'Reorganizing' an Insecure Iraq

A U.S. soldier interviews an Iraqi civilian in Dora, on the south side of Baghdad.

A U.S. soldier interviews an Iraqi civilian in Dora, on the south side of Baghdad. NPR hide caption

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Iraqi National Police Sergeant Haider Shenshen confers with an Iraqi interpreter.

Iraqi National Police Sergeant Haider Shenshen, left, confers with an Iraqi interpreter, who keeps his face covered to disguise his identity. NPR hide caption

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This note begins during a wait for a flight out of Baghdad International Airport. Acronym-loving soldiers and defense contractors call it BIAP, which they pronounce BUY-yap. The entry hall for departing travelers is surprisingly pleasant, with its high arched ceilings and marble floor. It's a sharp contrast to the entry hall when you arrive — a wide, low, grim space with all the cleanliness and life of a subway station after midnight. In this way, Iraq resembles many countries, showing its worst side when you arrive, and eventually celebrating your decision to leave.

The flights out of this place are said to be a bit erratic, and it's also hard to know for certain which gate is yours. The departure information boards are dead, and while I did hear a Royal Jordanian employee indicate that we would leave from here at Gate 33, the pilot sitting down from me warned that you never know until it happens. "We are not organized like you are familiar with," he said.

He was talking about airports, but there is universal wisdom in his words. Somebody should paint those words on the runway in giant red letters, so that every arriving foreigner could look down to see them as his plane circles in for a landing.

Just yesterday, producer Jim Wallace and I were in a police station, which is to say a fortress, on the outskirts of Baghdad. We were welcomed into a tiny office that was swarming with flies. The furniture consisted of a bare wooden desk, a few chairs, and a bed: like countless other Iraqi cops, the occupant of the office spends the night at work when he deems it too dangerous to go home.

This man behind the desk was a major the Iraqi National Police. "National Police" is a new brand name, crafted with the help of the United States. The name is so new that the men still wear uniforms that say "Public Order Brigades," which is the old brand name, the one they ruined by terrifying people and cracking heads.

They are still cracking heads, according to an American adviser who works with them. This is how you "solve crime" in Iraq, and it will take more than a new name to change that. Steve Casteel, an American who advised a succession of Iraqi law enforcement officials for nearly two years, remembers being shown a videotape of an interrogation from Saddam's day. On the video, he says the witness did not tell the right story, so he was thrown off a roof. Having survived this, he still did not tell the right story, so he was thrown off again. After the third throw, he finally said whatever the investigators wanted to hear.

Reflecting on the effort to change this approach, Casteel observes, "Don't tell a police force you can't violate human rights unless you have other tools to use." In the case of Iraqi investigators, that means they need investigative tools such a computerized fingerprint database, which the U.S. is now providing. In the case of the National Police, who are essentially supposed to deal with insurgents and civil disturbances, the tools would include better training and a calm professionalism when working amid the civilian population.

The U.S. military is trying to provide those tools to the public order brigades. In the view of some people, they are not the ideal choice for the job; Jerry Burke, a police adviser of long experience in Iraq, says there is a vast difference between the skills of a soldier and the skills of a police officer. Yet the military is hardly the worst choice to train them. Professional American troops have a history of calming chaotic situations, from stopping the Detroit riots of the 1960s to joining the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. It would be powerfully helpful if they could find a way to translate some of that experience to Iraq.

The problem, of course, is that Iraq is still not "organized like you are familiar with," and that was evident on a recent patrol, when we walked down a shopping street in Dora, an appallingly violent area on the south side of Baghdad. The Americans, with Iraqis in tow, were trying to track the changes in the neighborhood. They kept passing vacant houses, and some conversation with the neighbors revealed that the families inside had fled for their lives. In at least one case, Jim Wallace entered a home with troops who discovered that everything had been left in the house as though the occupants expected to return at any moment; but the bullets riddling the outside walls indicated that this would not be a wise idea. This is a profoundly insecure place. Those vacant homes show how Iraq is slowly reorganizing itself, and we do not yet know if we, as Westerners, will feel more familiar with the new Iraq that eventually emerges.

May 9: Three Years of Change in Iraq

I'm beginning this note in a villa on Saddam Hussein's former palace grounds outside Baghdad. This corner bedroom has a 20-foot ceiling, a chandelier and a gilt-edged headboard to match the wardrobe along one wall. For the first time during my visit to this scorching country, I'm actually cold; the central air conditioning overwhelms even this vast room, and I can't seem to adjust it enough.

I'm spending the night here, after an evening interview with American Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who keeps his headquarters in Saddam's palace down the street. It would not have been safe for me to drive home at night through the real Baghdad of bombed-out buildings and militias and thugs.

Saddam's imprint remains everywhere on this country, nearly as much as when I first visited in 2003. That spring, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, I set up temporary residence at a hotel in the city of Kut. I took a taxi across town and found an interpreter, although it was difficult to persuade the man to work with me. He was afraid that Saddam would come back to power, or that thugs would emerge to hurt his family. His fears seemed irrational to me at the time. Here's how much has changed in three years: I am not willing to tell you my interpreter's name, out of fear that he could be harmed.

I will say that the man was a calm and reliable presence as we ranged across much of south-central Iraq. Once we went to a border crossing with Iran, and were watching Iraqi exile returning home when when a snarling Iranian border guard snatched my tape recorder. The border guard seemed likely to snatch us too, until my Iraqi interpreter took aside the guard and had a few words with him, and the problem went away. If only every problem with Iran could be solved so easily.

He was the first of many Iraqis who have, in one way or another, held my life in their hands, and who have always come through for me. That they have the energy to do so is a testament to their will and their own skill for survival.

The interpreter also helped me to locate Shiite Muslims who had lost relatives during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Not that it was hard to find them. Countless people told similar stories of Iraqi intelligence agents showing up at a store or home. The suspect, or victim, would be asked to come around the corner for five minutes, and would never be seen again. The government never acknowledged their arrest, imprisonment or execution.

In an Iraqi town called As Suwayrah, I met a man whose brother had disappeared nearly a decade before. Their mother insisted that he must never abandon the search for her missing son, so he traveled to prisons, and even went to Jordan on the off chance that the man had escaped into exile. For his mother's sake, he kept searching long after his own hope was gone. Of course the son was never found. Of course the mother never stopped believing that he must be found.

When I heard stories like that in 2003, I came away convinced of one thing. Whether the war was right or wrong, worth it or not, at least it could be said that the Iraqi people would be better off without Saddam Hussein.

And now?

During this reporting trip, NPR producer Jim Wallace and I followed some American soldiers in their visit to a Baghdad morgue. The morgue was overflowing with bodies, nearly all of them shot in the head. We watched a man embrace the body of his brother. He said it was the second of his brothers who had been killed on the streets; the other was an Iraqi soldier. His brothers were dead, but unlike the man in As Suwayrah, at least he knew. That's at least one difference. Along with freedom and democracy, people are a lot more open about their brutality these days.

It is tempting to say, as some Iraqis do say, that it may take 35 years to overcome the horrors of Saddam's 35 years in power. It is tempting to see today's violence as a reflection of the horror of Saddam's time. Of course it is; but I have trouble fully accepting that, simply because it seems to justify today's violence, and give it meaning. The violence has no meaning. It is beyond madness. Whatever they may have suffered, the individuals who pull the triggers cannot so easily blame Saddam, or the foreigners, or a rival sect, or God.

As I finish this note, back in NPR's Baghdad bureau, Iraqis are waiting for an announcement of a new government. Americans are eager for it to begin work. There have been so many new beginnings in Iraq, from the fall of Baghdad onward; the hope is that this new beginning will take. The hope is to deliver jobs and electricity and security — and hope itself — to ordinary Iraqis who have reached the highest accomplishment of these past years: they have survived to see this moment, and are alive to participate in what happens next.

May 6: 'Commuting' to Baghdad

If your commute led to Baghdad, here is how it would start:

You catch the Royal Jordanian flight in Amman. On the morning that I did so, the passengers rode a bus across the tarmac, past two blue Royal Jordanian planes. The bus finally stopped at a little white jet, unmarked except for a tiny name in faded blue letters, "Bell i Donna." Why risk a perfectly good plane when you can use the rental?

There were two groups of passengers. First, there were the locals — women with their hair covered and men in sharp suits, maybe some of the Iraqis who are making money in their country and investing in the booming economy of Amman. Then there were American civilians who work in Iraq.

Americans commonly work in Iraq for six weeks, come out for two or three, and then grab the Baghdad express back to work. So this was Monday morning to them. Some wore baseball caps and T-shirts. Some wore ballistic sunglasses, the kind that can save your eyes from shrapnel. Goatees are definitely "in" this year for Americans in Iraq. Tattoos are a minority taste, but prominently displayed. Some of the men stared at the Royal Jordanian flight attendant, who spoke with a British accent and bore a resemblance to Jessica Simpson. When she offered a safety briefing to passengers in the emergency exit row, a man beside me muttered, "You can give me a briefing on anything."

The Americans included Blackwater security guards, and contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development. They kept up a cheerful banter. One woman kept asking people, "Are you the new IT person?" The joke was that she was an IT person, eternally waiting to be relieved. Another man offered a dismal view of Iraqi generals. I agreed that it can be hard to find good leaders, to which he replied, "It's hard to find leaders who will listen."

He meant that it was hard to find leaders who would listen to the United States. It reminds me of a former U.S. official of long experience in Iraq, who told me that we have less control over the situation than we think.

As I listened to this chatter, dark but cheerful, it struck me that amid all the dread that people associate with Iraq, these Americans were simply going to work. They were making the Monday morning commute. It was normal.

Jessica Simpson as your flight attendant: normal.

Descending in a corkscrew pattern to prevent a missile attack: normal.

Getting a Humvee escort into town, and spending your weeks behind concrete blast walls: normal.

Reconstruction, change of government, bodies in the streets: normal.

A constant state of war: normal.

Steve Inskeep is co-hosting Morning Edition from Baghdad this week.

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