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NEAL CONAN, host:

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

Iraq's relentless violence produces numbing statistics. Yesterday alone, at least 20 people killed in bomb attacks in and around Baghdad, dozens of bodies found shot and baring signs of torture; seven U.S. soldiers killed in combat. The numbers and the violence continue day after day. Amid all the discussion of deployments and reforms, progress and deadlines, we've gathered three experts to answer your questions on what's happening now in Iraq.

So if you want to know something about the political, military or economic situation, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Later on in the program, Minnesota Public Radio and Air America alumni Katherine Lanpher joins us to talk about her new book about reinventing her life in middle age.

But first, questions and answers about the current situation in Iraq. If you have questions about why so many American soldiers died over the past few weeks, the trouble securing Baghdad and why it's important, about the sickening toll of sectarian murders and what the Iraqi government actually controls. Whatever you want to know, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Again, e-mail is talk@npr.org.

Our experts, NPR's Baghdad correspondent Anne Garrels, who's on as - joins us on the line from Baghdad.

Annie, always nice to have you on the program.

ANNE GARRELS: Great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: With me here in Studio 3A in Washington is Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post and author of the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

And, Tom Ricks, nice to have you here.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Military Correspondent, The Washington Post): Thank you.

CONAN: And by phone from New York is George Packer, reporter for The New Yorker and author of the book, Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq.

George Packer, nice to talk to you again.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Reporter, The New Yorker): It's good to talk to you.

CONAN: And let's begin now with an e-mail question we have from Ed in Rochester, New York. Does Iraq now have a working system of taxation? Does the Iraqi government levy taxes and do people pay them?

Anne Garrels.

GARRELS: No, there is no really efficient system of taxations. And if there were, there is - people try to get around it. And there is really no efficient way to enforce it. That's bluntly put. Given the security situation, you know, inspectors can't go around and collect money. They can't go to houses. They can't - nobody pays attention to any of this and there are lots of ways to get around it.

CONAN: So where does the Iraqi government get its money?

GARRELS: Well, revenues, to the extent that it has them, and U.S. government assistance.

CONAN: Tom Ricks.

Mr. RICKS: Anne, Tom Ricks here. What's your sense of the degree to which an Iraqi government exists at all outside the blast walls of the Green Zone?

GARRELS: Not a whole lot. Everybody essentially relies - I mean, if you -you're really relying increasingly more and more on tribal relationships to get problems solved. I went to the Social Security office the other day. I mean most people just left in despair. You're seeing more and more kids on the street because families, widows of the many who have been killed - whether it's the, you know, policemen or just men who have been targeted in the last year -you know, they can't get an answer. Nobody can get an answer to anything. They don't believe - people here in Iraq do not believe there is a functioning government.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Chuck. Chuck calling us from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thanks a lot. I've been hearing a lot of talk about - well, for a long time now - about the need to transfer more responsibility to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military.

But I wonder if the Iraqi military isn't truly integrated? And if the Iraqi government isn't truly representative of all the various factions in society, wouldn't we just then be kind of propping up one group in a civil conflict against the others and making the whole democratization notion kind of moot and just going back to the old policy of stability and containment, then propping up the faction that's most sympathetic to our interest, or the one we perceive as that way, and not really solving the problem?

CONAN: George Packer, what do you think?

Mr. PACKER: Well, the U.S. government has struggled all along, especially since the transfer of sovereignty to create representative institutions, to have a government of national unity in which all three major ethnic or religious groups are represented, and to have an army in which they're represented, and a police force in which they're represented.

Well, the problem is in a way the more you succeed in that, the more you're simply creating an impossible situation in which parties that don't trust each other and that more and more regard each other as enemies are forced to try to make decisions. And the Iraqi government cannot make decisions because it's composed of parties and militias that are really pretty much at war with one another. So the idea of representative government is almost, you know, by some paradox, a failed idea.

And the army and police have always been a different sort of problem because it's been more Shiite and Kurdish recruits who have joined them than Sunnis. The Americans have tried very hard to create a balance, but outside the officer corps it's pretty difficult to get Sunni recruits. But there too it leads to a problem. Because if, you know, if the security forces are associated above all with the Shiite sect, then they're simply more and more sort of drafted into fighting on one side of a civil war.

You know, as - in the early years of this war, it was above all an insurgency against a weak government. And that was a better situation for the United States than a growing civil war. Because at least we knew what institutions were trying to build and who we were trying to defend them against. But now those institutions themselves are the source of the fighting and contain all the elements of the fighting. And so we're trying to create and defend institutions that are themselves the problem.

CONAN: Tom Ricks.

Mr. RICKS: To go to George's point, one thing that really struck me that I heard recently from an American officer was Iraqi police going into a neighborhood in west Baghdad, a Sunni neighborhood, and clearing out the heavy weapons: the heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and so on. Sounds like a good thing, right? Getting the heavy weapons away from civilian population. That night, not by coincidence, Shiite death squads show up and kill every male in the neighborhood.

CONAN: Hmm. Chuck, thanks for the call.

CHUCK: Can I just ask a follow-up?

CONAN: If you make it quick, please.

CHUCK: I'll make it real quick. It seems to me that - well, Mr. Packer's answer said we didn't succeed in building those institutions, and therefore we have a problem. And he's not really - and I'm suggesting that the things that are there being offered as a solution aren't really a solution. And maybe what we need to do is go back and build those institutions right, because democracy is the way that you solve these conflicts without violence. So I guess that's my comment. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, Chuck. Thanks very much.

Let's - there's an e-mail question from Dave in Germantown, Wisconsin. Are most of the soldiers killed with IEDs - improvised explosive devices - triggered by cell phones? If yes, with all our technology, why are we not using signal interference to detect and explode the device before it's set off remotely?

Anne Garrels.

GARRELS: Well, increasingly, I mean you look at any Humvee that is now on the street, and it has this sort long projectile in front of it to try and trigger in advance an IED. They're triggered by different means, very different means. And yes, indeed, most of the soldiers who have been killed of late have been killed by roadside bombs. But they come in, you know, in varying and more sophisticated forms. So, you know, I - forgive me, I'm not a complete technician. But I mean they've done a lot to improve the methodology, and it's obliviously not enough.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, this is sort of leapfrog technology, isn't it?

Mr. RICKS: It is exactly. All military operations in conflict are a form of rock, paper, scissors. One guy does something, the other guy comes up with a way to counter it. So initially in the summer of '03, the roadside bombs actually had wires leading to them. Then later on people started using cell phones, so the Americans started using signal interrupters to jam them, and back and forth.

Lately, the bombs - when you see a notice that four soldiers have been killed in one Humvee that indicates something that's caused an explosive shaped-charge(ph) has been used. Frequently these things have infrared detectors on either side of the road. And when the car goes through and interrupts the infrared beam, it sets off this very powerful charge - a shaped charge - that kills everyone in the Humvee, which didn't use to happen.

CONAN: All right…

Ms. GARRELS: You're seeing more and more of that. What's striking is that a number of the incidents we've seen in the last few weeks are, you know, two, three, four soldiers killed at a time, as Tom suggests.

CONAN: Anne Garrels, I know we have to lose you in a couple of minutes, but here's another e-mail question.

Ms. GARRELS: Oh, I can stay with you if you can bear me.

CONAN: Oh, all right. We'll call your editor and see if he agrees. But anyway, this is an e-mail question from Nate in Portland, Oregon.

Outside the general scope of Saddam Hussein's regime and the obvious ties and examples, how present was the type of sectarian violence we're seeing now before the war in Iraq? I know you spent a fair amount of time there before the war in Iraq.

Ms. GARRELS: Well, I mean there was obviously - there wasn't anything like the sectarian violence like we're seeing now. I mean the Shiites in the south rebelled, as we know, against Saddam. They were brutally put down. The Kurds in the north rebelled. They too were brutally put down until the U.S. created a no-fly zone and then what now is this autonomous zone in the north where the Kurds now live, I must say, in relative peace and tranquility compared to the rest of the country.

You know, there - but there was a lot of intermarriage. Now families don't want to intermarry. They're scared of each other. They may love their - a Sunni may love their Shiite neighbors. They know they can't protect them, so they don't want their kids to marry into that mess, as they put it. It is a far different situation.

Before, it was Saddam creating the dynamics in many ways. It's gone to a whole new level now. People here don't want it in many ways. They say we can't believe what's going on. It's happening around them, but it is happening and it's real, not unlike Yugoslavia in some ways.

CONAN: Anne, your editor says you have responsibilities for an afternoon news program here on National Public Radio (unintelligible) so we are going to have to let you go. Thanks again for being with us. We appreciate your time.

Ms. GARRELS: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye, Annie. We're going to continue with your questions, a Q-and-A on Iraq with Tom Ricks, a military reporter for The Washington Post, author of Fiasco, and with George Packer, author of Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, who covers the war in Iraq for The New Yorker magazine. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

We often cover the situation in Iraq: the war, deployments, progress, deadlines. But there's not always a lot of time to answer your questions. So today, Q-and-A on Iraq.

If you have questions about the trouble securing Baghdad, the growing sectarian violence, who's fighting who and which group wants what, give us a call. 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Tom Ricks, military reporter for The Washington Post, and George Packer, who covered Iraq for The New Yorker magazine and is the author of Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq. Tom Rick's book is Fiasco.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Troy. Troy calling us from Iowa City.

TROY (CALLER): Yes, I've got a couple of questions. What is the kill ratio that the U.S. military has gotten? Is it 10 to one? 100 to one? What exactly is that?

CONAN: Tom Ricks, do you know?

Mr. RICKS: Your question is the ratio of U.S. troops being killed to insurgents being killed?

TROY: Yes. Or Iraqi military people.

Mr. RICKS: I think the answer is no one knows, because no one really has a handle of the number of insurgent combatants or even what makes an insurgent. Is an insurgent somebody who, an hour a day, goes out and lays an IED and then goes back to his normal job? Is he an insurgent? Is the person who puts him up for the night? Is the person who lends him a shovel an insurgent? Why do you ask the question, though?

TROY: Okay, my next question is how many people were killed in Iwo Jima? Isn't there - more Americans died there than taking over the whole country of Iraq? And just this small, little island caused 20,000 lives, isn't that correct?

Mr. RICKS: It's absolutely correct. But I think…

TROY: …to take over a whole country…

Mr. RICKS: I would ask what is the relevancy of comparing World War II to a much more typical American war like the war in Iraq.

CONAN: And I think it was 5,000 dead, American dead, on Iwo Jima, and maybe 20,000 casualties.

Mr. PACKER: Can I - 5,000? There was 5,000 in a day. This is George Packer. I wanted to tell the caller that the problem with your reasoning is that the - first of all, the military has released figures on insurgents, but whenever it does I have a feeling some of the officers wince because they remember the body count in Vietnam and remember how misleading it was when they tried to calculate their success rate by how many enemy were being killed; when in fact, first of all, those body counts were wildly unrealistic because a lot of the dead were civilian. And second, it didn't matter because an insurgency is first and last a political kind of war and what matters is the opinion of the civilian population in Iraq and in the United States.

And so, yes, it's true that American casualties have been relatively low compared to some of the more violent wars we fought in the 20th century, but it doesn't matter because this is political. And if Americans don't believe that even this level of casualties is acceptable given the goals and the deterioration in Iraq, then the body count is irrelevant. What matters is people's opinions, and that's why it's dangerous to get into that kind of counting game.

Mr. RICKS: I think George is absolutely correct, because this is essentially a political war and always must be judged in political terms. Simply in terms, though, of casualties, the Iraq War now stands in the middle rank of American wars beyond, say, the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, and though the numbers seem low to me, actually somewhere around the Revolutionary War.

Speaking of which, last night I was reading David Hackett Fischer's wonderful history of Washington called Washington's Crossing. It has a quote in it that speaks to this caller's issue. There's a British general quoted as saying: The insurgents - he uses the word insurgents - the insurgents are only tiny percentage of the population. Most of the people support us.

CONAN: Here's a question about casualties on the other side. The first Lancet study released two years ago was viciously attacked, writes Kathleen(ph) in Athens, Ohio, and swept under the rug. Last week the second Lancet study was released and reported that 650,000 Iraqi people have been killed as a direct result of the invasion. It appears the media and the majority of the Americans are more than willing to avert their eyes and ears away from these recently released numbers of Iraqi dead and this report is being swept under the rug, or more likely kept under the rug.

Tom Ricks, I know that this was brought up at the Pentagon.

Mr. RICKS: I don't think it's been swept under the rug. It was in The Washington Post and other newspapers. I think there's some real questions about it and I think they're important questions. My colleague at the Post, Eugene Robinson, had a terrific column on this, I believe yesterday. It's worth looking up. His name is Eugene Robinson. If the 600,000 number is correct, then it's horrifying. It takes your breath away and it really needs to be - everybody needs to stop and look at it and think about this. If it's wrong, then that number needs to be knocked down hard.

I have not had a chance to go trough their methodology. Another of my Post colleagues, David Brown, who's a medical doctor, said he found the methodology rather persuasive. Yet the one thing that I've been discussing in e-mail with U.S. military officers is apparently one of its assumptions is that every U.S. air strike kills 10 Iraqis. In my experience, that is probably not a correct assumption. It probably overstates the case.

CONAN: We did have the man who conducted the study on this program and that, as far as I know, is not part of his methodology. It was based on a house-by-house survey of Iraqi households by Iraqis, so that's what he said.

Anyway, here's an e-mail question from Steve(ph). We hear about the hot spots and how horrible they are, and indeed they are our biggest current challenge. What's happening in all the quiet towns and villages that are not in the news? Is there a lower level of sectarian violence? No violence? Is there power, water, sewage, police, fire, et cetera? George Packer.

Mr. PACKER: Well honestly, I don't really know exactly what's going on in Muthanna province, you know, or in Wasit. But just from anecdotal reports, yes there are parts of Iraq that are quieter. The really extreme violence is taking place in the center, the west and the north.

But even in the so-called sort of more stable Shiite south there really isn't law and order, there really isn't a well-functioning police and government. There are militias that have controlled provincial governments and security forces, and because of the lack of Sunnis the level of sectarian violence is low. But there's still a lot of violence. People are killed with impunity.

You never read about investigations that follow-up killings that lead to trial and imprisonment. Electricity and water remain, you know, really serious problems pretty much throughout Iraq. And simply because it's not in the news doesn't mean that it's not violent.

I think it's true that Baghdad gets the overwhelming share of media focus, and it should because Baghdad is where this is going to be won or lost, is being won or lost. But in the south, the failure of the Iraqi government and security forces to evolve as credible institutions means that in peoples' daily lives they really have to rely on tribes and militias and neighborhood gangs and watch groups simply to protect themselves.

So in that sense the whole country outside of Kurdistan is not safe, with varying degrees of danger.

CONAN: And, Tom Ricks, Kurdistan is the exception.

Mr. RICKS: It is. But generally on Iraq people say to me, is the media telling the truth? And I say, no, I think they're probably painting too rosy a picture. I actually think that the media has understated the degree of violence. We keep on seeing these numbers about bodies showing up in the morgue. Well, I was down in southwest Baghdad in February talking to a guy who works on the sewer system there. I said what's the biggest problem? He said bodies. So a lot of those bodies that get killed aren't showing up in the morgue at all. They're flowing right through those huge sewer systems and flowing down to the Tigris River.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Gregory(ph). Gregory with us from San Diego.

GREGORY (Caller): Hi, Neal. My question relates to the definition of who the insurgents are. Is it the Shiite Badr Brigade, or the Sunnis in Fallujah or al-Qaida from countries outside of Iraq? And how can we referee, you know, all these various sides? How can we unite them? They seem united in their hatred or hostility towards this country, but, you know, what else besides Saddam Hussein and hatred towards this country will unite these, you know, seeming irreconcilable foes?

CONAN: Tom Ricks, why don't you start on that?

Mr. RICKS: Well…

GREGORY: And I'll listen off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Gregory.

Mr. RICKS: It certainly shouldn't be the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, because they're part of the government that we've installed. Yes. Now the problem here is that Moqtada al-Sadr, who's probably the single most powerful person in the new government, also is a major supporter of Hezbollah.

So we have created quite a fix for ourselves. My answer is yes, Iraq is part of the war on terror. I'm not just sure on any given day which side it's on.

They really are I think in a low-level civil war, those outfits, with the Sunnis. I think the foreign influence has been rather overplayed. Every single time I've been on the ground in Iraq and asked commanders how many of the people you're fighting with are foreigners, the answer is generally 2 percent or so. And those numbers are borne out actually by the number of people who have been detained who hold foreign passports.

So it's mainly an Iraqi war with at least three sides, perhaps four. My worry is that the Americans increasingly are simply one more militia in this fight, and while the most powerful one, politically the least relevant one.

Another American officer wrote to me recently that we've seen three wars in Iraq. First the invasion, then the war of insurgency; and now he said we're seeing the war for who runs this country after we leave.

Mr. PACKER: Right. And in that sense, there is a sort of a terminology problem. We called them insurgents for a long time. It was very hard to know exactly who they were because they were fragmented, their structure was more cellular, they didn't have a central command. But one thing you could say was they were Sunnis.

Now I think of them more as a militia, one among - there are many militias. There are Sunni militias; there are Shiite militias. If you look at what happened in Balad over the weekend, Shiite laborers were beheaded by Sunni militias. And in response, Shiite militias came into Balad from Baghdad, mainly the Mahdi Army militia, and sealed off the city and began rounding up Sunnis and killing them on the spot.

And by the end of the weekend there were I think something like 80 people dead. And now the Iraqis in the area are asking where were the Americans? There's a huge base at Balad. I think - Tom, correct me if I'm wrong - but I think it's the biggest base in the country.

Mr. RICKS: It is. It had 24,000 U.S. troops when I was last there.

Mr. PACKER: Yeah. And they simply were invisible for the entire weekend of fighting until Balad began to be stabilized when Shiite clerics started calling for calm, and then they moved in with Iraqi army forces. What that tells me is yes, the Americans are increasingly in the middle of a civil war, but they don't want to be there. And when it's open sectarian fighting, the Americans are not going to try to play referee and keep the fighting parties apart.

And that is sort of a fundamental problem with our posture in Iraq right now. As it shifts from an insurgency to a civil war, our role is less and less clear. And as Tom says, politically we are the weakest force and seem unable to exert our will.

To answer the previous callers question, you know, we have tried to create this government of national unity. There's talk now of a national conference in which the parties are forced to get to the table and resolve their differences and sign a political settlement that will divide up oil resources and everything else.

We can't make them do it. And even threatening to leave doesn't seem to be enough to get them to do it. And that's because there's a lack of will among Iraqi leaders, and the government itself is made up of the fighters. So why would they suddenly turn around because the Americans asked them to and make peace with their enemies?

There's a deep, deep hatred now among the sectarian groups in Iraq because of the violence, and that kind of thing takes years to play out.

CONAN: We're talking with George Packer of The New Yorker magazine and Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post. Taking your questions and giving answers on Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a couple more callers in. John(ph) - John's with us from Las Vegas.

JOHN (Caller): Yes. It strikes me that we live increasingly in a result-oriented society. Certainly in the private sector, and even in this administration and the previous one, we have all sorts of benchmarks for measuring success and performance.

And my question is what are the benchmarks for success in this particular conflict for American policy and American forces? And I'll take my answer off of the air.

CONAN: Okay, John. There's still debate over the benchmarks for No Child Left Behind, much less Iraq, Tom Ricks. But anyway, go ahead.

Mr. RICKS: Well, the original goal in Iraq was a pro-American, stable ally in the war on terror that was democratic. I think what you're seeing right now is that goal is being whittled down. And I think within a few months you probably will see a somewhat different goal being pursued in the U.S. government. That's just a guess.

Right now I think the benchmarks that are much more pertinent and relevant are the benchmarks of failure. And the previous caller was right on the money - that's one thing I like about NPR, is the callers are as smart as the people being interviewed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: What happened in Balad last weekend was really worrisome to me. It was the biggest, I think most significant incident since the Samarra mosque, the golden domed mosque, was attacked in February. That really felt to me like a slide much deeper into a genuine, flat-out, full-blown civil war in which militias were showing up to attack the civilian populations of the other side. And if we see much more of that, I think that really we're going to be very close to the end of the situation in Iraq.

CONAN: Benchmarks, George Packer?

Mr. PACKER: Well, Tom is right. The benchmarks of failure are the key ones. I think that outside the administration, sort of foreign policy Washington - and you can take a survey that the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group that was set up by Congress to propose changes in policy - Republican senators, like Senator Warner, Senator Hagel and others, I think have come to the conclusion that plan A, the democratic, stable, unified Iraq that is an ally of America that Tom mentioned is dead.

And what the administration needs to do is begin to think about plan B or C or D. The problem is the administration will not accept those terms. It's not going to abandon its current policy. At least it doesn't seem it's willing to now.

And so what happens is we fail to take different steps, and there are different steps and they're being proposed. Dennis Ross, the former Middle East envoy, had an excellent op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend; that there are sort of policy options in between stay-the-course and cut-and-run. There are other ways to think about this.

And if we don't think about them now and begin to act on them, six months from now we'll find that we have a much worse situation and our options have been constrained. It's not as though Iraq is going to stand still while we decide what our policy should be.

So things like Balad over the weekend - which, I agree with Tom, was a really serious deterioration - are warning bells that Iraq is slipping away and that our insistence on a failed policy doesn't just mean that we're stuck in a quagmire, it means we are making it more and more difficult for ourselves to react and act six months from now, when I think Iraq is bound to be in worse shape than it is now.

CONAN: George Packer, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. George Packer's book is Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, and he covers Iraq for The New Yorker magazine. Thomas Ricks was with us here in Studio 3A. His book is Fiasco. And Tom Ricks of The Washington Post, thank you.

Tremendous response. We'll do this again. Q-and-A on Iraq. When we come back, leap days. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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