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SCOTT SIMON, host:

George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of "The Assassin's Gate." He recently returned from a month-long trip to Iraq, Syria and Jordan, his sixth to Iraq since the war began. He joins us now from New York. Mr. Packer, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Author, "The Assassin's Gate"): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: This week's debate in Congress, to the best of your knowledge, how intently are issues like this or debates like this followed in Iraq?

Mr. PACKER: I think if Congress declares essentially no confidence in the president's policies, it's going to raise questions in Iraqis' minds about how long more American troops will be in their cities. And although every Iraqi desperately wants to see the last American soldier leave the country, what I heard over and over again was also a great fear that if America leaves, we will leave Iraqis to the depredations of their own militias and of the neighboring powers. And it's not a happy picture. So I think there's going to be some anxiety that this latest surge will be short-lived and that America will be heading for the exit before long.

SIMON: You're acquainted with some of the new members of the U.S. military leadership there, General David Petraeus or Colonel McMaster, Colonel Peter Mansoor?

Mr. PACKER: I am. I know all three of them and I also know the Australian civilian, David Kilcullen, who will be joining them from the State Department. They are really the most impressive people I've met at the top levels of the American military. In some ways they're kind of a core of dissidents who have maybe a more humanistic approach to war fighting and to counterinsurgency.

They had been critics - maybe quietly, but very much critics - of the way this war's been conducted. And it seems as if maybe one or two years later than they needed to and perhaps too late, the administration has turned to this handful of counterinsurgency experts to try to save it from defeat at the very last hour of this war.

SIMON: What are you going to be looking in the daily news reports from Iraq over let's say the next six months as a sign that any kind of new strategy is working or not?

Mr. PACKER: First of all, simply the death toll of civilians, which is unbelievably high now. Are civilians leaving their homes, are they being internally displaced, are they leaving Iraq? Or are they beginning to return? Especially this. Is the middle class, which has really abandoned Iraq in droves, returning? That class, whose skills are essential for any viable society - or are they staying out because they simply don't think that there's a future for them in their old homes?

SIMON: Has the Baghdad that you saw on let's say your first visit, how much of that Baghdad has been changed beyond recovery?

Mr. PACKER: Well, right now it's almost all gone. The area of Baghdad where, for example, I could go and talk to people is just tiny now, little tiny islands. And the area where Iraqis themselves can go if they don't absolutely know the neighborhood and have the right sectarian affiliation is also very limited.

So I think that the real changes in people's minds - of course the city is moribund. I mean Iraqis talk about people still in Baghdad being dead men walking. I mean this is the language Iraqis now use. But above all, what's changed is that Iraqis who used to say maybe in six months or a year the situation will get better now tell me it won't happen for 15 years. That's how long it's going to take. And after 15 years, who knows if there will even be a country called Iraq? That's a pretty dire forecast for one's homeland. And that's the real problem, that Iraqis no longer believe in the promises of their own government or the Americans.

SIMON: George Packer, staff writer at "The New Yorker" and author of "The Assassin's Gate." Thanks very much.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you.

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