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NEAL CONAN, Host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

President Bush ordered additional troops into Iraq a year ago this month and while violence continues everyday, there is no doubt the security has improved. Critics charged that this so-called surge had little to do with it, that violence remains at unacceptable levels, that the reduction may be temporary, and that Iraq's politicians have done little to take advantage of the low. The argument is not likely to be resolved any time soon. We wanted - how much the lives of ordinary Iraqis have improved, if at all.

Today, we'll talk with three people who've gone out to look: a reporter who visited Ramadi when it was extremely dangerous and returned last fall; with a New York Times correspondent, who reported on continued unrest in Diyala province, and; with Senator Jack Reed, a West Point graduate, who has just returned from his most recent visit to Baghdad and to Ramadi.

If you've been there, call and tell us what you saw, or if you want to know more, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program, the messages in the music that inform, explain and inspire our lives.

But first, Iraq - what's changed and what hasn't.

KUCI: Ramadi Revisited, October 2007," which appears in the winter issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. You can find a link to it on our Web site at npr.org. David Morris joins us from the studios of KUCI in Irvine, California.

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

DAVID MORRIS: Hey, Neal. How is it going?

CONAN: Very well, thanks. I was hoping you'd let me read a little bit from your piece just to describe the difference between your two visits.

I was in Ramadi the summer before the latter part of the killing years and it had been a harrowing time, you wrote. Back then, you couldn't be seen on the street without snipers opening up on you from the labyrinth of half-rubbled buildings that made up the city. You couldn't breathe without sucking down somebody else's fear. The days were hot and dirty, the nights are looping soundtrack of AK fire and mortar rounds. Every sight you caught was through the pall of dust that hangs in the air. Now, it was clean and bright. You could stop by the souk for some chai. Route Michigan was open and full of civilian traffic. All of the rubble had been trucked away.

You write that you had difficulty recognizing the place when you were first there.

MORRIS: Yeah, it was really kind of disorienting, really, to be back this last fall because it was so clean and quiet. And it sort of - it reminded me of the humanitarian work that I have done overseas, where you just either kind of look at the peaceful city and there's daisies growing up in the barbed wire, and you see kids playing soccer. And it almost felt like, you know, you had this sort of - this paranoia thought of whether or not it was all being faked. It was so ideal and so, you know, so true to some sort of propaganda dream that, you know, the military would have you believe.

CONAN: And there were flags flying - Iraqi flags flying almost everywhere. You describe your confusion over how this town that had been, what, the darkest place in Iraq, perhaps, had become an American trophy town in less than six months.

MORRIS: You know, the town Ramadi - even the name is kind of an argument now over in Iraq. It's sort of, you know - you talk to military officers, who were kind of trying to sell you on the war effort. And they say, well, have you been to Ramadi yet? Have you seen what's - you know, the good work that we're doing over there?

And it's funny just because the town is so, you know - it's such a - it's not really designed to be seen anymore so much as witness. There are flags, literally thousands of Iraqi flags - red, white and black flags - everywhere. And it's like the city is on huge display. And it's, you know, it's so obviously been reconstructed and created into this shining model of a town. You know, in marked contrast to what it was, the - you know, even just six months prior where, you know, the streets were all but paved with IEDs.

I mean, I lost, you know, I lost a couple of friends in Ramadi, so it's - it was - being there when it was so peaceful and so obviously, you know, had such a clean coat of white paint over it was just very strange. And there was kind of this sort of retrospective fear that kind of stalks you while you're there.

CONAN: Not just peaceful, you write, but bursting with life.

MORRIS: Yeah, it was really just funny, because they were just sort of beating the locals, you know, who are obviously very deliriously drunk with the happiness of having their town back. But they - it was just relentless. When you got there, they just - they almost beat you down with their - with, you know, how great the city was. And every Marine wanted to tell you about the great things that had gone on there. And it was so - it was just over the top. And it was - it struck me as really strange because it wasn't just the absence of war or peace, it was sort of, you know, some sort of, you know, civic celebration. The whole town just reeked of boosterism, and people trying to sell you on all those amazing changes that had happened...

CONAN: Hmm.

MORRIS: ...which, you know, as a natural, you know, sort of critic or cynic, as a writer, I - you know, that's sort of something that you tend to find suspect. But, you know, I believe - you know, I believe that the city has been, you know - it's a peaceful city. It's - you can't argue with the fact that there - you know, when there have been next to zero attacks in what used to be the worst city in the entire country, the deadliest city, you know, in Iraq. You can't argue with, you know - it's hard to argue with those kind of figures.

CONAN: One of the things that's really changed in the summer when you were there the first time, the Iraqi police force - such as it was - was 200 men who did not show up very often, and didn't - made themselves pretty scarce because they were in great danger. One of the things that's happened since is that the Sunni tribes are providing hundreds of men, each of them, to the police force, which is now at 8,000. And all of those men, of course, get paid. And there is an interesting comment I'd like to read again from your piece.

We're only paying these people because we aren't men enough to kill them all. That's a sergeant from the 10th Mountain Division watching the same rebuilding process take place in a sector where he'd lost dozens of his men in IED ambushes.

This, you say, was part of a larger stream of sentiment, and you'd meet guys all the time who, after a few weeks of the newfound rest and no-action of Ramadi 2007, wanted a taste of the old horror and doom again, the mingling of dread and danger that made them somebody different, part of something big, not just some schlub from the boroughs. They may not have believed in the war, but they believed in Ramadi. This was where they had left their youth behind.

That's really good stuff.

MORRIS: Yeah, everywhere you go in Iraq, people are hitting you up with Ramadi stories because they want to tell you about the crazy, bad memories and experiences they had there. And, you know - and that sort of, you know - apart from all the politics and the, you know, the geostrategic rhetoric, that's, you know, lot of it, you know - a lot of the soldiers that are over there are over there for the experience. And this is - you know, Iraq for them is the right of passage. They are going there and, you know, I can't count the number of Marines that told me that they missed being shot at.

CONAN: That they missed being shot at.

MORRIS: It was just very - they miss combat, they miss the action, which, you know - I was in the Marine Corps for a long time. But, you know, as you get older, you know - and I felt that, you know - I felt that same way. And, you know, I never saw a combat as a Marine, but you do feel that. You want, you know, join then Marine Corps - it's like the old recruiting poster said, you want action? Join the Marines.

CONAN: Hmm. But...

MORRIS: And so, as an adult, you realize the insanity of that. You realize that, you know - you start to - you get older and you live it a bit and you value your life that, you know, you start to value your life actually.

CONAN: Nevertheless, that's skepticism that this is somehow all too good to be true. The grunts there that you talked to, they're not then only people who feel that way.

MORRIS: That feel what way?

CONAN: That it might be too good to be true, that this is a temporary situation.

MORRIS: Well, the, you know - there are - you know, Marines and soldiers aren't - I would not say are necessarily the best judges of Iraqi or Arabic character. And so they're, you know - they are unclear, you know - a lot of soldiers are, you know, low-ranking soldiers are a little less clear on the exact tribal and political dynamics of what's going on. They're kind of, you know - they're happy that their buddies aren't dying. But they don't - they don't really know - and they're, you know, they're happy that Ramadi is doing better, but they are not entirely sure what this means in the long run.

And some of them are, you know, sort of - they don't understand because they - you know, in some units, not in Ramadi, but there were other units that I've visited where literally a month prior, they have been getting blown up by these - you know, that they had - people have been - the locals has been emplacing and bearing IEDs on the roads. And now, they're going out and paying them large sums of money to basically buy or rent their loyalty for the time being, you know. So instead of fighting these people, we're paying them, which, you know, on the face of it seems, you know, absurd.

So it's really - like with a lot of things in Iraq, it just - Ramadi and Baghdad, visiting these places causes you to question, you know, a lot of things. You know, what is it that the military - what is it that military action and the military does achieve through combat and shooting people? And you know, and then, I think the most - my takeaway experience and my lesson from Ramadi was that, in some ways, you know - and this was confirmed by their officers that I talked with - that, you know, rifles and M16s, you know, achieve next to nothing. The most improvements we - the only times we've made improvements or headway in Iraq was through talk, through negotiating with the locals, through trying to understand the tribal dynamics and understand what it is that the people of Iraq want.

CONAN: We're...

MORRIS: Not through, you know, engaging them in close combat.

CONAN: We're talking with David Morris about his article, "Trophy Town: Ramadi Revisited, 2007," that appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review. 800-989-8255. If you've been to Iraq, have you seen changes? E-mail is talk@npr.org. And Derek(ph) is calling us from Columbia in South Carolina.

DEREK: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

DEREK: I served in the third infantry, Army's 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 in Baghdad. And I kind of had a similar experience to what David Morris' except on a little road called the Airport Road between the inroad of the I.Z. and the Baghdad Airport, in which we went to, you know, take control of this road and provide security for it with the idea that it was the most dangerous road in the world. You know, the press kind of really built it up.

And as we took over, we engaged the populace. You know, and as an infantry officer, they kind of always told us that we weren't killers per se; we were managers of violence. And we took that approach and tried to manage the violence and engage the populace. And in six months, I mean, we went from a road where no one wanted to travel on it to, you know, the AP - I took out The New York Times reporter, France Press, that it became kind of a model what we are accomplishing in Baghdad. And unfortunately for us, we left in January of '06, and of course, February '06, things seemed to go downhill in the country. And 2006 was a really rough year. But we had about a six-month window, at least, in Baghdad, where things were almost euphoric.

And you know, to a certain extent, while I'm very glad that we could solve many of our problems without, you know, severe combat operations, you know, at the same time, kind of like what David Morris described. You know, we were, sort of, like, well, kind of disappointed, you know?

CONAN: Yeah.

DEREK: It was great. Things were great. People are safe, everything, but at the same time, we do kind of joined the military because you do want some action. It's kind of a strange dichotomy there because we were so happy that things are so well, but yet...

CONAN: But yet.

DEREK: Nothing was happening.

CONAN: Derek, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DEREK: All right. No problem.

CONAN: And David Morris, thank you for your time today.

MORRIS: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And again, you can take a - get a link to his article at our website. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about daily life in Iraq. Violence is down, but has life improved for Iraqis? We had hoped to speak today with Stefan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq. Schedules did not work out, but he has agreed to be with us tomorrow afternoon and to take your calls. So be sure to join us for that. He just briefed the security counsel. I guess tomorrow he'll be briefing you.

Right now, we're joined by Stephen Farrell, a correspondent for The New York Times based in Iraq. Recently he travelled to Kirkuk and to Diyala province in Northern Iraq. And he joins us now by satellite telephone for The New York Times bureau in Baghdad.

And Stephen Farrell, nice of you to join us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

STEPHEN FARRELL: Happy to be here.

CONAN: Obviously, the violence in Anbar province, which is where Ramadi is, has gone down quite significantly. Some people suggest it's just moved to Diyala province, which is north of Baghdad. What's been your experience there?

FARRELL: I think American commanders will tell you that to a certain extant that is what has happened. That the bad guys, as they put it, have fled north from Anbar, from Baghdad, where they've been driven out not just by the American surge, and the surge of Iraqi troops, they would point out, but also by the Sunni tribal awakening movements. So, they have gone north. And although violence has come down in most of the north, it hasn't come down by as much as it has done so dramatically in Baghdad an Anbar. So, yes, they have gone north. Some have gone to Diyala. Some have gone up to Mosul. And they're...

CONAN: And we're having difficulties with the line to Baghdad. And still with us and very kindly David Morris. David Morris is still in the studios at U.C. Irvine, at the studios of KUCI there. And, David, we're going to try to get Stephen Farrell back on the line. But one of the differences that he points out between a place like Diyala or Kirkuk, where he also visited, is that those places have a lot of different ethnic groups there. Were you were in Ramadi, pretty much Sunni - Arab Sunnis?

MORRIS: Yeah. And in fact, the kind of telling remark, a lot of the officers described Anbar as Sunni's den, sort of half jokingly. And I think that's, sort of, the larger lesson to be taken from Anbar at this point is that - and I spoke to some officers that had been embedded and living with Iraqi troops and spoke Arabic and had a much better - their finger was on the pulse of, sort of, the local Iraqi sentiment much better than most folks. And the sense they had was that Anbar is, sort of, the new Sunni sanctuary and will be the Sunni sanctuary for what will probably be the large civil war that would take over Iraq in, you know, seven, eight, 10 years. That's sort of the long- term look of, you know?

In the other areas where they're mixed, well, you know, there is some sort of - you know, the people I spoke to in Baghdad sort of described a slow motion ethnic cleansing taking, you know, taking hold in the city. And they, you know, they pointed to several neighborhood. Sadiyah is sort of in southwestern Iraq. It's sort of the lead lesson in that regard. And it's - it used to be, I believe, all Sunni, and now it's primarily Shia. And it's very typical of neighborhood by neighborhood you have ethnic groups, sort of, consolidating their hold and pushing out people that are either Shia or Sunni or in some cases Christian. So...

CONAN: Stephen Farrell has joined us back on the line and we hope for a longer period of time on the line for Baghdad. And, Stephen, just let me follow up on what David Morris was just saying. Has there been that sort of slow motion, ethnic separation in Diyala province, and one other point up in Kirkuk, which is a flashpoint for many in Iraq?

FARRELL: I don't think it's been a slow motion one in Diyala. I think Diyala was very badly affected after the big upsurge of violence since February 2006 when insurgents blew up the Golden Shrine in Samarra. There is very much a sense when I was there, the 100 percent Sunni areas and overwhelmingly Shia areas and neither one really wants to be (unintelligible) of the other villages - Shia here, town, Sunni there, al-Qaida trying to hit the Shias. The Jaish al- Mahdi, for the moment quiet, but quite capable of coming back and hitting the Sunnis. There's some coexistence there, but there's also a real sense of sectarian, tectonic plates that have been rubbing together and can quite easily clash again.

CONAN: And certainly, that's the situation in Kirkuk - a town, a city, which the Kurds claim as their capital, really, their - in a way, their Jerusalem. But it's also very important to the Turkmen - not important elsewhere in Iraq, but there in Northern Iraq and especially around Kirkuk they are - and to Sunnis who moved there, too.

FARRELL: Yes. Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds all intent on getting control of one city. The thing about Kirkuk is that it's an oil-rich province, and it's right on the political fault line in northern Iraq, between the Kurdish majority area and the Arab majority area. So, there is a big political fight going on for who's going to control the oil under the land and the people on top of it.

CONAN: The plebiscite that was supposed to be held in Kirkuk by the end of 2007 has been punted to sometime in 2008. But nevertheless, as you visited there, is life there getting better or worse for most Iraqis?

FARRELL: I did visit Kirkuk. I didn't go on embed; I sort of slid in there myself in a taxi and just drove around. There were some areas we couldn't go to because we were just told that Sunni insurgents to the south of the city would - were too much of a danger. We did drive around the center of town.

Well, yeah. Shops were open, things were on sale, cement trucks were driving in, houses were going up. There was no - there was certainly economic activity, and the violence has come down a lot in the center of Kirkuk. On the outskirts, there is Sunni insurgent violence. Al-Qaida are supposed to be hiding out in pockets around Kirkuk province. But yeah, there's certain economic activity in Kirkuk.

CONAN: And also, just on some of the basic - basics of life - electrical power, clean water. Are those things available?

FARRELL: Well, those things go up and down all over the country. I mean, you can't really make generalizations about it. I mean, we were - I was in a stinking football stadium where there's about 2,000 Kurdish refugees were living with nothing. There were open sewers running through the streets. In other areas, there are large, new Kurdish suburbs springing up on the north and the east of the town, and they are putting in plumbing and electricity. You can't really generalize. As I say, in some areas of Baghdad, recently, for instance, they - electricity was going very well towards the end of last year, and then suddenly, pretty much all went out for days at a time. These things go up and down.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Farrell, the Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times about his travels in Iraq. Also still with us, David Morris, the author of "Trophy Town: Ramadi Revisited, October 2007."

If you've been to Iraq, what did you see? Or if you want to know more about how life is changing for Iraqis, 800-989-8255. E-mail talk@npr.org. And in a few minutes, we hope to speak with Senator Jack Reed, the Democrat from Rhode Island, graduate of the U.S. - of the Military Academy and has been to Iraq many times. So, if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call.

In the meantime, Stephen Farrell, as you look ahead to the situation in the places you visited in Diyala and Kirkuk, is it resolving, do you think? As we continue to hear about these, you know, grassroots developments as the Anbar Awakening, is there something similar, anything analogous happening in Diyala do you think?

FARRELL: Yes, there are such movements in Diyala, in Kirkuk, and elsewhere, very much along the Anbar model. The difference in these areas is that, while Anbar is - certain areas like Ramadi are pretty much 100 percent Sunni, these areas are mixed. Kirkuk as we've said is Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab. Diyala is Sunni-Shia mixture. So, there isn't that sense of tribes coming together and pretty much in unanimity deciding what their interests are in these areas. There's very, very, very different interests.

And, for instance, in Diyala, I met a lot of these concerned local citizens - the Americans call them the Awakening, whatever you want to call them - and they're doing good work the Americans say. They're bringing security to their own areas and they go on patrols, but they are bitterly complaining that the government is not doing business with them. They promised them jobs in the police; they're not being given them. They promised them money; they're not being given it. And you wonder - and in fact they say, that our patience is fast running out.

CONAN: Stephen Farrell, thanks very much for your time today.

FARRELL: No problem.

CONAN: Stephen Farrell, a correspondent for The New York Times, with us from the paper's Baghdad Bureau. And, David Morris, again, thank you very much for stepping in to pinch-hit when that line went down.

MORRIS: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: David Morris teacher writing at the University of California Irvine. His article, "Trophy Town: Ramadi Revisited, October 2007," is featured in the winter issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Also available at our Web site, npr.org, and he was with us from KUCI in Irvine.

Joining us now is Senator Jack Reed, the senior senator from Rhode Island. He just returned from his 11th trip to Iraq where he visited Baghdad and Ramadi and met with General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Senator Reed joins us by phone from his office in Washington.

It's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK REED: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I wonder, as you go back to Iraq, do you - is improvement noticeable?

REED: Well, there is a distinct reduction in violence and that is a commendable aspect of the current situation, but there is still inability of the Iraq political leaders to make those difficult decisions, which was at the heart of the surge. You know, that - it was going to buy time and political space for them to make tough decisions and they haven't made them, and I think there is a difficult chance in the future that they will make those decisions, and that's why I think I left with a continued skepticism over the next several months in Iraq.

CONAN: Skepticism. They did pass a deBaathification law, which allowed some of the people who were in Saddam Hussein's political party, at lower levels, to reenter government or at least try to reenter government.

REED: Well, we spoke to Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus about that, and there was a - for some confusion about exactly what the law means, and they all emphasized that it's all about implementation. In fact, there is a suggestion that even though it might have granted pensions to people and made them eligible, that there was at least a possible interpretation that would be in many of the Sunnis from the security ministry, interior, ministry of defense, and other key industries. So it might have been a situation of giving at one hand and taking a lot more in the other hand, but it's - I don't think it was a complete and then very thorough reconciliation bill that we had hoped for.

CONAN: In the meantime, I know that one of things you do when you visit, Iraq is to visit with some of the people who were your classmates at West Point. And what do they tell you?

REED: Well, I'm old enough now, where they're mostly a few years behind me at West Point, but both Gen. Odierno and Gen. Petraeus are a few years behind me at West Point. They are consummate professional soldiers. They have - as they've said publicly - indicated that progress is made, but they're very realistic about the fragility of this progress. They are a number of factors that contributed to the reduction and still contribute to reduction of violence.

One is the Anbar Awakening in Anbar province where Sunnis figured out that al- Qaida was more a threat to them than any United States forces, and they allied with us. But now, what I sense out in Anbar is a political struggle among the Sunnis as to who will be the face of Sunni politics. Is it, you know - is it Baathists who are trying to rehabilitate themselves, or some of the tribal chiefs, or is it some folks who had been very closely allied with us?

And on the Shia side, there was a definite order by Sadr months ago to begin to desist from operations against us, keep a low profile. The question is how long does that last. And then also, there's the influence of the Iranians, particularly in the south, to what extent are they buying their time? To what extent they calculated that a low profile was good for them and how long do they maintain that posture. So, there are many, many issues here and I would liken the, sort of, the current situation in terms of the surge, it's worked as this tourniquet work, it stopped the bleeding, but the difficult surgery that will begin the recovery and rehabilitation of the patient has yet to be undertaken by the politicians in Baghdad.

CONAN: We're talking with Sen. Jack Reed, recently returned from his 11th visit to Iraq. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Steve(ph). Steve with us from St. Louis.

STEVE: Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Steve. You're on the air.

STEVE: Yeah, I just mentioned to the guy that answered the phone that I spent 11 months over there. I did some follow-up security in Muqdadiyah, and then we went up to Kirkuk and then did regular missions up there. I think that things are a lot harder now in Kirkuk than they were when I was there.

CONAN: And from what you read in the papers, you mean?

STEVE: Yeah, newspaper reports and TV. We have more missions going out and coming back unscathed than we did with the IEDs and ambushes and stuff like that than there is now. I mean, now, I hear all the stuff going on over there and I'm just glad I wasn't there. It wasn't going on when I was there. I might not have come home.

CONAN: Well, Steve, we're glad you made it back safely. Thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: You're welcome.

CONAN: So long. And his call prompts a question, there has been this perception that as Anbar quiets down, Diyala heats up. As Diyala quiets down, the situation heats up south of Baghdad. Sen. Reed, is there an impression that this is just simply moving around the map?

REED: There is definitely movements. Some of it is a result of the al- Qaida elements just seeking any type of safe haven. They've been effectively undercut in Anbar province and even in Baghdad, significantly. And they are being pushed, in effect, up towards Kirkuk, where Steve served and we, obviously, we all thank him for your service. And the other factor that is exacerbating the situation around Kirkuk is the tension between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs about the status of Kirkuk. And al-Qaida elements are trying to use that, exploit that, claiming that, you know, they're the only effective way to prevent the Kurds from taking over Kirkuk, pushing out all the, you know, Sunni Arabs that have moved there.

So that is one of the flashpoints in the country. And it raises another set of political issues that the government has to deal with. They're within the article of the constitution of Iraq - article 140 requires a settlement, a readjustment of the boundaries around Kirkuk. That's a terribly explosive political issue between the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. There's also a related issue of super regionalization in the constitution, where the Shia and the south want to be able to bring together several provinces to create a super, basically, Shia area, comparable to the Kurdish area in the north. And then there's also the issue of allocating oil resources. All of them come together in terms of where are the resources, where are the boundaries. What does this communicate settlement to the Sunni Arabs? Are they going to be part of the new Iraq or are they going to be continued to be ostracized?

So when you sit back and look at the complexity of these political issues and the lack of real capacity by the government of Iraq in Baghdad, the central government, again it suggests that this fragile reprieve from violence might not be indefinite.

CONAN: Sen. Reed, thank you very much.

REED: Thank you.

CONAN: Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who just returned from his 11th visit to Iraq.

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