Training Troops to Police a Volatile Iraq

U.S. Army Capt. Phillip Carter has been training Iraqi security forces in Iraq. He talks with Alex Chadwick about his day-to-day experiences.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West. This is DAY TO DAY. Madeleine Brand is on assignment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up in a still wounded American city a celebration of life, New Orleans and Mardi Gras. First the lead, another day of bad numbers in Baghdad.

(Soundbite of siren)

CHADWICK: Police say at least 56 people died in bombings today including a suicide attack and several car bombs. The official number of dead since last week's bombing of a shrine is at least 400. Talks continue to form a new government critics accuse Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari of weak leadership. And the trial of deposed leader Saddam Hussein resumed after a month's boycott by his lawyers.

For more on life in Iraq, DAY TO DAY resumes an Iraq conversation now with U.S. Army Capt. Phillip Carter home on leave. In civilian life, Capt. Carter is a lawyer and contributing writer at Slate Magazine. We last spoke in October before he left for Iraq, and when we caught up yesterday, I began by asking him where he's been assigned and what he's doing.

U.S. Army Captain PHILLIP CARTER: I'm stationed in Bacuba which is about 40 miles, north, northeast of Baghdad and I'm part of an advisory team that works with the Iraqi Police.

CHADWICK: And what do you do every day? What does that mean to be part of an advisory team working with the Iraqi Police?

Capt. CARTER: We are embedded with the police so we live and work and train with them on a daily basis. As the operations officer, I split my job between planning and coordinating what we do, and then actually going out in the field to talk with Iraqi Police and train them and work with them on their daily job.

CHADWICK: When you say you live with the Iraqi people that you are training, are you living on an American military base or out with the Iraqis?

Capt. CARTER: No we live on an Iraqi compound in downtown Bacuba.

CHADWICK: That doesn't sound like a especially safe circumstances if I may say. The police, the Iraqi Police and training facilities. These are prime targets for bombers aren't they?

Capt. CARTER: The Iraqi Police have been the target of a lot of activity but being in downtown and being so close to them also gives us a degree of situational awareness that few Americans in Iraq have. In a sense we're safer because we know what's going on and we're also more effective because we work so closely with them.

CHADWICK: That awareness, that has not saved hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Iraqi Police recruits, Iraqi Police trainers who for all their awareness can't protect themselves from suicide bombers and people who appear seemingly from nowhere.

Capt. CARTER: To some extent, that risk is part of the job. We have to accept some risk in order to do it. We can't withdraw behind the walls of an American fortress in the desert and expect that we'll actually be able to train and advise these people and be able to stand them up.

CHADWICK: From what I read everyone says this is the task now in Iraq, build up, train the Iraqi Security Forces so that they can take over for American units, and help the country really achieve a sense of self sufficiency. How do you feel it's going on the local level where you're operating?

Capt. CARTER: You know I think there's probably evidence on both sides of the ledger. On the one hand, the Iraqi Police face tremendous obstacles with respect to manpower and getting basic equipment like fuel for their vehicles. But on the other, they still show up to work. And they patrol a number of their cities and they've developed a viable police force that didn't really exist before the Hussein regime fell.

So I think it's going well but it's still going to take a long time to complete.

I think the other thing and I see this a lot now that I'm home on leave is that the media present an incomplete picture of what's going in Iraq. You don't get the sense, this week for example, that most of these cities, they have a thriving marketplace. Or that 99 percent of Iraqis go about their daily business without having the insurgency affect them at all. The, the media stories that I see only the focus on the conflict.

You know there was a bombing. There was a killing. There was political debate on Baghdad. But my experience has been that the rest of the country is functioning reasonably well given the circumstances.

CHADWICK: All right. There was this bombing of the temple in Samarra last week. Not so far from where your unit is stationed. Following that, on Saturday of this last week, there was a killing in Bacuba. One family, a Shiite Muslim family. Some group invaded their family compound killed a dozen people in one family. What does that mean in a community like, like Bacuba? I don't know how to interpret that but when you read a news item, it must mean something to you.

Capt. CARTER: What disturbs me is the pattern of reprisals that seem to have emerged last week after the bombing. But we've seen Sectarian violence before. And we've actually seen violence that's worse than we've seen in the last week. And it didn't, it didn't boil over into a civil war.

Right now, I think some of the trends are going positive. And I think it's still too early to tell whether things are going to degenerate that much.

CHADWICK: I want to play a little clip for you. This is from the interview that you and I did back in October on the last weekend before you deployed to Iraq.

Capt. CARTER: If there's ever a moment to be hedonistic in life, it's when you're going to war. You can't put out of your mind the thought that you might not come back, and when you do come back, you're going to come back a little bit changed.

CHADWICK: We were walking through a casino in Las Vegas, which is where you'd chosen to spend this weekend. When you do come back, you're going to come back changed. Do you think you're changed?

Capt. CARTER: I think, I certainly value the personal connections in my life more, and I'm certainly, I don't know, I would say that I've seen things in Iraq that would change my perspective on life and the way that I live forever. It's been a very powerful experience, but also one that I've enjoyed a lot.

CHADWICK: You're back here on leave? How does it seem to you?

Capt. CARTER: Almost surreal. Soldiers in Iraq are allowed to take two weeks of leave sometime in the middle of their tour. And it's a great vacation but its difficult knowing that you have to go back for another six months, or seven months at the end of your two weeks. And so there's the same sense that I had before the deployment. That you have to cram as many family occasions and dinners and lunches and so forth into the time that you have.

CHADWICK: Do you miss Iraq?

Capt. CARTER: I definitely feel like I need to get back there. The events this week made me worry a lot. And I worry about my team, and I want to get back to the, working with them right now.

CHADWICK: Sounds as though you do miss it in some way but what is it that you miss?

Capt. CARTER: I think the chance to make a difference and the chance to help my guys out. I feel a lot of loyalty towards the mission but I definitely feel the most loyalty to the people that I work with. And it's tough to see them going through a very difficult time and to not be there with them.

CHADWICK: Capt. Phillip Carter of the 101st Airborne returning to Bacuba, Iraq at the end of this week. Phil thank you for speaking with us again on DAY TO DAY.

Capt. CARTER: Thank you Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

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