Assessing Security in Iraq's Provinces

Renee Montagne talks with Pamela Hess, Pentagon correspondent for United Press International. In early August, with the constitutional referendum in mind, she set out to visit every one of Iraq's provinces to assess the security situation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pamela Hess is a Pentagon correspondent for United Press International. In early August, looking ahead to the referendum on the constitution, she set out to visit every single one of Iraq's provinces. She wanted to assess the security situation in each of these areas. She was embedded with the military. She returned from Iraq last Friday and came to our studio in Washington, DC, to talk about what she found.

Good morning.

Ms. PAMELA HESS (United Press International): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So you set off to assess the security situation in all the provinces, but I gather you didn't make it to all of them?

Ms. HESS: I didn't. I think I got to 14 of them. I got hung up at the battle of Tall'Afar. It's up in the north, west of Mosul, between Mosul and the Syrian border. There was a great deal of fighting there.

MONTAGNE: How much of the country is really secure?

Ms. HESS: Really secure is a very difficult term to relate to Iraq. It's not secure at all, I think, according to any American who would go there. I was there for nine weeks and not once was I in mortal peril, at least as far as I know. I was shot at once or twice when I was in a Black Hawk helicopter flying, but in general nothing happened.

MONTAGNE: Give us a sense of the mood in different provinces ahead of Saturday's referendum. I mean, we hear about the Sunni triangle, the Kurdish north, the Shia south. What are the differences in opinion there on the constitution?

Ms. HESS: I think it's very tempting for Americans especially to look at that place and to lump large groups together: the Sunnis think this, the Shias think this, the Kurds think this. I found a great deal of difference of opinion on one block in Baghdad. I discovered a family of women who were Sunnis. The older girl is 22, college student, quite pro-US. I asked her if she was planning to vote for the--in the referendum, and she looked at me blankly. She didn't know that there was a constitutional referendum going on.

I went down the street and met a man who was a product of a Sunni and a Shia marriage and he said he would be voting for the constitution. He was very excited about it. He was a merchant. He said, you know, `It's the first step towards us moving on.'

Then again around the corner, I met a Sunni who told me quite readily, after we talked for about two minutes, that he considered it his duty to kill Americans. I asked him, `Will you vote for the--on the referendum?' and he said, yes, he was going to vote against it, and I said, `And what do you think will happen if the referendum passes?' and he said, `As long as we feel like the vote is fair, there'll be no problem, but if we think the vote is unfair, there will be war.'

MONTAGNE: When you traveled into these provinces and maybe far outside of Baghdad, how much awareness was there of this vote?

Ms. HESS: Most people are just kind of picking up what they know on the street. There is posters that are up around town. One odd one are giant hands with a snow globe with an Iraqi flag inside of it, and the verbiage on it says, `Vote and unify Iraq.' One of the problems in this is that the United States military is prohibited from using the word `vote' in its communications or when it talks to anyone because the United States government doesn't want to make it look like this election--has its handprints on it, so all the US military is allowed to do is encourage people to take part in the democratic process.

MONTAGNE: What were people talking about left to their own devices? I mean, did you find any consistency across the different provinces in people's concerns?

Ms. HESS: Left to their own devices, everyone just brings up the problem with power and the problem with water. These are really fundamental issues to everyone's lives and there are places that still have one or two hours of power a day, and if you can't afford your own electrical generator, you're out of luck. So when you're dealing with these subsistence-level issues, there's not a lot of opportunity to get too worked up about the fine points of the constitution that you haven't even read yet.

MONTAGNE: Pamela Hess is a Pentagon correspondent for the United Press International, back from nine weeks on the road in Iraq.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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