Sept. 11 And Iraq

Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Kelly McEvers about life in Iraq 10 years after the attacks. Although Saddam Hussein didn't have anything to do with the attacks, the Bush administration tied him to the and made the case that Iraq harbored terrorists and was a legitimate military target.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: Earlier today a ceremony was held at the Pentagon to remember those who died when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta remembered the victims and also honored those who volunteered for service after the attacks.

Secretary LEON PANETTA: The strength of our democracy has always rested on the willingness of those who believe in its values and in their will to serve to give something back to this country, to fight and to sacrifice - above all, to do that in times of crisis. September 11th was such a time and in the wake of the attacks, the generation of Americans stepped forward to serve in uniform, determined to confront our enemies and respond to them swiftly and justly.

CORNISH: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaking earlier today at the Pentagon. You're listening to live special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks from NPR News. Now within hours of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush addressed the nation and said the U.S. would make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.

A little more than a year later, American and British forces invaded Iraq, ultimately toppling Saddam Hussein and sparking widespread sectarian violence. NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Baghdad and joins us now. Hi there, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS: Hello.

CORNISH: Now, Kelly, much of the talk surrounding the invasion of Iraq was about the presence, the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction which turned out not to be true, and the alleged connection to al-Qaida, which also turned out not to be true. But al-Qaida definitely did make its presence known in Iraq after the invasion, correct?

MCEVERS: Right. Yes, definitely.

CORNISH: Is it that al-Qaida in Iraq used to be very connected to al-Qaida writ large?

MCEVERS: At the time, yes. When U.S. troops were here in full force that was definitely true. If you talk to American and Iraqi commanders today, they'll tell you that nowadays it's not so much that they are connected to this larger international organization. In 2006, you know, you saw the killing of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi who was very much a part of the larger al-Qaida.

And then in 2010, you know, you had the killing of two more top leaders of the local organization. You know, these are guys who had sort of personal connections to Osama bin Laden's group. They knew him. They fought with him back in the day. Now with them gone, of course, there are other, you know, leaders to replace them but they don't have that connection back to the home office that they did and back to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So they've lost that source of inspiration and of funding, frankly, that they had before.

CORNISH: Has the ongoing withdrawal of American troops made al-Qaida there any more or less relevant?

MCEVERS: I mean, in some ways, you know, you have to say it's made it less relevant. You know, from the very beginning a lot of the insurgent activity in Iraq was a resistance to what most Iraqis believed were occupying forces. I mean, let's face it, like you said, there was really no al-Qaida presence in Iraq until the U.S. came here. But now that US forces are drawing down, there's less to resist, so the resistance movement, the resistance ideology, is naturally weaker.

But also, you know, as Iraq moves into sort of a post-war state, there's still quite a bit of violence. You know, some of this is al-Qaida. Some of this is from Shiite militias, but some of it's economic violence, some of it's political violence. It's almost like a Latin American country, in some ways, that's years after a war.

You know, let's say you want to take out a business rival or, you know, it's easy to plant a bomb here in Iraq these days and just say, well, it was al-Qaida. So I think, you know, we all have to be really careful when Iraqi and American officials try to kind of link everything to this organization. I think now, as before, that's not always the case.

CORNISH: So at this point, what is the status of the debate over whether there'll be American troops in the country after the end of the year deadline for their withdrawal?

MCEVERS: It sounds like both the US and Iraq agree that some contingents of troops should stay into next year, despite the fact that, you know, Iraqis have so violently resisted American troops.

If that happened, that would go beyond the deadline that was negotiated between Iraq and the US during the Bush administration. So in order for that to happen, these troops would need certain legal protections and that would require a new sort of formal agreement that goes through the Iraqi parliament and goes through a long sort of political process.

In order to avoid that, it seems like both sides now are sort of looking for a way to do it, you know, in a different way that doesn't involve so much negotiations. So now, the latest numbers we're hearing out of Washington is just three or four thousand American troops - they would call them trainers - to stay here beyond the deadline into next year.

CORNISH: NPR's Kelly McEvers speaking to us from Baghdad. Kelly, thank you so much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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