Iraqi Refugees Weigh In on 'Surge'

Zeyad Abdel Okhowa and Col. Arkan Hamid consider the question that we have been posing in our series on the Bush administration's latest strategy in Iraq: Is Iraq better or worse off since the surge began?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. From NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

Unidentified Man #1: I see progress, a steady progress.

Unidentified Man #2: The new security plan failed.

Unidentified Man #3: It's a hard thing to change from a dictatorship to run a democracy...

Unidentified Man #4: Do the Iraqi people feel better about today than they did about yesterday?

COHEN: We heard earlier about the tensions between the civilian and military leadership over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. This comes ahead of General David Petraeus' report to the president in which he may call for several more months of a troop buildup. Over the last month, we've been hearing from various voices about the surge in Iraq and asking this question: are things in Iraq better or worse off since the surge began?

CHADWICK: This week we're talking to a couple of Iraqi refugees, one from the southern part of Iraq - now, that's not a part of the surge area. This man and his family have relocated to Boise, Idaho. But we're going to start with Colonel Arkan Hamid. He now lives in Damascus, Syria. Originally he's from a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad.

COHEN: He still goes back to Iraq and he was there just a month ago, trying to sell off more of his belongings he had left behind when he originally fled. The place he is from, Aramiya(ph), has been divided into Sunni and Shiite by a large cement wall.

CHADWICK: So you've been back a couple of times over the last six months. Tell us what changes you see in Baghdad and throughout Iraq as you travel through western Iraq. What changes do you see now as a result of the surge?

Colonel ARKAN HAMID (Iraqi Army, Retired): There are so many barracks, so many wires, so many concrete walls, so many checkpoints. There are a lot of militias on the road and everywhere you can't tell which is which. And you can't tell them a Sunni's name or a Shiite's name because you don't know who are these people who are asking you. So this is a problem to every traveler.

CHADWICK: Do you feel any more secure driving through western Iraq now than you did, say, eight or nine or ten months ago?

Col. HAMID: Yes, I feel more secure because of the coalition of the tribes of Anbar with the government.

CHADWICK: So the situation in Anbar province - this is the Sunni province that had been the source of a lot of trouble early on and really through the middle part of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, but you think that the situation there has gotten better?

Col. HAMID: Yes, it has gotten better but not as for the American troops because the American troops are daily exploding either a Hummer or something, some kind of vehicles, or soldiers had been killed in Anbar.

CHADWICK: Did you drive back to eastern Baghdad in November or December of last year?

Col. HAMID: Yes, I did.

CHADWICK: And then you were there also about a month ago, yes?

Col. HAMID: Yes.

CHADWICK: What was the difference in making those two trips, one back in November or December before the surge and then about a month ago after the surge? How were those two trips different?

Col. HAMID: Well, there's a very big difference. Before, I used to go from so many roads leading us to Aramiya. I mean, my city is - I live in Aramiya. I cannot go to Aramiya except from one of the corners, which is under square. This is the only entrance to their city and the other roads are closed, totally closed by the blocks.

CHADWICK: As a military man, maybe you say, a-ha, this means there's better security. They are trying to channel people into certain places so that the security forces can see exactly what's happening.

Col. HAMID: No, as a military - as a national military, I see that those are dividing Baghdad into parts, into pieces.

CHADWICK: Col. Hamid, when you are back in Baghdad, I wonder if you ever meet with any of your old fellow retired officers from Saddam Hussein's army.

Col. HAMID: Well, actually, I didn't meet anybody, not even my relatives.

CHADWICK: You don't ever get together with anyone?

Col. HAMID: No.

CHADWICK: Why not?

Col. HAMID: Why not, because I cannot leave after 1:00 o'clock p.m.

CHADWICK: You have to stay indoors?

Col. HAMID: Yes.

CHADWICK: It's not safe?

Col. HAMID: Yeah. It's not only not safe, every traffic light is unsafe because wherever you stand at a traffic light and cars are standing beside you and tens of cars are waiting, clashes are started.

CHADWICK: Col. Arkan Hamid, a retired colonel from the Iraqi army now living in Damascus, Syria, where he spoke with us by phone. Colonel, thank you.

Col. HAMID: Thank you.

COHEN: Next to Zeyad Abdel Okhowa in Boise, Idaho. He worked as a political assistant in the U.S. embassy in Hilla(ph) in southern Iraq. We first talked with Zeyad shortly after his family had arrived in Boise, or the place they first thought was Bwah-zay(ph).

CHADWICK: Zeyad left Iraq in February right as the surge began, so his direct experience with the surge is limited. Still, he's remained in touch with friends and colleagues from both the southern part of the country and Baghdad. And I asked him what are you hearing?

Mr. ZEYAD ABDEL OKHOWA (Iraqi Refugee): What I'm hearing from people that they think that the surge did not make any difference for the good. Some of them said that, no, things are worse, or much worse than it used to be before the surge.

CHADWICK: When you heard about the surge, did you think that this was a good idea? Something that it was worth trying?

Mr. OKHOWA: No. What we have in Iraq is a combination or a mixture of political and sectarian conflict. It's not a security problem. Unfortunately, there is a government in Iraq, they are saying that is an elected government and sometimes they call it the national unity government, but I don't think so; that government actually is not dealing with the Iraqis on an equal base. I mean, they treat the Shia some way and they treat the Sunnis on another way, the Kurds and the Arabs.

CHADWICK: Even if it is a political and sectarian problem, how can you make any progress on that if people are afraid to walk down the street because there's so much violence?

Mr. OKHOWA: Yeah, but the surge - and extra 30,000 troops - will not solve this problem. For instance, I'm talking to people in Baghdad and they told me that now it's more difficult to go out to get some vegetables or to go shopping than it was or than it used to be four or six months ago.

Now, probably there are some neighborhoods that is making some good points but many other neighborhoods are actually going very bad. We are talking about people are afraid of, you know, going out in the street and that we think then the surge will solve this problem. I hope, but unfortunately it's not.

CHADWICK: Zeyad, when we spoke with you earlier on this program, you said it would be a mistake for U.S. troops to just withdraw. So even though you were not in favor of the surge at first...

Mr. OKHOWA: Mm-hmm?

CHADWICK: ...are you saying Iraq really would be worse off without the U.S. soldiers there?

Mr. OKHOWA: I am against the idea of pulling out the troops from Iraq now or even put a schedule for that, because the al-Qaida and the other biggest threat actually to the U.S. in Iraq, which is the Iranians, they are waiting for this moment when the U.S. troops to pull out - and actually, the presence of the U.S. troops in Iraq prevent the Iranians, prevent the al-Qaida, prevent the Shia militia groups themselves from fighting and taking over the cities and provinces and doing all that chaos in the country.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: That was Zeyad Abdel Okhowa, an Iraqi refugee now living in Boise, Idaho. Earlier we heard from Colonel Arkan Hamid, a refugee in Damascus, Syria. For our full series on the surge, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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