Troop Pullout Not The End Of U.S. Presence In Iraq

Watch Ted Koppel's Iraq report on MSNBC's Rock Center With Brian Williams.

U.S. forces will leave Iraq by January 2012, but with thousands of diplomats and contractors remaining in the country, the U.S. presence will remain strong in the months ahead. Commentator Ted Koppel shares what he observed in a recent reporting trip to Basra, Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. About 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and they will all leave by the end of this month. Yesterday, President Obama marked the end of the nearly nine-year-long war as a campaign promise kept. He stood beside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday and reflected on the costs and said U.S. troops will leave with their heads held high.

NPR commentator Ted Koppel recently visited Iraq on assignment for NBC's "Rock Center" with Brian Williams. His report aired last night. His conclusion: The United States is not leaving. The largest U.S. embassy in the world, two huge consulates and more than 16,000 officials and contractors will remain behind.

Ted Koppel ran it by U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.

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TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: I realize you can't go into it in any detail, but I would assume that there is a healthy CIA mission here. I would assume that JSOC may still be active in this country, the Joint Special Operations. You've got FBI here. You've got DEA here. Can you give me sort of a menu of who all falls under your control?

JAMES JEFFREY: You're actually doing pretty well, were I authorized to talk about half of this stuff...

CONAN: If you've been in Iraq, what are we leaving behind? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, we'll talk with Dr. Donald Berwick, who recently stepped down as the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But Ted Koppel joins us now here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you in the studio.

KOPPEL: Well, it's nice to actually see you, Neal.

CONAN: Though the president cheers his accomplishment, you say not so fast.

KOPPEL: I do say not so fast, and I think he knows better. But he's right, he did make the campaign promise to get all the troops out, and all the troops will be out, save 157 who will be guarding the embassy, and a few hundred U.S. military trainers.

But as you pointed out, 16 to 17 thousand others will be remaining behind, and the extraordinary thing, Neal, is we're hearing echoes now of what we heard nine years ago. You know, we can't have that smoking gun be a mushroom cloud. No one is actually using that particular formulation anymore, but the fear of nuclear weapons.

The danger of a nation that is supporting terrorism. Oil, which was the great unspoken issue in 2002 and 2003, very much a part of this. The difference, of course, now is that the target is Iran, not Iraq. But the two are very close to one another, and the fact of the matter is that Iran is exercising an enormous influence throughout Iraq.

And the oil fields, which have under the surface, they have something - I believe it's the second-largest reserves of any country in the world. That's all very close to Iran, and if Iran were to exercise significant political, let alone military, control in that region, together with their own oil and gas, they would have the capacity to wreak havoc on Western economies.

CONAN: So one of the things we are leaving behind is, despite those 16 to 17 thousand people, a vacuum.

KOPPEL: Well, one hopes that it won't be a vacuum. I mean, I asked the ambassador what would happen in the event of an out and out assault, a frontal assault, on the U.S. consulate that is down in Basra. And I should add parenthetically, Neal, the U.S. consulate down in Basra is rocketed two or three times a week.

The first thing that happens when you arrive there is they hand you a cup of coffee and they say we've got to give you a security briefing. And the security briefing is brief enough that I can give you here and now: When you hear the alarm, hit the deck face down. Put your hands over your ears, keep your mouth open, cross your legs.

When you ask how long it is between the time that the alarm goes off and the rockets hit, the answer is, well, not very long. I said, well, what do you mean, 30 seconds? Eventually you realize that you have about two seconds.

CONAN: That is the most peculiar-looking structure too. To call it a structure is incorrect. There are all of these - seeing it last night on TV - trailers covered by these extraordinary roofs.

KOPPEL: That's exactly right. And the roofs are there for one reason and one reason only, and that's the rocket attacks. The consulate in Basra is hit by rockets two to three times a week on an average week. The rocket attacks can consist of two or three rockets, sometimes 10 or 15 rockets.

Fortunately, rockets are not easily or well-aimed. So they just kind of hit a general area. But these roofs that you reference over the different living centers of the consulate are designed so that they will absorb the impact of flying shrapnel so that people beneath the roofs, at least, will be safe.

It looks very - I mean, it's almost like a - what's the architect's name, was it Saarinen, who designed the beautiful airport at Dulles in Northern Virginia, it looks rather like that except what you have beneath those roofs are very ordinary trailers, container housing units they call them, CHUs. And it's not a particularly elegant place to live, but at least under those roofs it's reasonably safe.

CONAN: We're talking with commentator Ted Koppel, just back from a visit to Baghdad and Basra. If you've been to Iraq in the uniform or not, give us a call. What do you think we're leaving behind? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Richard's on the line calling from Wichita.

RICHARD: Yeah, I had a concern with those 16,000 contractors and civilians that we're leaving behind, basically without military protection. Are we setting up for another Iranian hostage crisis? And I don't mean the first one that everybody's forgotten about that was diffused nicely under Ambassador William Sullivan, but the second one that basically started Ted Koppel's fame as the leader of "Nightline," which was essentially to report on the Iranian hostage crisis that brought down a presidency.

KOPPEL: Well, you have a good memory on all accounts. I remember the first hostage-taking. I remember Ambassador Sullivan, and of course I will never forget - Jimmy Carter once said to me that there were only two people in the world who had benefitted from the hostage-taking: the Ayatollah Khomeini and me. And I can't really disagree with him.

CONAN: August company.

KOPPEL: Well, if you get a chance to pick your company, I would pick otherwise, but your question is very well-founded. That is the fear: What happens if there is something more than just a rocket attack on the consulate down there in Basra? What happens if there is - go ahead, sir.

RICHARD: (Unintelligible) army - wouldn't they be perfect pawns for the ayatollah – the ayatollah who heads the Mahdi Army?

CONAN: The Mahdi Army, you're talking about Mr. Sadr?

RICHARD: Yeah, and his goal to have, you know, extraordinary powers and...

CONAN: Muqtada al-Sadr, yes. But Ted?

KOPPEL: Muqtada al-Sadr is - he and his party are now actually coalition partners with the Iraqi prime minister, who stood next to President Obama just yesterday. And it's interesting to point out - I mean your question is right on the money because Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers that when the U.S. troops leave - and this is not the exact formulation but pretty close - that those who remain behind, the U.S. diplomats who remain behind and the contractors who remain behind, should be regarded by his followers as foreign occupiers who must be driven out of Iraq.

So you're exactly right. The idea of taking hostages I'm sure has occurred to him.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is James and James with us from Wisconsin.

JAMES: Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call. What we're really talking about is pulling out from Iraq and then pulling our major influence out of Iraq. And my question is, I'm wondering how much influence are we really pulling out of there? You talk about we're leaving so much behind as far as that 16,000 personnel in the embassy and the CIA influence and all these other influences.

Now, they've been training the Iraqi military for 10 years now, building them up. Are we pulling out our American troops and really the Iraqis are going to be able to take that place, but they'll still be under the same command and control, American influence that we have had over there? Is our influence really leaving that region?

KOPPEL: They're - I mean, first of all, there continues to be an American influence in the sense that we have just sold the Iraqis 140 M1A1 tanks. We are in the process - I think the announcement was made just yesterday - of selling I think another 14 F16 fighter jets.

JAMES: Yeah, so with our money and our trade and our influence, and really like I say, with the money that we're supporting them and the weapons, and our ground personnel, they're kind of the lower, you know, echelons of the influence there, so they can switch nationalities, pull the Americans out and replace them with the Iraqis, but the power influential structure will still pretty much be in place, won't it?

KOPPEL: Well, I'd be a little cautious about that. To this day, a good deal of Iran's military hardware is American, dating back to the time that we sold all the advanced weapon systems that we could to the shah of Iran. Weapons are entirely neutral on who operates them. They don't care if they're operated by friends or foes.

What we have in Iraq today are many, many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of civilian contractors who together with military trainers - the M1A1 tank for example is built by General Dynamics, and the people who are there are General Dynamics personnel who are training the Iraqis.

But that's - in many respects, that's a purely commercial proposition. The Iraqis over this past year or two have purchased, I think, $7.5 billion worth of weapons, and we have transferred another $2.5 billion under a foreign aid package.

JAMES: Okay, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: All right, James, thanks very much. Yet we have to remember that Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war, a million dead counting both sides, and it was to the surprise of the Iraqis, who started it, that the Arab in Iran did not rise to join their cause but remained loyal to the Iranians, and then it was a surprise to the Iranians that the Shias in Iraq did not rise to their cause when they were ascendant. And yet these two have a bitter history.

KOPPEL: They have a very bitter history, but if you'll recall, Neal, on the front page of yesterday's New York Times there was a photograph of bodies and the remains of people who died during that war, which was back in the 1980s, being exchanged at the border of Iran and Iraq. In a manner of speaking, it was a symbolic way of saying that war is over, we are now friends.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel about how the country will look once U.S. troops leave Iraq. More in a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When Ted Koppel visited Iraq recently on assignment for NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams," he spoke with one of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's official spokesmen who assured Koppel that the age-old Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq is no longer an issue in his national forces.

Koppel then asked several uniformed officers about, some Sunni, some Shiite. At least one did not feel comfortable answering what to him was a sensitive question. Tensions have risen since the arrest of hundreds of former Baathists in the last couple of days. Some Iraqis fear the American withdrawal will leave room for divisions between Sunnis and Shiites to destabilize the country.

If you've been in Iraq, what are we leaving behind? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And I wanted to follow up with you, Ted, on that Shiite-Sunni divide. There was a - to call it a civil war is probably not exaggerating. Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, many, many were dead. And it is the Shiites who are ascendant. The Sunnis, of course, under Saddam Hussein were ascendant. And many fear the withdrawal of the referee, as you will, the Americans, will provide the opportunity for this war to erupt again.

KOPPEL: Interestingly enough, back during the height of that fighting, some of the worst of it was down in Basra, that area that we were just talking about.

CONAN: Very heavily Shiite.

KOPPEL: Very heavily Shiite. And Prime Minister Maliki went down there ostensibly to suppress, and indeed ultimately they did suppress, the Shiite forces who were largely supported by the Iranians. But that was done, although not much was made of it at the time, with very heavy U.S. military involvement. And without that U.S. military involvement, I don't think A, Maliki would have gone down and B, would not have been successful.

CONAN: And there is much talk of federalism in Iraq, which is more that constitutional musing. It is the Kurds who want to keep, pretty much, their own autonomy in the northern part of the country, the old...

KOPPEL: Or more. They may want to nationalize altogether.

CONAN: And then the - in Basra, the southern oil-rich part of the country, they would like to set up their own province much like Kurdistan.

KOPPEL: And the Sunni talking about doing some of the same things in the center of the country. So you're absolutely right. There is that, and I don't think it would take very much for Iraq to blow up again.

CONAN: Lets' go next to Gaea(ph), Gaea with us from Tallahassee.

GAEA: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I lived in Iran prior to the hostage takeover, and Iran prides itself on not initiating or being the aggressor, but they're very good and very crafty in provoking another nation to engage in war, and then they strike. And I feel that that will happen over the oil in Iraq. I'd like your comments on that.

KOPPEL: Well, I hear what you're saying, and I don't disagree with what you're saying, but I'm not sure how they provoke the Iraqis to do something along the border that will enable Iran then to move into Iraq. That sort of seems a little bit backwards.

I think the provocations are already ample in that the rockets that are being fired and the militia that are firing those rockets, the rockets are supplied by the Iranians, the militia are trained by the Iranians.

CONAN: And the military officer - U.S. military officers you spoke with, made no bones about this.

KOPPEL: Absolutely, absolutely. No, there was a lieutenant colonel down there who had been there for the purpose of facilitating the turnover from the military to the civilians, and he said - I asked him who's the enemy, and he said the enemy, you know, the enemy is clearly Iran, and it's the Iranian-backed militia, and the weapons are coming across the border.

GAEA: I see. I was thinking more along the lines of provoking another nation over Iraq.

KOPPEL: Which nation did you have in mind?

GAEA: Israel or perhaps (unintelligible).

KOPPEL: Ah, I see. Well, you know, that's a very interesting point. I heard a lot of talk among, particularly the U.S. military over there, that they are concerned about - not always concerned in a negative way - but feel that there is a very real possibility that the Israelis will attack Iran's nuclear facilities. And where that would lead, good lord only knows.

GAEA: Right.

CONAN: Gaea, thanks very much.

GAEA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Conrad(ph), Conrad with us from Scottsdale, Arizona.

CONRAD: Hi, gentlemen, thank you. I was wondering what the general state of Iraq is to become a sovereign nation, practical things like their electricity and finances and their Chapter 7 sanctions and the hydrocarbon law that's been kind of looming for many years.

CONAN: Chapter 7 was of course the United Nations sanctions that were applied to Iraq back in the 1990s up until 2003. They, of course, have been lifted since the U.S. invasion. But the other questions, Ted?

KOPPEL: I'm so glad you answered that one, Neal.

CONRAD: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Pardon me?

CONRAD: I don't think it's completely...

CONAN: I believe you're incorrect. I think they have all been lifted. Go ahead, Ted.

KOPPEL: All right, now, the rest of the question, I'm sorry, I was so focused on - so focused on what I didn't know that...

CONRAD: What's the state of them being a sovereign nation, the practical stuff like their economy, I know they have problems with electricity being on 24 hours a day, it's only four or five hours a day, and then just their dinar is basically worthless, and I believe they're using American dollars. So as far as the practicalness of, you know, building roads and just rebuilding the nation.

KOPPEL: Well, the practicality in terms of rebuilding the nation, there are all kinds of volunteers who are willing. And when I say volunteers, I mean governments in addition to our own. The Chinese are there. The Germans are there. The British are there. The French are there.

There is a whiff of money in the air. Again, I saw an item I think in the paper just this morning in which it may have been President Obama who yesterday made reference to the fact that the Iraqi economy is growing faster than the economy of India. That's quite extraordinary when you think about it.

CONAN: Oil helps. Conrad, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Ken(ph) in Portland: A lot of talk about Iranian-supported attacks on the consulate in Basra. Does Ted see any danger of outright Iranian invasion of Iraq, from there, threatening Saudi Arabia? Do they have the military capability for something like that? Do you think the U.S. would be willing to redeploy to the region with sufficient force to counter if that happens?

KOPPEL: Well, first of all, no I don't think the Iranians are going to launch an all-out attack, unless, of course, what one of our earlier callers suggested were to happen, and that is if the Israelis were to bomb the nuclear facilities in Iran, then I think all bets would be off, and there's no telling where the Iranians might try to strike back.

So, you know, the issue of do I think there will be an all-out attack, no. Do I think we have sufficient forces in the region? Certainly CENTCOM believes that it has adequate forces in the region. We have a huge Naval/Marine presence in the Persian Gulf. There is a growing U.S. military presence in Kuwait.

You have, of course, the naval headquarters in Bahrain, and there are ample U.S. forces in the area for, certainly, an initial response. And if it were just for the rescue of Americans, there would be an awkward moment because when I asked the ambassador, you know, what do we do if people come under direct attack, he said that's the responsibility of the Iraqi government.

I asked him: Are you confident that they would respond? And he said yes. I pointed out last night that that is what ambassadors are expected to do, and that is to be polite to their hosts. The military leaders that I interviewed were a little more blunt about it, and they made it quite clear that they think CENTCOM has adequate forces in the region to be able to respond and that they would.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph), and Chris is calling us from Fort Bragg.

CHRIS: Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CHRIS: Well, thanks for taking my call. I'd like to make the point - well, I just left Iraq a couple months ago, and so I was in an intel position, and so I understand a little bit about the issue. First I'd like to talk about U.S. influence. One of the callers suggested that we might be losing influence by leaving or he asked what we might be losing.

So I want to point out that U.S. ground forces really haven't been doing a whole lot outside of their bases for quite some time. I don't know - I mean, at least eight or 10 months since there's been really any kind of, you know, major operations or anything outside of the bases except, you know, maybe a few Special Operations things.

So pulling out those forces probably isn't going to lose a whole lot of influence for us. The other thing I want to touch on is - and this kind of goes to the point, you know, would Iran invade Iraq, I think if you really look at it, you can see that Iran has successfully gained a lot of political influence in Iraq. They have a lot of, you know, Iraqi elected officials who are, you know, Shia and very supportive of Iran, and there are a lot of ties already between the Iraqi government and the Iranian government. And so I don't think it makes a lot of sense for them to attack all out anyway. They have quite a bit of political will as it is. So I would say that, you know, I just want to make the point that Iran already has a major influence in Iraq. And by us leaving, we may be giving up a little bit of our, you know, share of influence in that nation. I guess that's the point I would make for now.

KOPPEL: Well, I think it's an interesting point, but let me point out to you in return that we still have tens of thousands of troops in South Korea. They haven't engaged in any military action either for almost 60 years. The fact of the matter is they are left there as a sign of U.S. commitment to South Korea. They are left there with the clear understanding that if anything were to happen and North Korea were to attack, that they would be the tripwire that would bring in other U.S. force. The fact that U.S. troops are being pulled out of Iran altogether...

CONAN: Iraq.

KOPPEL: Out of Iraq, I'm sorry. Out of Iraq altogether, I agree with you. They haven't been used in any military fashion for almost a year now. Doesn't matter. The knowledge that they were there was important. The knowledge that they are leaving is also important.

CHRIS: OK. I guess, you know, that's a pretty fair point. I would just say, though, that also, you know, Iran has a strong political influence over Iraq and so...

KOPPEL: Oh, I totally agree with you on that. You're absolutely right about that.

CHRIS: OK. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Chris, welcome home. Thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel, just back from a trip to Iraq on assignment from "Rock Center with Brian Williams" for NBC. His piece aired last night. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's see - we go next to - this is Corey(ph) . Corey with us from Phoenix.

COREY: Hi. Thanks for having me on your show.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

COREY: Yes. The question I have for Mr. Koppel in terms of our - what we're leaving behind, I think two questions that we haven't really addressed where I'm hoping that maybe you have some information on how we're addressing it in terms of our legacy. The first is the economic impact of having all of our military leave the country. I was over there twice and I believe what we saw was that it was actually a very large economic impact in terms of what we gave to the local economy.

And I'm wondering if there's a phased economic withdrawal or any kind of stimulus plan for us leaving to alleviate that economic impact. And my second question is in terms of women's rights in Iraq. As something that, of course, is a laudable goal, it is traditionally antithetical to Muslim culture, the idea of women being equal and having the freedom to be at the same level as men. Is that something that we've looked at in terms of revolution down the road, causing possibly the same kind of extremism that came out of the brain drain in the '50s and '60s where a lot of their cultures were Westernized?

And then the pendulum swung the other way and led to a lot of the extremism in the '70s. Have we looked at seeing if there's a possibility for that happening now as we pull out?

KOPPEL: Boy, I don't think that that is one of Iraq's major problems. The fact of the matter is that even under Saddam Hussein, perhaps particularly under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was not a particularly fundamentalist kind of country. It was far more sectarian. And as far as the economic impact of the United States is concerned, you know, the previous caller made the point and made it accurately, as I said, that for the past year or so, Americans have remained almost - I'm talking about the troops - have remained almost entirely on their bases where they are supplied largely by food and material that comes from the United States or from Western Europe. I don't know how much they actually purchased on the local Iraqi market, but I doubt that it will make much of a difference.

CONAN: There was a lot of reconstruction projects, the provincial reconstruction teams, that sort of aid...

KOPPEL: But they've been pulled out, and that is - you're absolutely right, Neal, to draw attention to that - that's having an impact.

COREY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Corey. Let's see if we go next to one more call. Doug. Doug with us from Kansas City.

DOUG: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

DOUG: My question surrounds the historic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. My understanding is the Saudi Arabian government by and large is very comfortable with an American presence in Iraq to counter Iranian influence in the region. And I wonder if you had any insights into how they feel with us pulling out of the region. Are they going to be significantly concerned with growing Iranian influence in Iraq? And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Doug.

KOPPEL: It's an interesting question because you're absolutely right. No love is lost between Iraq - between Iran, rather, and Saudi Arabia. And you may recall that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the fear was that that the next step would be that he was going to invade Saudi Arabia. There were some sense of movement of Iraqi troops, but you're talking about Iran and Saudi Arabia. I'm sure the Saudis are concerned about the departure of Americans altogether from Iraq.

Whether the presence that we now have in the Persian Gulf and in places like Kuwait is going to be sufficient to put their minds at ease, I don't know. But let me simply raise one more point that indicates the kind of political influence that Iran has on Iraq right now. We the United States and the Arab League wanted to impose sanctions on Syria because of everything that is happening in that country today. Almost the entire Arab League was willing to go along with it.

There were only two countries and one faction - Hezbollah in Lebanon, the government of Iran, and interestingly enough the government of Iraq - that refused to go along.

CONAN: Ted Koppel just back from Basra and Baghdad. His report aired on "30" - not "30 Rock" but "Rock Center with Brian Williams."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I'm sure I'm not the first person to make that mistake.

KOPPEL: They have better ratings.

CONAN: And, well, you were one of two debuts last night on "Rock Center."

KOPPEL: Exactly.

CONAN: One of them got a little bit more attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But in any case, congratulations on the piece, Ted, and nice to have you back here in Studio 3A.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

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