Baghdad Residents Weigh In on U.S. Security Efforts

On Tuesday, we spoke with the top American general in Iraq, David Petraeus, about the security situation there. Wednesday, we hear from Iraqis. Reporters in Iraq set out to get assessments from a number of Baghdadis.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Today, U.S. military officers told Defense Secretary Robert Gates they need help in northern Iraq. They said they don't have enough troops because so many have been called to Baghdad to take part in the surge there. U.S. Army Colonel Tony Thomas said the north has suffered. There's been an increase in violence. And Thomas calls for more American soldiers and the return of 1,400 Iraqi troops who were sent to the center of the country.

Meantime, there were four significant bombings in Iraq today, including one in a shopping district of Baghdad that killed 16 people. That was unusual. Baghdad has seen a decrease in violence over the last few months.

And we asked our staff in Baghdad to get the views of some Iraqis about whether the city is, in fact, a safer place to live.

Ms. MARWA AL ASSADI(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) Of course, there is a big change now. First, explosions have decreased. Secondly, we were noticing that people who wouldn't dare go out are back out again. We had been restricted in what we could wear for college, and before, my mother had to accompany me to college. But now, students are coming back. Thank God.

Mr. RIYADH AL RUBAI(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) Even when we talk to our friends on the Internet, who are abroad, we told them to come back. The situation is better. We told them that we have started to go out in a normal way.

Unidentified Man #: How long the avenue has been ready to Sadr?

Mr. SAMAR JAMIL(ph)(Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) So the city is safe for me, but I don't feel safe in other parts of Baghdad. I won't feel safe in Baghdad until I see the Iraqi ministers go shopping with suites(ph), back to regular citizens. And the soldiers and police can walk freely with their uniforms on. Then, I will say it's safe.

(Through Translator) Well, today, I woke up on the sound of an explosion. I didn't know where that explosion but for sure, there are so many casualties. And this is why I'm depressed. I do not think there's a security improvement. Recently, there was an explosion in the bed market, then, there was an explosion today. Weeks ago, it felt safer, but now, with these two explosions, things have gone bad.

Ms. HANA AL-YUBUDI(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) In July and August, it was unusually slow because most of the customers had fled the country. Most of my customers left abroad because the security issue was so tensed. Now, the situation has reversed. It's much better. I know hundreds of people who came back home, and those were still abroad wish to come back. They call us asking for advice, and we tell them we could walk the streets safely. We can wear what we like.

Mr. ZAHID BAHAMAD(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) Currently, the security situation is better. There is no comparison between the situation before and now. The displaced families are coming back to their neighborhoods. We left the neighborhood two months ago, but now we are back and Baghdad is very good for the time being.

Mr. ADNAN ALI ABDUL KARIM(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) I feel comfortable since there were no explosions today, except one in the morning. We hope there were no casualties in that explosion. There are fewer every day. We hope, God willing, we'll wake up one day without hearing any explosions, no car bombs or IEDs and people would be able to go about their business freely.

Mr. ADAL KAFAM(ph) (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) I feel 100 percent safe inside or Sadr City. In fact, our city brothers are coming to shop from a market here. No assassinations have taken place inside Sadr City. I want to invite our Sunni brothers to come to the city at any time. Our hospitals are open to you, the markets, too. Come see how safe it is inside the city.

BLOCK: We heard there from Baghdad residents Marwa Al-Assadi, Riyadh Al-Rubai, Samar Jamil, Hana Al-Yubudi, Zahid Bahamad, Adnan Ali Abdul Karim and Adal Kafam.

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Petraeus: Alliances Crucial as Troops Leave Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus i i

hide captionGen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says alliances and reconciliation are necessary to cement the gains from the U.S. troop "surge."

Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says alliances and reconciliation are necessary to cement the gains from the U.S. troop "surge."

Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images

After six months fully in place, the so-called U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq is, by all accounts, showing benefits. Civilian and military deaths are down, as are attacks on U.S. troops.

Some refugees are returning from neighboring countries, and Iraqis are returning to the streets and shops of some Baghdad neighborhoods.

But recent weeks have marked the beginning of the end for the surge: The first brigade is being rotated out — and not being replaced.

By the time all of the surge combat forces are redeployed next summer, there will be at least 25,000 fewer troops on the ground.

Gen. David Petraeus is the man who brought the extra troops to Iraq. The top commander of U.S. troops in Iraq talks to Melissa Block about how he will make gains stick as U.S. troops leave.

Melissa Block: As extra U.S. troops leave and aren't replaced, how do you move ahead? Or at least, how do you make the gains that you've seen so far stick?

Gen. David Petraeus: The Iraqi surge will continue. That has been ongoing throughout this time as well, and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and a like number of police have been added to their rolls during this time.

To be sure, there is an unevenness to the quality of these units; some are quite experienced and have been at it for quite a while and are quite competent. And then there are others that have literally just come off the parade field and gone right into the battlefield.

But that surge will continue, and we also have help in a number of local areas from what are called concerned local citizens. These are individuals who, as the tribes and others have stood up and rejected al-Qaida, in particular, have then said that they would like to contribute to security in their areas, and in fact, we have contracted with a number of them to help us do just that.

These concerned local citizens that you're talking about are overwhelmingly Sunni. Are you concerned that that transition into what is largely a Shiite military might not be so easy?

Sure. Yeah. No, there are very legitimate concerns here. In fact, we had a very good session with the prime minister and the ministerial council on national security on Sunday where a variety of voices were heard, laid out ... concerns, legitimate issues about the fact that these organizations could be infiltrated by al-Qaida, by insurgents who have not been reconciled with the new Iraq, by criminals — you name it.

But I should point out ... there are about 14,000 Shia among the concerned local citizens, and that's appropriate because some of these areas are mixed. The majority, though, as you pointed out, are Sunni because they're from Sunni areas. That's where al-Qaida was, that's where the insurgents associated with al-Qaida were, and they have helped us keep those areas clear, so that the sanctuaries that al-Qaida had before are now being held by a combination of Iraqi army, Iraqi police, coalition forces and, in some cases, these concerned local citizens.

There have been statements from some of the U.S. forces working with these concerned local citizens that they know full-well that among those people who they are now paying and trusting are people who, not so long ago, were setting IEDs and targeting U.S. troops. Doesn't that imply that there's some real problem with how much you can depend on them and how their allegiances might sway?

There are legitimate concerns that we share with our Iraqi counterparts. But beyond that ... you don't end the kind of conflict you've had here by killing everybody who shot at you. You end it by reconciling with as many of those as you can and making them part of the solution to deal with the remaining problem of the real, so-called hard-core irreconcilables. And that category would certainly include many of the al-Qaida (in) Iraq fighters.

Remember, this started when a tribal leader came to us and in so many words said, "Would it be OK if we point our weapons at al-Qaida instead of at you?" The Taliban-like ideology, the extremism in religion, the indiscriminate violence, all of these have damaged al-Qaida very much in the eyes of the Iraqi people.

This rejection of al-Qaida has been a hugely important factor in the reduction of violence as has, by the way, the fact that there are fewer foreign fighters coming into Iraq for a variety of reasons. One is, we do believe that neighboring countries are taking more vigorous action against foreign-fighter facilitators in Syria, in particular.

As you start reducing U.S. troop levels in Iraq and given the uneven performance of the Iraqi forces and Iraqi police, how worried are you about security gaps that either al-Qaida in Iraq or Shiite militias might very handily exploit?

Obviously we're watching areas very, very closely as we thin out our forces or move them around from one location to another. We've been doing this all along. Obviously, you have to respond to the enemy, and if you can get the enemy on the run, you need to stay after them. I mean, we are trying to get our teeth into the jugular of al-Qaida (in) Iraq if we can; at least that's the image that we would like to have for ourselves of what we and our Iraqi counterparts are attempting to do, and to stay after them, and to try to keep them on the run to stay in the pursuit mode, tactically ... as opposed to the deliberate attack where you had to go in and clear a city heavily defended like Ramadi or like Baqouba, and where ... obviously there are very tough casualties, and the enemy has been able to prepare massive explosive devices and so forth.

I'd like to have you respond to what a former U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, had to say earlier. He said he sees no evidence that Iraq's leaders are working toward a political solution, and he says he agrees with the bill in the House (of Representatives) to withdraw all combat troops by December of next year.

Let me just point out that there have been areas of political progress that I think we should give the Iraqis credit for. Very recently, for example, the pension law was signed. And it was interesting because it required overturning the veto by one member of the presidency council. This was hugely significant. In fact, arguably it could have been a benchmark law because it fosters reconciliation; it extends pension rights to a number of individuals, thousands of them, who were really left out because of policies followed after liberation.

The de-Baathification reform bill — (the) so-called Justice and Accountability (Law) — has had its second reading in the Iraqi parliament, in their council of representatives. So, there has been slow, very slow in some cases, halting progress in the political arena, and I think it would be only fair to recall the fundamental nature of the debate that has to be undertaken to reach agreement on some of the laws that they are striving to pass.

So when Gen. Sanchez says all combat troops should be out by December of 2008, to that, you would say what?

Again, I think I'd just come back to what our mission is here, and our mission is to — you know, we characterized it by the words "security while transitioning." And I don't think anyone believes that we'll be done either helping the Iraqis maintain security or ... transitioning all responsibilities to Iraqis across the board by the end of the year. So, again, from — I'm a soldier; I've got a mission, and we will certainly require forces to continue to perform that mission.

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