Celebrating Christmas In Iraq
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go now to Baghdad, where NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is spending her Christmas day. Good morning.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. Merry Christmas.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, is the holiday there any different in Baghdad when it's Christmas?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, this is a predominantly Muslim country, as you know, but there's a large Christian community in Baghdad, which has been heavily persecuted over the years since the U.S.-led invasion. It's been devastating for them. It's estimated that only one eighth of original pre-war Christian community remains in Iraq.
But I've been speaking with Christian families, and there really is a sense of calm this season. For the first time ever, Christmas has been named a national holiday in Iraq. All government offices are closed, Parliament isn't in session. There are more Christmas parties, you're seeing trees being sold on the streets. This is my fourth Christmas in Baghdad, and I have to say people seem to be in a much more optimistic spirits.
That said, violence continues. We've already had one car bomb explode in Baghdad this morning, killing four civilians, wounding 25 others. So, as always in Iraq, it's a holiday tempered with the still difficult reality. But there's one other piece of good news, so far this month, there've only been six U.S. military combat deaths, six. That is by far the lowest number we've seen.
MONTAGNE: Looking ahead to the New Year, there is, of course, a new security agreement that takes effect. Do the American troops that you talk to there think that this security agreement will work?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's going to have to work. It's going to be the law come January first. Most U.S. forces are already operating, Renee, as if the security agreement had come into effect. I was just embedded with U.S. forces in a neighborhood in Baghdad, and you know, before Iraqis used to take the lead in operations, pretty much in name only.
Now, the Iraqi's are having to plan and execute their own operations with the support of the U.S. military. But the fact remains that the security forces here are still weak in many respects. I'll give you one example, I was sitting in on a meeting between a U.S. commander and an Iraqi Army one, and the Iraqi Army commander was complaining that the Ministry of Defense here is totally corrupt, that none of their vehicles work because the Iraqis won't provide them with funds for spare parts.
He was asking the Americans to sort it out for them. And the Iraqi Army commander said that if the Americans leave, he wouldn't be able to respond to an attack because none - none of his vehicles are working. So, that gives you an idea of some of the challenges ahead.
MONTAGNE: But for the American troops, how much will this agreement change how they conduct operations there on the ground?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, basically the Iraqis and the U.S. military are setting up joint committees to deal with the transition. But practically, the U.S. military is planning to shut down five of the 13 large bases it has here in Baghdad, as well as 15 smaller combat outposts. These are small, sort of U.S. military garrisons in the middle of neighborhoods. That was a part of the Surge, if you'll recall. U.S. soldiers will also have to get warrants issued by Iraqi judges in order to detain that suspects. And Iraqi forces will be in the lead in all operations. In theory, at least, Iraqis will also have to authorize any raids that U.S. forces will undertake, but this is still being worked out on a practical level.
MONTAGNE: You know, another interesting thing because it involves some symbolic aspects of this whole war, the green zone, and also Iraqi airspace, now go back to the Iraqis. Is that more then symbolic?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, I'll tell you how the U.S. Embassy is spending its Christmas day today, they are under lock down because there are fears that car bombs may have entered the secure green zone. And what we're seeing in the green zone is that already the Iraqis are in the lead there, in terms of security.
And this is perhaps a harbinger of things to come really. That security might go downhill because the U.S. military isn't as actively involved. So, I don't think it is purely cosmetic. I think it's going to have some real repercussions as we see this transition, as Americans pull back and as the Iraqis take more and more control.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. And Lou Lou, on your fourth Christmas in Iraq, Merry Christmas to you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you very much.
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