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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

For the past five years I've had a simple way to check if Iraq is getting better or worse. I just ask Anne Garrels. She's an NPR correspondent who's been traveling back and forth to Iraq since before the war. The experience of being there is intense enough that every time you return to Iraq after an absence, you quickly pick up on what has changed.

Five years into the war, Anne Garrels is in Baghdad again. And this morning she will introduce us to some of the people who have helped her understand a country at war. And Anne Garrels, I want to go back to 2003, the beginning of this. What was it like after Baghdad fell to the approaching American troops?

ANNE GARRELS: It was totally eerie. First, it was absolutely silent, and then it was chaos. Looters suddenly thronged the streets. You know, people were carrying away anything that wasn't nailed down and even then some. And I kept going to American officers and saying, why aren't you doing anything? And they said, we don't have any orders to respond.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear one of the Iraqis you met in that circumstance. This is a man in the spring of 2003 at a hospital which has been looted.

Dr. ANWAR HASSEL(ph): We want a government now to help with the electricity and the water supply. This is very dangerous. It is more serious than American war itself.

INSKEEP: Dr. Anwar Hassel saying the situation after the invasion is more serious than the war itself. That's ominous.

GARRELS: I remember that day so well because he was in fact the only doctor who dare turned up at one of Iraq's major hospitals, and it was the first time I had ever seen Muqtada Sadr's soldiers on the street. Armed men turned up at that hospital to protect it from looters. Now, I mean Sadr's people had been underground under Saddam and were a force the U.S. did not anticipate or understand as we now know.

INSKEEP: So even in those early days, you had a sense of the chaos and the sense of militias on the street. And let's jump ahead now, Anne Garrels, to August of 2003. This is a moment when, from a distance, it was still possible to think that things might be going okay in Iraq and there was a news conference going on at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Let's listen to what happened.

Unidentified Man #1: And in our land impact survey of the north, we found that 80...

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: Stay where you are!

INSKEEP: A man shouting stay where you are. The sound of an explosion at the United Nations in Baghdad in August 2003. And Anne Garrels, you tracked many of the personal stories of people's lives who were changed in that instant.

GARRELS: It was really only the second major attack on a civilian target. We were in shock. It was a massive truck bombing. It killed a much-beloved U.N. representative here, Sergio de Mello, as well as 21 of his staff. I knew a woman who was in that building at that very moment who had gone to Sergio de Mello asking where her husband was. He was in U.S. custody. She was buried in the rubble and survived, but was only found several days later. After that, the U.N. all but pulled out.

INSKEEP: And you have this steady increase in violence and in chaos, going all the way up to the fall of 2004, when the United States military decided to retake an entire city that seemed to have fallen into insurgent hands, the city of Fallujah. NPR's Anne Garrels is with American troops getting ready for battle. And Anne, let's listen to some tape of that.

Unidentified Man #3: Definitely the scariest, you never know, you go into the wrong room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: At night young grunts still find something to laugh about. But beneath the laughter is concern about how they will perform, personally and collectively.

Unidentified Man #4: You go out there, you don't know if we can handle it. We ain't never been in it.

Unidentified Man #5: We all don't know what it's going to be like, you know. We can't - we've never been put in that situation.

INSKEEP: They've been put in that situation now.

GARRELS: I sat around with these young guys at night. We couldn't have any lights because we were very close to Fallujah, the forward base, and could be targets. They personally had never seen combat, as they made clear. Two in the group I sat with that night were subsequently killed in Fallujah, and in fact some of the tape you just heard was played at their funerals by their families. I sent the families the tapes. They were killed when they stormed a house which had been booby-trapped by insurgents.

Now, of course by now American troops have a lot of experience after two or three deployments here. But it's taken a huge toll on them, their families; they're all pretty exhausted.

INSKEEP: One of the other things that was becoming very clear by then in Iraq, and has become even more clear as the years have gone on, is the division between Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. And let's move forward now to 2005, Anne Garrels, which is when you met a Shiite cleric from the city of Samarra, which is a couple of hours north of Baghdad.

Sheikh HADI(ph) (Shiite Cleric): (Through translator) We keep meeting and meeting, getting nothing. These meetings are useless. No one does anything. The people need help.

INSKEEP: What were they meeting about?

GARRELS: Sheikh Hadi(ph), he had had to flee Samarra. This is long before the bombing of the shrine in Samarra which caused the incredible outburst of sectarian killing. But it was already going on - the Shiites in Samarra were being killed, were being threatened, were being pushed out.

He had to gone to the Iraqi government again and again, saying do something. And what he's saying here is they didn't do anything. And he said to me that afternoon, listen, it's so bad, let's just go for broke. Let it be civil war. Let's just do it and get it over with.

You know, at the time I thought, what is he talking about? But it was clear, the sectarian divide was there and getting worse and nobody would talk about it publicly, neither the Iraqis nor the Americans.

INSKEEP: And it was in Samarra that it burst into the open and a few months later in 2006.

GARRELS: That's absolutely right.

INSKEEP: And of course that violence continued to 2007, and then we have the beginnings of the so-called surge - the increase in U.S. troops there and also different tactics. What did a Baghdad neighborhood, a typical Baghdad neighborhood, look like as the U.S. tried to increase its presence there?

GARRELS: Well, basically, the neighborhoods, if you had mix neighborhoods with Sunnis and Shiites, the Shiites - in the predominantly Shiite part of it, the Sunnis would be pushed out; in the predominantly Sunni part of it, the Shiites would be pushed out. You had ethnic cleansing block by block by block.

And until the surge started last year, American troops have been hunkered down in big bases. It was a big change to have them living in the community. And Captain Erik Peterson set up one of the first combat outposts in Gazalia. And as you'll hear, he reached out to people who just a few days before perhaps had been shooting at him.

Unidentified Man #1: He was a part of a crowd that pretty much said, Hey, about 12 months ago we were actively trying to kill Americans. I mean, he does not hide that fact.

INSKEEP: So by working with former enemies, did Captain Peterson's troops actually change that Baghdad neighborhood?

GARRELS: Yes. Gazalia is definitely improved. Now, it is still incredibly fragile, because the U.S. has been trying to help the Sunnis protect themselves and created these new militias. They've come under various names - Concerned Citizens, now they're called Sons of Iraq.

The U.S. is pushing the Shiite-led government to make them part of the official police and army. That has not happened anything like as fast as the U.S. wants. And so it is still very delicate, because if these Sunni groups aren't incorporated, they could be a monster.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels, can you move about Baghdad any more freely than you could at this time a year ago, say?

GARRELS: Yes, but I don't know how freely. The problem is it's hard to know. I mean, there is still, as a foreigner - and it's just sectarian or al-Qaida wanting to put me in a orange jumpsuit and chop off my head - there's a huge criminal element here, too. So there is a price tag on my head; I'm worth money. It is safer, but I don't know how much safer. I don't know how far to push it. So the question comes up - should I go to the market? Can I go and record? How long can I stay there? We have huge debates about this and we still just don't know the reality.

INSKEEP: Questions that you can imagine Iraqi families discussing around their dinner tables every single day.

NPR's Anne Garrels is in Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: To hear the other stories in our series marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, you can go to npr.org.

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