The following dispatch was received from Greg Walker, an Astoria police officer serving in the special forces in Iraq
We're in downtown Baghdad heading for the Palestine Hotel. I'm in the tail vehicle, geared and gunned up, watching for shooters, snipers, suicide car bombers, and all the other things not good for one's health still active on the street.
These are the leftovers of Saddam's vicious little "government" and "military." The thugs, the sadists, the torturers, the brutes. Now out of work and out of favor. Their last great act of defiance is to pot-shot ... hit 'n git ... kill for no other purpose than the act itself.
And we are their targets.
People wave and smile and give the universal "thumbs-up" that has become a rage here when welcoming U.S. forces. Ancient Arab women in traditional burkkas smile and nod, faint waves and glistening eyes. Young men give big waves and smile broadly. Elders, discreet in the wisdom of their years and the understanding of their release from decades of bondage, touch their hearts with their right hands and shout "Salaam Malik!" the Muslim greeting of peace.
I respond in kind. From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Baghdad, Iraq, I've been blessed to meet, visit, dine, and share with those of the Islamic faith. They are wonderful people. It is the radicals, the hyper-violent terrorists, who disgrace themselves under the banner of Islam.
A girl of about 15 looks down at me from a second-story building as we stop for the crowds to cross the packed streets. She smiles and offers a tentative wave. How brave of her. I'm armed, armored, and clearly capable of using the short, scoped black automatic rifle that is my constant companion these days. But this little girl shows no fear. I'm close enough to see her eyes twinkle as we connect. I wave back with a gloved hand. She becomes a bit taller behind the balcony wall, perhaps now up on her tip-toes, and the smile explodes across her face. Her hand is now vigorous in its welcome.
I'm reminded of my kids back home and how I miss them so.
At the Palestine I see Peter Arnett. He passes by me so closely I could touch him. He notices the SF combat patch on my right shoulder from the war in El Salvador. He grimaces. He doesn't like us and we have no use for him. So much for his expertise on war plans.
The rest of the day is spent scouting the city. Huge palaces built on the backs of the Iraqi people are deserted now, but for U.S. and coalition troops who use them to sleep in and work out of. Destroyed vehicles and chunks of broken concrete litter the once pristine city streets. The never-forgotten aroma of still unburied Special Republican Guard and Saddam Feyadeen zealots whispers past my nostrils as we cruise the often deserted streets where Saddam's center of power held sway for nearly 40 years. Now and then a cat or dog perks up its ears as we run our patrol. Now and then a gunshot rings out from somewhere nearby.
For some, the war won't be over until the last drop of blood is forced to be shed.
But now we are the hunters, and they are the prey. It is tougher to fight us than the unarmed and helpless civilians they've brutalized for years. They are dangerous, but we are more dangerous.
The end of the day is graced with a quiet escort of Col. Stanton, our officer-in-charge on this trip. He'd been captured by the Iraqis in Kuwait City at the onset of the first Gulf War and held at the Al Rasheed Hotel in downtown Baghdad as a POW. He'd made the decision to bring closure to that experience by going back to the Al Rasheed, this time as a victor rather than prisoner.
I walk with him as he quietly describes his ordeal. We stop at times as he points out the pool his captors allowed him to swim in the first few days, then at the ninth floor where his prison cell was. He stands tall, composed, in command. We pose on the street in front of the ornate Al Rasheed sign. Col. Stanton notices the red rose I'd cut from one of Saddam's gardens earlier in the day and am wearing. I send my wife red roses whenever I can and this one was cut for her. He smiles and offers it's an appropriate symbol for his return to the Al Rasheed, as is the presence of a "Green Beret" at his side.
I'm in the presence of an American Hero.
As we slowly drive back out of the city the Iraqi people wave from rooftops, curbsides, and along the highway. Over and over I hear them chant "Thank you, America ... Thank you, America ... Thank you, America ... Today we are free!"