Life, Death and Trust in Iraq

An Iraqi driver and translator, Tahir Younis, reflects on the three years that have elapsed since a war began with "shock and awe" and evolved into a bitter battle with elusive insurgent groups.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Three years ago today, American war planes began a campaign that signaled the start of the Iraq war. The air bombardment was followed by the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition and the overthrow of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein.

NPR's Anne Garrels was one of sixteen American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the bombing.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

About half an hour ago, a little more than that, we heard air raid sirens wailing across the city. Then we heard a lot of anti-aircraft guns. It was very noisy...

HANSEN: Anne's decision to stay in Iraq was based in large part on the trust she had in her Iraqi driver and translator, Tahir Younis. She sat down with him to recall those days and the three years that have elapsed.

GARRELS: When we were working together during the war, did you trust me?

Mr. TAHIR YOUNIS (Translator and Driver): Anne, it was difficult because, in general, yes. But I get some instruction to collect some information about you. You are an American intelligence...

GARRELS: That's what they told you?

Mr. YOUNIS: Yeah. From CIA. To monitoring you and to watching you.

GARRELS: But you protected me, many, many times.

Mr. YOUNIS: I think because you are with the media. Okay? You are in the middle between the Iraqi government and the U.S. Army.

GARRELS: And we did become close. We became very close friends.

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes, and I'm am proud on this.

HANSEN: The bombing turned out to be much less than Tahir feared. But U.S. forces reached the capital much faster than he anticipated.

As the Marines arrived at the Palestine Hotel and helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, Tahir wept. He was humiliated.

Mr. YOUNIS: Because not-Iraqi people, they collapse the statue. Saddam regime should be destroyed by Iraqi people, not the U.S. Army. They should do it by themselves if they are brave, but Iraqi people showed all the world they are not brave.

GARRELS: Three years in, what's the situation now? How would you describe it?

Mr. YOUNIS: Of course, it's growing worse. Not what was expected. You see, it's not difficult for America as a superpower, England and the other countries, to rebuild electricity stations or to provide Iraq with the new equipment. Three years very long time, they can't do it.

GARRELS: Do people think that the U.S. has deliberately not done this?

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes. And by intention. They don't want to do it.

GARRELS: What's it like to live in your neighborhood?

Mr. YOUNIS: We lost the security. We can't sleep well because, for many things. Bombing, searching our houses by, either by U.S. Army, it was before maybe more than one years, and sorry, they have very bad reputation, because they destroyed doors, the furniture, because of nothing. We lost our freedom.

GARRELS: Are the Iraqi police and the National Guard any better than the Americans now that they're taking over certain parts of the city?

Mr. YOUNIS: No, it's much worse. We live in civil war. So, if the Iraqi Army or the Iraqi police came and all of them from Shia, and they followed me as a Sunni, I will go to the hills.

HANSEN: Last year, Tahir decided that despite the continuing U.S. occupation, he wanted to serve his country. He'd been a major in the Iraqi Army until Saddam's commanders fired him for refusing what he calls illegal assignments. However, when he got to the new interior ministry, it was clear everyone was afraid of infiltration by insurgents and Shiite militias.

Mr. YOUNIS: They are afraid to give their real address. So nobody put his real address. Nobody. Even those recommendation don't put their, your real address.

GARRELS: Because the police didn't trust the other policemen.

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes. Yeah, believe me. What else. There is another item in the form, what is your, I think there is no word in English, it is Iraqi word, called medhet(ph). Are you Sunni or Shiite? So this is unbelievable. Nobody accepted.

GARRELS: Let me just ask you. I mean, you're from Ramadi. You're a Sunni. Do you, you know, none of us really know who the insurgents are. Do you think members of your family could be in the insurgency?

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes. Why not?

GARRELS: Does anybody tell each other what they're doing?

Mr. YOUNIS: No. No. Even between the brothers. No trust.

GARRELS: Have you ever had a good experience with the American military?

Mr. YOUNIS: Before we heard or the rumors came that the U.S. Army steal money from the houses, gold from the houses. For me, I didn't believe at that time, until I get this experience.

HANSEN: A year and a half ago, Tahir was stopped by the U.S. Marines while driving south of the capital. When he was released, he discovered $8,500 he had with him to pay salaries was missing from the glove compartment. He immediately returned to Baghdad and reported the incident to the U.S. Military Press Office, to whom he was accredited. He heard nothing for three months, until I contacted the Marine unit involved.

The judge advocate said he had closed the case, though he had never interviewed Tahir. He finally agreed to meet Tahir in Makmudia(ph), one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. At my insistence, he then agreed to see him in Baghdad in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Mr. YOUNIS: But I shocked there because they laughed at me. They told me you can't enter without escort. There are no any escort waiting me.

GARRELS: Did he then try and arrange another meeting?

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes, yes. Again, I went there before the time, more than one hour, but no any response.

GARRELS: He never turned up.

Mr. YOUNIS: No. The judge, he didn't give me any help.

GARRELS: You're a Sunni and you're married to a Shia. Do you think that there's strain because of Sunni-Shia marriages, more than there was before?

Mr. YOUNIS: I think it is difficult to describe. I can't say to you, like an example, my wife confront me and said how she blamed the Sunni. Or I blamed the Shia. Now you can find it inside the house.

GARRELS: How about the kids? Do the kids know what's going on around them? Are they aware of it?

Mr. YOUNIS: In general, yes. Like example, there's American soldiers. They know there is kidnapping. But concerning other issues like Sunni, Shia attack mosques, attack Shia shrine, no.

GARRELS: When they see Iraqi police, what is their reaction?

Mr. YOUNIS: No, it is more confidence.

GARRELS: But you don't have that same confidence?

Mr. YOUNIS: Me? No, I don't trust the Iraqi police. I told you many months ago that it is very big mistake if America decide to withdraw the troops. It will be a crisis.

GARRELS: So here you are, somebody who literally wept, not with joy, when the American troops arrived at the Palestine Hotel.

Mr. YOUNIS: Yes.

GARRELS: You understand. But now you are saying the American troops cannot leave, not now.

Mr. YOUNIS: Not now, but they should leave, but not now. Now the existing of U.S. Army, now they are very necessary to us, to stay, at least to stop the civil war.

HANSEN: NPR's Anne Garrels speaking with Tahir Younis, her driver and translator throughout the initial phase of the invasion.

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