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ARLINGTON, Va. — It’s a sight one old leatherneck said he “will never, ever, ever forget”: a man bent and wizened by age, pushing a wheelchair through the streets of a small town in Iraq. In the wheelchair was “an extremely bent, aged old woman,” barely able to keep her balance in the rickety contraption.

As Marine Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces for U. S. Central Command, passed by in his Humvee, the Iraqi couple caught his eye.

“Both gave a thumbs up, and the old woman started blowing kisses,” Hailston told Pentagon reporters Thursday during a video teleconference from his headquarters in Bahrain. “It’s something that will never leave my mind.”

The Marines who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom made Corps history during the “run to Baghdad,” moving more than 500 miles inland from their ships to Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in a matter of weeks.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corp’s Harrier jump jets, which have been under fire since a recent newspaper series labeled the vertical lift-off attack jets as virtual deathtraps, flew more than 1,000 missions off carrier decks without a single major mishap.

And several new technologies, including the Marines’ new “Dragon Eye” unmanned aerial vehicle, new sensor suites aboard the Harrier and the F-18 jet, and command and control electronic gizmos, proved their mettle on the battlefield.

Yet it’s the Iraqi people, Hailston said, who stick out in his mind.

“Earl Hailston will go for a long time remembering the sight of a repressed people,” greeting the soldiers and Marines who liberated Iraq, he said.

Hailston is in charge of the 72,000 active and reserve Marines and sailors who are now in Central Command’s area of operations, which includes Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks also put Hailston in charge of a special task force that would have stepped in to manage the consequences if Saddam or terrorists had deployed any weapons of mass destruction.

Hailston credits a pre-war psychological operations effort for stopping Iraqi soldiers from using chemical or biological weapons, via leaflet drops over suspected Iraqi positions.

“We worked very hard from Day 1” to let the Iraqis know that any use of WMD would not only fail to stop the American fighters, but also be severely punished, Hailston said. “I think people listened to [the leaflet messages] an awful lot, and it made a difference.”

Another reason the Iraqis never unleashed WMD, Hailston said, is because “our forces got there faster than [Saddam] was able to think.”

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