the last two years, from Afghanistan and Iraq, to Ukraine and now the streets of Lebanon, we have seen again and again that the great sweep of human history is for freedom -- and we are on freedom's side.
We know that freedom and opportunity are the surest antidotes to extremism.
Extremist ideologies suffer when governments such as in Afghanistan protect women and imprison terrorists instead of protecting terrorists and imprisoning women.
Extremist ideologies suffer when millions of Iraqis vote in defiance of a Zarqawi or a bin Laden.
And the enemy's extremist ideology will meet its end when wider Middle East sheds itself of tyranny and of violence and extremism and carves out a future of tolerance.
As we join the Iraqi people in remembering this important anniversary, and it is an important anniversary, we might almost -- also take a moment to remember another anniversary. Sixty years ago this month, American forces fought on the island if Iwo Jima in one of the last and certainly one of the bloodiest of the Second World War.
During one month of brutal fighting, some 25,000 Americans were killed or wounded. Those who fought in that conflict contributed to a great military victory, to be sure, but they also helped to unleash a wave of freedom that transformed tyrannies into democracies and enemies into friends.
Today America's men and women in uniform stand on the shoulders of those heroes who fought at Iwo Jima and in other great battles for freedom in World War II. And just as surely, tomorrow's heroes will stand on the shoulders of those who have helped free the people of Afghanistan and the people of Iraq, and those who are dealing crippling blows to the extremists who still threaten our people across the globe.
One day an accurate history of Operation Iraqi Freedom will be written. The early chapters of that history will properly tell of the great hardships -- and it has been hard and it still is hard -- but the final chapters will record historic achievements -- the demise of a leading terrorist state and the spread of freedom throughout that region.
All of us in this Department, gathered in this room or listening across the globe, carry on our mission in memory of all of those who have fallen in the cause of freedom; to the wounded, who demonstrate such great personal courage every day; and to all of their families who support our servicemen and women with their love and their encouragement.
And we owe them our full commitment to their unfinished work, and we promise them that and more.
May God bless them all.
General Pete Pace is standing to my left, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Pete, I'd like you t come up and say a few words.
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