U.S. Commander Reflects on His Tour in Iraq

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With more than 5,000 troops, the Fourth Combat Brigade of the U.S. Third Infantry Division is responsible for a wide swath of central and southern Baghdad. As the brigade's tour comes to a close, its commander, Col. Edward Cardon, reflects on everything from battling insurgents to training Iraqi forces.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Iraq today, the government announced that an overnight curfew will be imposed beginning Tuesday in advance of national elections to be held later in the week. Supporters of Saddam Hussein today also called on Sunni Arabs to participate in the elections, and urged insurgents to not disrupt the voting.

The impending elections have increased speculation over whether another step in the Iraqi political process will open the way for the United States to reduce the number of military personnel in Iraq. For the 5,000 troops of the 4th Combat Brigade of the US 3rd Infantry Division, a homecoming is already planned. The division is responsible for a wide swath of central and southern Baghdad, including some of the capital's most troubled areas, and their tour of duty ends soon. NPR's Anne Garrels spoke to the brigade commander, Colonel Edward Cardon, about everything from battling insurgents to training Iraqi forces.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

The tiny plastic Christmas tree with blinking pink- and lime-colored lights bought in a local market will probably be left behind, but the family photographs on his desk will soon be packed up along with a poster honoring the brigade's deployment in Iraq. Forty-five-year-old Colonel Edward Cardon says the last stretch has been the roughest. The brigade lost 16 men in the past three months, about as many as they lost in the previous eight. His units have increased operations in southern Baghdad, which insurgents have used as a launchpad into the rest of the city. His patrol bases have been hit hard. And while the overall number of attacks is down in his sector, roadside bombs are still a problem and they are now more sophisticated and more powerful.

Colonel EDWARD CARDON (Commander, 4th Combat Brigade): The ID on the road, you find that, that's--all that means is that you found that one and there might be another one there the next day or that afternoon. This is why you need informants and intelligence.

GARRELS: Colonel Cardon says he's got enough American troops. What he needs are more and better-trained Iraqis.

Col. CARDON: I don't have enough Iraqi informant networks and intelligence networks.

GARRELS: After working closely with Iraqi troops assigned to him, he says the army is much improved. The police, however, are another matter. In addition to units which may be loyal to one of the Shiite militias, some have tribal ties, some have ties to the insurgents and then there are the personal security detachments working for government ministers which are responsible to no one but their boss.

Col. CARDON: That, I think, is dangerous.

GARRELS: After concentrating on improving the army, he's got his men working with the police.

Col. CARDON: We've actually started to take this on in a much more aggressive manner, and now almost all Ministry of Interior forces have some sort of a training team with them. They were kind of formed very rapidly with very charismatic commanders who, you know, as one once slammed his table down, you know, `I am the law.' I had to remind him, `No, you are not the law.' They're pretty heavy-handed and you have to really watch them.

GARRELS: The secret Iraqi police facility where 170 detainees were being held and mistreated was discovered in Colonel Cardon's area of operations. The Ministry of the Interior claims the US had to have known about the prison; Cardon says that's not true.

Col. CARDON: We saw what they wanted us to see.

GARRELS: When criticized for their treatment of detainees, Cardon says the police sometimes try to pass the buck.

Col. CARDON: They try and cover themselves sometimes. They says, `Well, the reason they didn't have enough food is because you didn't bring enough food to feed them,' to which you just look and say, `But that's your responsibility.'

GARRELS: He says he aggressively pursues reports of illegal detention facilities.

Col. CARDON: We get a tip on that, we act and we act right away. Now does that mean there are not people out there breaking the rules? I bet there's some people out there breaking the rules. But it's a lot harder to do than it was even two months ago.

GARRELS: So instead of holding detainees in places where they might be found, some police appear to have adopted new tactics. Unnamed men, presumably police, pick up suspects, torture and beat them to get confessions and then dump them off at a security checkpoint. Those security forces say they don't know who dropped the suspects off.

Col. CARDON: You never get the full story. You wonder if, like, there's collusion sometimes. It's very hard to pin this down.

GARRELS: In the time he's been here, Cardon has seen an increase in assassinations in certain areas; sectarian violence is on the rise. But there are other reasons.

Col. CARDON: A black BMW with tinted windows with three men inside drove up, shot him, killed him, left. You don't know why. Is that criminal in nature? Is it political in nature? Is it corruption in nature?

GARRELS: While his men are getting more tips than before, Colonel Cardon says local leaders need to do more. Iraqi forces need to do more, especially when it comes to tracking down foreign fighters. Though not the most numerous, Cardon says they are by far the most ruthless.

Col. CARDON: And al-Qaeda's there with money, resource and planning abilities and organizational skills. They're pretty tough to find, and this problem ultimately will have to be solved by the Iraqis. I mean, we can chase them forever, but because they're foreign fighters, even if we pick them up, they just replace them. It took me a while to figure out--it's, like, `Boy, we're picking a lot of people up here, but it doesn't seem like it's made that much of an impact.' You really have to form more of a very permanent security presence and get a deep intelligence and informant network working to keep them out.

GARRELS: He says there comes a point when the US presence doesn't help.

Col. CARDON: Sooner than later, we have to withdraw out of certain places that Iraqis have clearly demonstrated that they can control. I think there may be some merit to, in some areas, taking a little bit more risk than we're taking and not making everything so perfect.

GARRELS: Pointing to progress over the past year, he notes Sunnis are going to vote this time, though they are far from unified. Cardon thinks the government is stronger, if still corrupt. He says the infrastructure is better with electricity up to prewar levels. The problem, Cardon says, is demand has doubled. As for the specter of civil war...

Col. CARDON: I don't see that. That said, Iraq is a very complex place. Are there tensions? Yes. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think Iraqis are extremely nationalistic and do not want to see the country broken up.

GARRELS: This was Cardon's second tour in Iraq. Asked if he expected to be assigned here again, Cardon says, `Yes, just in another position,' and hopefully with enough time at home to get reacquainted with his family. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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