The Week in Iraq House Democrats link war funding and troop withdrawal, the 2007 death toll is the highest annual one yet and Iraq approves raids on security firms. Sudarsan Raghavan, the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief, sets the scene.

The Week in Iraq

The Week in Iraq

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House Democrats link war funding and troop withdrawal, the 2007 death toll is the highest annual one yet and Iraq approves raids on security firms. Sudarsan Raghavan, the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief, sets the scene.


As we do every Friday here on The BPP, we sum up the major events that happened in, around and about the conflict in Iraq. It's called, The Week in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday the House will vote as early as today on legislation that would spend $50 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but require that President Bush start bringing troops home - that's about a quarter of the 196 billion the president requested.

Here's Speaker Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (California, Democrat; Speaker, U.S. House of representatives): This is not working; it's a war without end. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We must reverse it.


In Iraq, there is continued follow-up from the September shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater USA contractors. The Iraqi interior minister said this week he'd authorize Iraqi forces to raid Western security firms operating there to make sure they're following these tightened restrictions.

STEWART: Oh, yeah. And Iraq's largest dam may be in danger of collapsing and unleashing a trillion gallons of water on two of Iraq's largest cities.

Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief, joins us to help drill down on these stories a little bit.

Hey, thanks for being with us.

Mr. SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN (Baghdad Bureau Chief, Washington Post): Hey, good to be here, Luke and Alison.

STEWART: Sudarsan, over the course of the week, there has been all this information about death tolls in Iraq. Seven days ago, some positive news that U.S. soldier and Iraqi civilian deaths in October were the lowest monthly totals in a year. But then, this week, according to the DOD numbers, 2007 is the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the Iraq war began. Let's talk about these numbers. Is there - something we should keep in mind, first of all, when we hear these kind of numbers?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Well, I think the most important to keep in mind is to see, you know, whether this is really a trend in (unintelligible) violence or is it - or are we just in a low period? And we have seen other periods in Iraq's war where we've seen violent levels decrease only to rise up again.

It is interesting, though, that, you know, you do have - I mean, you know, a couple of the reasons why you're seeing civilian death tolls down - I mean, it's actually very complex. You know, you have this - this year, you have the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops, basically, being funneled in into, you know, so many neighborhoods in Baghdad. And when you do that, there is going to be some - the security is going to improve.

At the same time, you know, the U.S. has been capitalizing on the, basically, a fall out between Sunni Arab - Shiites and Sunni insurgent groups with the group al-Qaida in Iraq. And they've essentially turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and are now working with the U.S. troops - partnering with them.

And the third reason you're seeing violence level down is that many Iraqi have already fled their neighborhoods. I mean, you don't - the number of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, particularly, has fallen. And what you're seeing is, you know, much more homogenized neighborhoods where people of the same sex are living together and sense - tensions were down.

STEWART: But when I see that numbers, it's the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the Iraq war began. Is that related to the surging number of troops actually over there?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Absolutely. I mean, those numbers - the reason why it's the highest totals - yearly totals since the war began is that many of these deaths actually happened earlier during the year and through the summer. And, you know, what you're seeing is, you know, a massive amounts of troops in these neighborhoods. And they're essentially taking the attention away, you know, it's, so to speak, from the Iraqi civilians. And they've been attracting the violence.

But at the same time, you know, which we see in the past couple of months is that these U.S. military deaths have actually fallen and the number of roadside bomb attacks have - on them have gone down.

STEWART: All right. Let's go on the Blackwater USA and the Iraqi interior minister saying, yeah, I'm going to okay raid into western security contractor's officers to make sure they're following all the new restrictions about firearms. Is this an unusual move?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: You and no. I mean, the Iraqi government has long been disturbed by the - these western private contractors running around the roads and really, you know, taking the law into their own hands. And, you know, there's always been a sort of a spite for relationship, you might say.

I mean, even other Iraqis, when they see these contractors driving around in their big, black vehicles and with no regard for the law there, you know, they're, you know, they just don't like them.

So what we're seeing here, now, is the government trying to capitalize on this latest incident involving Blackwater USA in - on - in September, in which 17 Iraqis were killed. And they're using this as a way to assert themselves, assert Iraqi's sovereignty and at the same time, really, letting the - not only the United States. But Western private, you know, contractors know that, you know, who's the boss on the streets.

STEWART: Let's talk about this Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, that could release all these water. That's according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, let me say. What are Iraqi locals saying about this? Do they seem concerned that this dam may collapse and flood many large cities?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Surprisingly, no. When you talk to Iraqi…

BURBANK: Really?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: …official, they downplay it all the time. They pointed out that this dam was actually built in the 1980s under Saddam Hussein. And it was actually was built on a top of gypsum which dissolves in water. And ever since then, engineers have been kind of been injecting this dam with something called grout.

STEWART: Oh, that does not sound good.


BURBANK: Yeah, that sounds like what I would use to fix a problem in my bathroom.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Yeah, exactly. It's a liquefied mixture of cement and other additives and they've been doing this since the 1980s. And it really wasn't until after the invasion that - U.S. invasion - that American officials are looking into this - engineers are looking into this. And they've pointed it out to the Iraqis - you know, in a letter from General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq as well as the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They wrote a letter to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, just warning him that this dam could collapse. But so far, it doesn't really seem that the Iraqis are that interested in forking over what could be like $10 billion to fix it.

STEWART: Without getting too personal, people are wondering, wow, there's a really clear line to Iraq. We're actually talking to - you're in Madrid, right? Visiting your wife?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: That's right. That's right.

STEWART: You've been…

Mr. RAGHAVAN: I just left a few days ago and this is where I spend my off time.

STEWART: Yeah. You've been in Iraq for 15 months. Your first vacation in two months. Now that you've left and you look back on your time in Iraq, is there something that you have a clearer vision about in terms of your reporting?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Well, actually I'm heading back next week.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAGHAVAN: This is a stay - a short break. But certainly, every time I leave Iraq, I mean, it's a - it's sort of mixed emotions. And obviously, I'm very happy to get out of there and go see my wife. And go have a normal life, dinners in restaurants and go to museums and things like that. But at the same time, you know, you do feel a certain amount of guilt as well because, you know, you're leaving behind your Iraqi staff who - in the midst of all this danger, who don't have the luxury of leaving Iraq whenever they want to. At the same time, you know, when you're working on a story like this, you get very addicted to it and it's impossible to escape it. I mean, I'm constantly - even when I'm off - out of Iraq, I'm constantly checking the wires and making sure that I'm top of all the news there.

STEWART: Sudarsan Raghavan is a Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief. I'm not keeping you on the phone one second longer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: He's got to go back to Iraq next week. Go spend some time with your wife, enjoy the rest of your vacation, and be safe when you return.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Thank you. I appreciate it. It's good to be with you again.

BURBANK: Well, that's - talking about a culture shock. Baghdad. Madrid. Baghdad. Madrid.

STEWART: Seriously.

BURBANK: Coming up, did you know it's Diwali?

STEWART: It's a - oh, we get to celebrate? I love a celebration.

BURBANK: Yeah. I'll take any excuse too. Also, a holiday marked apparently by lots of gambling. I celebrate Diwali all year round.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: We're going to talk to somebody who can tell us more about this big, big festival in South Asia.

STEWART: And you've probably seen the posters - Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep - in this film, "Lions for Lambs." I've seen it. They're never onscreen together.


STEWART: That's just an interesting little tidbit about this film. Some are saying it's great; some are saying it is the biggest news fest ever.

Bob Mondello, NPR's film and art's critic will join us to talk a little bit more about that in the new column, Brother's Film.

You are listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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