Iraqi Preparedness And U.S. Troop Withdraw As the June 30 deadline for U.S. troop withdraw from Iraqi cities approaches, New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland shares his perspective on how prepared the Iraqi government and security forces are to take over.
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Iraqi Preparedness And U.S. Troop Withdraw

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Iraqi Preparedness And U.S. Troop Withdraw

Iraqi Preparedness And U.S. Troop Withdraw

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to catch up on what's been happening in Iraq. My guest, Rod Nordland, is a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times. He's on a brief visit to the U.S. and will soon return to Iraq. He's been covering Iraq since the invasion, and before joining the Times served as Newsweek's Baghdad bureau chief and chief foreign correspondent. Iraq is one of many war zones he's covered.

This is a critical time for Iraq. American combat troops are scheduled to pull out of Iraqi cities next month, yet Iraq seems to have receded into the background of the news. Many news organizations no longer have reporters there, either because of financial cutbacks or because the reporters have moved on to other stories.

Nordland says it's as if after the surge, when things seemed to get better, everybody gave a sigh of relief and turned to other concerns.

Rod Nordland, welcome to FRESH AIR. Where are we now in terms of things getting better?

Mr. ROD NORDLAND (New York Times): Things are getting worse. I mean, they got better for a while, and they're now starting to get worse. There are a lot of troublesome signs. They are getting in some ways still. Things still aren't back to the bad days in 2007, but they have been deteriorating, and there are some very big questions about can they put together a viable government and can they finally get the insurgency under control. Can they give the Sunnis enough to keep them from going back to the insurgency?

GROSS: The timetable for withdrawal is what? I mean, President Obama says all troops will be out by the end of August, 2010, but we're withdrawing a lot of troops in June. What's the June plan now?

Mr. NORDLAND: The June deadline is to withdraw all combat troops from the cities, or actually the wording of the Status of Forces Agreement is from cities, towns and localities, basically population areas, and move them out to bases where they can perform a support role rather than a combat role in the cities. They are still leaving trainers, of course, and so on.

And then the next deadline next summer is a deadline to have all combat troops stop, or all combat stop on the part of American troops, and then the finally deadline, end of 2011, is to withdraw all U.S. troops, except for a few trainers.

GROSS: So in June, troops won't be coming home, they'll just be moving outside of populated areas?

Mr. NORDLAND: That's right, yeah. I mean, there has been a draw-down that's been going on for some time now. The original surge brigades have gone back, but the numbers are still pretty high. They're still pretty close to 140,000. At the peak there were maybe 160,000. So that's still a considerable number.

GROSS: I wonder if you've been talking to Iraqi leaders and American military leaders about whether they think the current timetable is viable, whether Iraq can be stable if we stick to the timetable.

Mr. NORDLAND: You know, it's an amazing thing about our military, and I guess, you know, thank God for it, that no sooner was Obama elected, even before he took office, than they were - all of a sudden they were on his bandwagon, and yes, the Iraqis are ready, and we need to get out and so on. And that change was so quick it was just head-spinning, and that's the party line now, and you do not hear from them much criticism about that, certainly not publicly.

A few of them, I think when you talk to them privately and you have their confidence, there's a lot of concern there, a great deal of concern, particularly about whether the Iraqi military and police are going to be up to the job.

GROSS: You know, I'm still reading a lot about car-bombings and suicide attacks, and I think April was the worst month in a year. So it sounds unfortunate that just as the Americans are withdrawing that things are getting worse again. Is that intentional, do you think? Do you think that the car-bombings are increasing because of the knowledge that Americans are going to be withdrawing?

Mr. NORDLAND: I think in part. I mean, I think what they're trying to do is provoke a sectarian backlash and get back to the days in '06, '07 when there was essentially a civil war going on between sects, and that would put the U.S. in a very difficult position and either there would be a lot of pressure on the administration to pull out more quickly, which would serve their interests, or the U.S. would get more deeply involved, which also in a perverse way would serve their interests as well.

GROSS: In what perverse way would that serve their interests?

Mr. NORDLAND: Because they want chaos, they want disorder, they want an enemy. You know, having the Americans there is really convenient for the Sunni insurgency. They wouldn't have much of a cause without the Americans there. And then for a lot of Sunnis, they see them as protectors. But the insurgents actually want to have them there so that they can provoke more and more incidents, and that's their philosophy anyway, that they can stir up people if they can just have the Americans there to kick around.

GROSS: What's left of the insurgency?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, we keep declaring it dead, and - or nearly dead, or moribund, but it keeps showing that it has capacity, like this recent string of suicide bombings in April. They do seem to have an inexhaustible supply of people willing to blow themselves up, and they're not as sophisticated bombs as they were before. They're not able to get together huge truck bombs and so on because the security posture is enough to prevent that. But they are able to infiltrate and to find ways to infiltrate, and they're always thinking up kind of new ways to get past the security cordons.

GROSS: One of the ways that the American military helped quiet the insurgency was by basically winning insurgents over to our side with the help of monthly stipends, like $300 a month, and the people who left the insurgency to fight the insurgents instead of being insurgents joined what was called Awakening Councils. And there's a lot of friction now between the Iraqi government and the Awakening Councils. What's the source of that friction?

Mr. NORDLAND: Yeah, and there's also a lot of friction between the American military and the American government's representatives in Iraq and the Iraqi government over what they've been doing with the Sons of Iraq, as the U.S. calls them, or the Awakening members.

There have been a series of arrests of some quite high-profile members. There have been some attacks on them and some killings, although those aren't as big a factor, and they're probably not government-connected. But most of the Sons of Iraq councils now are very much on the defensive and feel that the government doesn't see them as part of the solution in the future, although it keeps saying it does.

And the key thing is that they expected - the whole idea is that they would eventually be given jobs in the security forces so they would become part of the country's legitimate armed forces rather than a bunch of armed militiamen.

No government wants armed militias operating somewhat independently of its authority, and the Sons of Iraq, for the most part, agreed with that and were willing to sign up and were willing to join the security forces, and about something like five percent of them so far has been integrated. And it looks like they won't meet any of their goals this year for bringing any large numbers of them into government jobs, let alone the security forces.

GROSS: Is that because the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces don't trust the Sons of Iraq or the Awakening Council members, whichever way you prefer to call them?

Mr. NORDLAND: Yes, I think that's right. I mean, you know, the government's dominated by Shia, and these people were their enemies, and a lot of them were actively fighting, and they know that. I mean, part of the whole deal was to put all that behind them and agree that they wouldn't prosecute any of these people for acts that took place during the insurgency, but they made a caveat there - except for crimes like murder and so forth.

So it's kind of hard to - I mean, you can accuse somebody of murder if they were just in a firefight with you and then go and arrest them, or you can be a little more reasonable about it and say, okay, that was behind us, and for the sake of reconciliation we're just going to forget about that.

Well, the government increasingly is going toward the direction of finding excuses for arresting these guys, and everybody is quite worried about it.

GROSS: So what kind of sentiment is that creating among the former insurgents who joined our team and now feel like they're not being given what they were promised, like jobs?

Mr. NORDLAND: You know, actually, there's not as much anger as you would expect. There's some of that, but more kind of a sad disappointment and frustration and a feeling like - I mean, having given up the idea of joining al-Qaida and the really extreme leaders of the insurgency, joining forces with the government, having made that momentous move, they don't feel like they've gotten any payback for it.

But on the other hand, it's very hard for them to go back now. I mean in many cases they turned over the al-Qaida people working in their neighborhood and turned on the extremists, and it would be very hard for them to go back that route, and a lot of them genuinely want to be part of the future in Iraq.

GROSS: So are the former insurgents who joined the Awakening Councils now kind of persona non grata from both sides, both from the Iraqi government and the current insurgents?

Mr. NORDLAND: I would suppose that's true, but I think the more important factor with them is that they've kind of got a taste of cooperating with the government, and they did get something out of it. Like you said, they got $300 a month a piece, and that was something, and it was a lot for a lot of them. and they learned that they could get along with the Iraqi police and army units that were in their neighborhoods and with the Americans who were there too, and the Americans of course helped grease that and helped moved that along.

So they've gone way past the idea of rejoining the insurgency, but then they're not getting what they need, which is real jobs with the government, real integration into the government, and in some cases they're being asked to lay down their weapons, and in some cases they're being arrested and charged for things that happened while they were insurgents, and that's alarmed everybody, and so far there doesn't seem to be - there hasn't been any evidence of Sons of Iraq going back to al-Qaida or the other extremist factions in any numbers.

But on the other hand, those things would not be very apparent either. They would be happening underground. It might be some time before we saw that happen.

GROSS: So what are some of the dangers of alienating the Sons of Iraq, of the government alienating them?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, I mean, a very simple example would be the Sunni sympathizer for insurgence who facilitated a suicide bomber to get inside the parliament building and then with a couple of accomplices inside the building then, who had the explosives, it took like two or three people to put it together, and then blew himself up in the parliament and killed - I think it was eight people or 10 people.

You know, that's the sort of thing that can happen. That guy wasn't particularly a Sons of Iraq, but he was - he was actually an employee of one of the Sunni legislators and apparently very disenchanted with the way their integration into Iraqi society was going.

We could have that playing out on neighborhood levels all over, and it just takes one guy to help them breach the security. You know, Baghdad and Iraq generally now is the most heavily guarded, heavily fortified, heavily defended place anywhere in the world, and that's as much as anything else is what's kept some of the worst violence down, particularly acts of terrorism like suicide bombings, and that could all change.

GROSS: When we talk about the remaining insurgency, who are the insurgents now? Are they al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, or is it a bunch of different groups coming together? Who are they?

Mr. NORDLAND: Yeah, I mean, it's al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which includes both Iraqis but has a lot of foreign jihadi leaders. They have a relationship with al-Qaida generally, but they operate somewhat independently. They also have a fair amount of resources and funding.

Then there are also former followers of Saddam. There are a number of groups that have formed under various banners, which are probably just the former Baath Party in a different guise. And there are some other kind of - there are a variety of just fundamentalist jihadi groups of various types, and many of these cooperate with each other and a lot of them have their own agendas as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rod Nordland, and he's a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times, former Baghdad bureau chief for Newsweek. He's been covering Iraq since the invasion. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about what you've been seeing in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rod Nordland, and he is on a break from covering Iraq for the New York Times. He's about to return to Iraq. He's been covering Iraq since the invasion. He's been Newsweek's Baghdad bureau chief, and he's currently a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times.

Blackwater used to be the contractor that the Americans used to protect American diplomats in Iraq.

Mr. NORDLAND: Right.

GROSS: But because of all the scandals surrounding Blackwater, they lost the contract, and now there's one or more contractors that have replaced them, but I think you reported that a lot of the employees are the same, even though the contractor has changed. So…

Mr. NORDLAND: That's right. It could be the same bunch of cowboys and with the same potential for really catastrophic reaction. You know, I think American diplomats, they've been using Blackwater these years, and they've sort of succumbed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, you know, where they just feel like they couldn't possibly survive without these gunmen, and everyone else sees them as a bunch of borderline psychotics who are extremely dangerous to everyone around them, and the State Department just doesn't see it that way. So they'll still have their Blackwaters. They'll just be rebadged as something else.

GROSS: And is that because it's the State Department's call, or is it because the new contractor has a limited number of people it can hire, and it wants to hire people who are already experienced so it's getting the same people Blackwater did?

Mr. NORDLAND: Right. I think that's right to a large degree. I mean, it would be hard to find people, and plus, the contractor's going to have to go to the State Department, to the RSO, the Regional Security Office of the State Department, and every one of those guys that they assign to guard diplomats is going to have to be vetted by them and approved by them. And you know, the Blackwater guys they know they will approve, and somebody is going to be - you know, it's going to be less likely that they'll be satisfied with their level of training and expertise and so on.

GROSS: So are you saying in some ways nothing has changed in terms of the contractors?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, it's changed somewhat. There are some laws in place now. The Iraqi government has taken control of getting licenses for contractors. Blackwater was denied one, so it pretty much had to fold up its tent. One very useful thing they've done is they've forced all security contractors to put an identifying number and sort of badge on the side of their cars so anyone can find out who they were.

There have been a lot of cases where these guys would drive through in their unmarked SUVs and shoot up the neighborhood, and no one would ever know who it was or would be able to find out. So that won't happen again. So there's been some improvement on that score.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what's happening in the north of Iraq, in Kurdistan, which has been a pretty autonomous and pretty peaceful region, a kind of model, I think, in some ways, of what America would have wanted the rest of Iraq to turn into, but there seems to be trouble brewing there too.

Mr. NORDLAND: Yeah, I mean there are lots of problems there. One is they don't want to submit to the authority of the central government. They want to take the oil reserves they have there as their own. There's an ongoing dispute between them and the Iraqi central government.

Kurdistan is governed by a kind of voluntary autocracy made up of members of two political parties who allow no other parties, really, to function, who don't have much respect for freedoms or freedom of the press, who have an entrenched system of corruption that often isn't very apparent because it is rather more prosperous, and there is a fair amount of foreign investment. But there are just a lot of long-term problems that aren't going to be easy to solve.

GROSS: So there are a lot of disputes in Kurdistan over control of the oil, between the Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government?

Mr. NORDLAND: Yes. There are some Kurdish fields that the Kurds control, and then there's the issue of Kirkuk, which - where the biggest fields and which is split between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs, as well as a big Turkmen minority, all of them claiming to be the original inhabitants of Kirkuk and claim that the others were brought in by Saddam or by other parties to change the demographic balance.

I mean, it's such a touchy area. It's actually surprising it hasn't blown up. I mean, there have been lots of bombings and so on, but full-scale conflict hasn't happened.

GROSS: How would you describe the Iraqi government that exists in Iraq now in terms of its competency, the level of corruption?

Mr. NORDLAND: I mean, Transparency International says it's the second-most-corrupt place in the world. I think that's the right statistic, certainly high up there. I think that it's kind of a - it's a hard question to answer because the government has a lot of failings. I mean the oil ministry recently just arrested the spokesman of the oil ministry on corruption charges, and another spokesman for one of the ministries was similarly arrested. But they do have an accountability process.

You know, they have an integrity in government commission that sometimes is fairly aggressive and does pursue people. Maliki, who's a Shia from the Dawa Party, was kind of a compromise choice because they couldn't agree between Siri Indawa(ph), who would be the ideal prime minister, and they saw Maliki as a weak figure that could be controlled and everybody was satisfied to see him take that role.

Since then he's become a lot stronger, and he's kind of surprised people with his ability to govern and to forge some consensus and in recent local elections to get some following just around himself that isn't just identified with ethnic or sectarian politics, and he hopes to consolidate that and build on it in the coming elections.

I mean, he's no angel, and the people around him are no angels either, and he has depended for his support on factions like Muqtada al-Sadr's followers, the Mahdi Army, who were some of the worst killers during the time of the sectarian warfare. And there are a lot of other issues with Maliki too, but there's some reason to hope that he'll be able to pull together, you know, a real government that's somewhat independent of sectarianism.

GROSS: So far, how do you think this experiment in democracy has worked out in terms of the government resembling a democracy?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, I mean, it has to be said that Iraq is more democratic than most of our other allies in the region, certainly more democratic than Jordan, where it's been pretty well established that if they had an election, al-Qaida would win, or certainly fundamentalist factions would win; Saudi Arabia, which has no democracy at all and very little human rights for many of its citizens, and so on around the region. I mean, Iraq has a lot more openness and freedom than that. They have 100 newspapers in Baghdad, and many of them very aggressive.

GROSS: Rod Nordland will be back in the second half of the show. He's the Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times Baghdad correspondent Rod Nordland. He's been covering Iraq since the invasion. Before joining the Times, he was Newsweek's Baghdad bureau chief and chief foreign correspondent. Nordland is on a brief trip to the U.S. and is about to return to Iraq.

So what's the Green Zone like now? The Green Zone is the zone that the, you know, American diplomats and contractors were in, some of the military - and America left the Green Zone. What's it like there now?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well it hasn't quite left the Green Zone.


Mr. NORDLAND: What it's done is contracted into basically three big compounds one of them a very huge compound, the American Embassy, but also a military base called Camp Prosperity, and another military base adjoining that. So a lot of what had been scattered around the Green Zone is now kind of concentrated in those three places. Even a lot of the contractors are being housed on those bases because they recognize that they're not necessarily going to be safe anymore outside as the Green Zone turns orange as they're saying now and eventually becomes part of the Red Zone.

GROSS: Does it look different?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well they still don't pick up the trash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NORDLAND: So it looks the same in that sense. I mean there's a lot of different checkpoints; the Iraqi's now are controlling a lot of the checkpoints, although American troops are still in the background kind of watching over them or in their over-watch capacity, as they call it. But it still looks pretty much the same. I mean it's very much in transition now. There's still an awful lot of foreigners there and the whole area is still pretty well controlled.

One of our Iraqi translators said that he'll believe that Iraq is really a sovereign country when there are no more Peruvians guarding public buildings. A lot of the private security companies hire Peruvian ex-soldiers because they're cheap and they're competent to guard a lot of the buildings. And they still haven't given up those guards, which tells you a lot about what they think about the competency and the trustworthiness of their own security forces.

GROSS: Let's talk a little about what day-to-day life in Iraq is like now. How much do you have to worry when you leave your home that you're going to be kidnapped or that you'll be caught in a suicide bombing or some other kind of insurgent attack?

Mr. NORDLAND: Hmm. I think it's always in the background and something that everyone worries about. But now people don't go out and expect something bad to happen. And before they really went out with their hearts in their throats and if they could avoid going out they did so. But now it's once or twice a day maybe there's some serious incident and it's a city of five million people over a huge area. So you know most people don't notice that or feel that. And so - very little sense that there's even a war going on unless you're near an American helipad and see helicopters going - taking off and landing and so on. So life has gotten pretty normal and it's much more normal now than it had been. I was talking to an Iraqi and he said you know before I always knew - like every week I knew somebody that something happened to, whereas now, things happen to people but I don't know any of them. You know it's just that much more rare.

GROSS: Now you've written about how gay people were starting to be more openly gay without fear in Iraq, but now gay people are really being targeted and there's been a series of murders of gay people in Iraq. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mr. NORDLAND: Yes. As things became safer and as people didn't have to worry as much about going out and as they could stay out later and everything else, I mean, life became - started going back to normal in many ways. And one of those ways is that gay people felt that they could come out and socialize. And they started hanging out in certain bars that people knew about and they weren't parading down the street in a, you know, gay pride parade or anything, but they were, you know, seeking out their own and socializing with them. And pretty soon word of this got around and some of the, particularly the Mahdi Army types, some of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers, began a campaign of - apparently with cooperation from or at least tacit cooperation from the police - a campaign of assassination. And there was something - at least 21 cases of gay people who were killed, many of them with a sign in Arabic pinned to them saying pervert and things of that sort.

GROSS: So have gay people kind of gone back into the closet because they've gotten the message that it's really, that your life is at risk if you're openly gay in Iraq now?

Mr. NORDLAND: I think that's right. Yes, we had a very hard time, I mean already - even before we did a story on it, we had a very hard time finding them because that had already happened after this. Once this wave of murders took place, you know, people just went underground. And the saddest thing about that was that in a lot of the cases their families even knew about it and just kind of condoned what was done to them.

GROSS: Condoned the murders.

Mr. NORDLAND: Condoned the murders, you know, as resolving, you know, as honor crimes. It would, you know, restore the honor of their family.

GROSS: You wrote in one of your recent pieces that vice is making a comeback in Iraq. What kinds of vice?

Mr. NORDLAND: The things that we would maybe think of as victimless crimes like prostitution and gambling and drinking, which is not against the law there, but there's a lot more of it going on. You actually see drunks on the streets sometimes which you never would've seen before. There are liquor stores all over the place. For a while they were being shut down by the fundamentalist militia, particularly the Shia militias, and now they're open and back in business - and people going out partying. And there are nightclubs opened really late and in some of those nightclubs ladies of the night ply their trade.

GROSS: And is there a crackdown on that? I mean like you wrote about how gays and lesbians are being killed by religious extremists. How are people who are doing things like gambling or prostitution, how are they being handled?

Mr. NORDLAND: Nobody's doing anything about it all. They don't mind. It's considered okay. You know there's that kind of hypocrisy about it. You know...

GROSS: Except that money is changing hands?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, I mean first of all partly it's Iraqi's tradition. Iraq was always the most open and freewheeling, particularly in Baghdad, freewheeling place in the Arab world and in some ways it's just going back its roots. That's not true in large parts of the Shia community, but certainly it is among the Sunnis. I think the attitude of police is that it's not a crime. I even talked to one policeman who you know he said he'd rather see more prostitutes and less imams. He thought it would be better for society and you see a lot of that attitude in Iraq. It's quite surprising.

On the other hand you know you'll be talking to somebody who seems perfectly modern, well-educated, speaking English and who would declare that, you know, if his daughter ever dishonored the family he would personally murder her or his sister or his - and in fact, this one guy was telling me a story about his brother who didn't want his daughter to be the victim of an honor killing because she had shacked up with some guy. So his brothers intervened and killed his daughter, you know, against his wishes. So there's - that goes on at the same time in that society and there's a lot of hypocrisy to it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Rod Nordland and he's a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times, former Baghdad bureau chief for Newsweek. And he's on a break from reporting in Iraq. He's about to return.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about what have been seeing in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rod Nordland. He's a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times and he's on a break from reporting from Baghdad. He's about to go back.

Oil prices were supposed to help in the rebuilding of Iraq and help Iraq carry on as a democracy. Oil prices have fallen a lot lately. How is the drop in oil prices affecting the economy of Iraq and just the general functioning of the society?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well a year ago you know they were very proud to be able to boast that they didn't need anybody's help and they actually turned down some aide and asked the U.S. to stop some of its programs. I mean they're just rolling in money. Their biggest problem was figuring out how to spend money fast enough. You know, they could budget, you know, these vast sums but you need a bureaucracy that's trained and all to be able to disperse that money without a lot of it just being wasted by corruption. So that was their biggest problem was how to spend it and there were a lot of American experts working on that problem to help them set up structures that would do that. And then prices crashed and they actually had to cut their budget in half this year which really kind of created mayhem at a time when they were just starting to get it back together.

GROSS: Has it changed to be an American in Iraq since the election of President Obama?

Mr. NORDLAND: I don't think so actually. I think first of all there were a lot people who weren't happy to see Obama elected. I mean the people in the government, and supporters of the government in Iraq, were you know were very much McCain supporters. So you don't get much from those people. I think there's a big concern among many parts of the population, particularly among Sunnis, who were, you know, our erstwhile enemies for the most part. Sunnis are very concerned that the Americans are going to cut and run and Obama is the leader who's introduced the concept of cut and run as far as they see it. And they're worried about how that's going to play out and there's a lot of suspicion of Obama, but I think it's kind of zero-sum game. I mean in some ways you know it's helped in some ways it's hurt too.

GROSS: What's left of the national press corps in Iraq? You've been covering Iraq since the invasion and you covered the Gulf War in 1991 so you're very familiar with the region. What's left of the national press corps? And do you see the impact of the cutbacks in the newspaper industry when you look at what's left of the press corps in Iraq?

Mr. NORDLAND: What's left of the press corps in Iraq is the New York Times and a few dribs and drabs. It's pretty, I mean I'm not just saying that because I work for the New York Times, but you know we have as many as seven correspondents there at a time, two photographers. Nobody else has anywhere near that. Even the big American networks - you know, CNN sometimes often doesn't have a correspondent there. ABC I think just closed its bureau. Time magazine I heard is closing its bureau. Everybody's cut way back.

And then like I say the newspapers have been hardest hit. I think the only other newspapers that still have bureaus there, American newspapers, are the Washington Post and the LA Times. And the LA Times has amalgamated its foreign operation with the Chicago Tribune. So they've closed their office and you know it's a pretty grim picture. I mean it's not, but it's not just the problems that the news media are going through. It's I think in large part a lack of interest in the story and the fact that it's extremely expensive to operate there safely. Even now it's not a place where you can operate normally. You need a lot of infrastructure and that involves a lot of expense.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what it takes. And you know, and therefore, why it's so expensive to keep a bureau open in Baghdad?

Mr. NORDLAND: Well, without going into a lot of detail in case it would be a security breach, what I can say is the New York Times has more than a hundred people working for it in Baghdad - Iraqis - to support its operations. And none of those people are super new, right. They all work and every foreigner needs to be protected and needs to be housed somewhere in a safe place. It has to be guarded 24 hours a day. You know when journalists go out they go out with various forms of escort and a lot of preparation and so forth - even now. Nobody wants to see someone killed. And it's, we're still targets there. Foreigners are very much targets there.

GROSS: You've been in Iraq off and on for years since the invasion. You've covered a lot of other wars zones including Bosnia, the first Gulf War, so your war zone experience dates back to at least 1991?

Mr. NORDLAND: No probably even back to like the late '70s in Cambodia.


Mr. NORDLAND: Yes. And if your question is how does Iraq compare, I mean, it's by far the worst of all of those - with one big exception and that is Chechnya, which was just at the height of things was even more difficult I think than Iraq was.

GROSS: What makes Iraq the worst?

Mr. NORDLAND: The difficulty of reporting, the difficulty of getting around, the fact that we are such targets. I mean, we're used to, journalists are used to having a degree of immunity in most conflicts, at least from one side or the other, and, you know, we don't have that in Iraq. We're just targets anytime we go out and everybody knows it. It's a difficult story, and a complex story. It's a hard place to work and the climate is tough much of the year. I mean, it's just hard in lots of ways. It's less hard now I have to say. I mean now it's much easier to work in a kind of normal way.

GROSS: You're getting ready to go back to Iraq. What do you do to mentally prepare yourself to return?

Mr. NORDLAND: I kind of don't even think about it, to tell you the truth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I mean I keep reading about it and follow the events and so on, but I'm kind of used to going there now so. Plus, it's a lot less dangerous to go there now. There was a time when, going in, you had your heart in you throat and you know, that awful dangerous two-mile drive down the airport highway was always kind of a knuckle clincher. And there were times when you'd get on the flight in Oman - typically, we flew in from Oman through most of the war. You'd get on the flight in Oman and something would happen like a sandstorm and the flight would be turned around. And, of course, the plane is full of journalists and contractors and other people working in Iraq. And you would never see a group of passengers so happy to be turned back...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NORDLAND: ... oh and they got - when they got into the airport in Oman.

GROSS: Well Rod Nordland, thank you very much for talking with us. Have a safe return to Iraq and thank you very much.

Mr. NORDLAND: Thanks. My pleasure.

GROSS: Rod Nordland is a Baghdad correspondent for the New York Times. He spoke to us from New York. Coming up, we listen back to an interview with gay rights and AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane. He died Friday at the age of 54. This is FRESH AIR.

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