NEAL CONAN, host:
Iraqi military vehicles decorated with flags, flowers, and streamers paraded through Baghdad today to mark the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq's capital. Tomorrow will be celebrated as a national holiday called National Sovereignty Day.
Well, today we want to specially hear from those of our listeners who have been to Iraq recently. What changes did you see as U.S. troops pulled back from Iraq cities? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
To help us get a clearer picture of sentiment on the ground in Iraq, retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson joins us. He now works for the Department of State as part of a provincial reconstruction team working in the Abu Ghraib area. Back home on leave and with us today here in Studio 3A. Nice to see you back stateside, Gary.
Colonel GARY ANDERSON (Retired, U.S. Marines; Member, Provincial Reconstruction Team, Department of State): Good to be here again, Neal.
CONAN: And what do you hear from people on the ground now in Iraq? Is everyone happy that U.S. troops are pulling out of the cities?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, I think the Iraqis themselves are anxious to take control of their own country again, and they're hopeful that this thing is going to work out well.
They've been working for it for a long time. There's obviously apprehension for change. We've been at this for six years now. But by and large, I see a fairly optimistic attitude in the street.
CONAN: Abu Ghraib, of course, best known for the infamous prison in that neighborhood, but this also used to be a pretty dangerous place.
Col. ANDERSON: It did. For a long time Abu Ghraib was - had a bad name, had a bad reputation. It's hard to get reporters out there and so forth. And we're really trying to change that attitude.
It's a - it's really a rural suburb of Baghdad. But for awhile, Abu - the insurgents had a hold on the thing, and we're trying to break that hold now and bring it into line with the rest of Iraq.
CONAN: Is it safer? I don't think anybody's going to say safe, but safer?
Col. ANDERSON: Yes, I think so. The quality of the IEDs we see out there…
CONAN: Those are the roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices.
Col. ANDERSON: Roadside, yes, roadside bombs and things like that, I think, have gone down. The Iraqi security forces are out there. American security forces have been out there working the area hard, and I think we're doing a pretty good job out there.
CONAN: This was not a sudden move. Everybody knew since the signing of the status of forces agreement back at the end of the Bush administration that this was going to happen on this timetable and that has not changed. Has this been a gradual process? You've seen American forces come out?
Col. ANDERSON: Yes, it has. I - when I - actually our area, our embedded PR, provincial reconstruction team handles northwest Baghdad within the city and Abu Ghraib in the suburbs.
And they've been at - they, the Iraqis, the Americans, have been at this for quite some time. So, actually, I don't think the difference between Tuesday and Wednesday for an American presence will be noticeable to anybody but perhaps the Iraqis.
CONAN: The - one of the great questions going back to when the country was on the verge of civil war, if not indeed in one back in 2006, the Iraqi military was seem to be inadequately trained and ready to go. The Iraqi police force was seen as partisan, taking sides with the Shias in that fight.
Col. ANDERSON: That's correct. I think everybody realizes that the attempt, although well-intentioned to turn it over at that time, was not - did not work out well.
And it's taken us a few more years to really get things positioned to a point where we think the Iraqi security forces are ready to assume that responsibility.
Now the next thing that the Iraqi army would like to see is to get themselves out of the cities and turn it over to the Iraqi police, which is the proper way that a civil society ought to operate.
CONAN: Yeah. The - in recent days we've seen a number of very large explosions in Shia areas including Sadr City in Baghdad, clearly intended to provoke a retaliatory response, which we have yet to see.
Col. ANDERSON: You know, I think the Iraqis are getting a lot more sophisticated than they were back in the troubled times of 2005, 2006. And the fact that the Shia haven't risen to that bait is a tribute to their sophistication or understanding of the opposition and the opponents that they're dealing with right now.
CONAN: Yeah, we've seen absolute fury with the government authorities who they say allowed these security lapses to go on. And who's going to pay a price for this?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, it's a very difficult thing to stop suicide bombers. You know, if there's a desire to blow yourself up and the capability to bring in a truck full of explosives or a motorcycle full of explosives, it's tough to stop. Nobody is saying that we're in a position to have the Iraqis be able to totally stop that sort of thing.
But on the other hand, it's really up to the civilian population to keep their eyes out and make sure that they see people in their neighborhood that don't belong there and so forth to let the authorities. And having that kind of trust between the security forces and the population is starting to grow. I think we're seeing that happen a lot more often. The - you know, the bombings that don't happen don't get reported. And there are a lot fewer than there were back in the battle days of 2006, 2007.
CONAN: Gary Anderson is a retired colonel of Marines, now working on a provincial reconstruction team in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib.
If you've been to Iraq recently, call and tell us what you saw on the ground, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
And what does a member of a provincial reconstruction team do every day?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, we're the civilian side of the counter-insurgency effort. We have, in my case, I do governance, city management. We have USAID, people who come in and help bring in NGOs, non-governmental organizations, to help with the reconstruction. We've got - I could really use an agricultural guy, if there's anybody out there that's willing to come over and spend some time in the Middle East because we're heading out west and I'm seeing a lot more agriculture things than I ever have before. We've got people that are experts in economy and so forth. So it's a mixed bag, but we're trying to build civil society back up out there.
CONAN: When you say you're heading out west, to Anbar province?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, out west to Abu Ghraib, which is very, very rural. I've seen a lot more cows than I have camels, quite frankly.
CONAN: Abu Ghraib, again, the association with the notorious prison, how does it overcome that.
Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, our brigade combat team that are partners, our group is embedded with the 2nd brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. And they're doing a tremendous job at trying to work with the city fathers and the county fathers and try to turn that around. We're looking for a slogan - we're looking for suggestions maybe, Abu Ghraib is not a prison anymore or something like that.
CONAN: More than just a prison.
Col. ANDERSON: More than just a prison, yeah.
CONAN: Or Abu Ghraib outside the bars.
Col. ANDERSON: But, you know, some really good people out there and we want to change that perception.
CONAN: What about the daily life for people? Is it improving in terms of getting a job, keeping a job, paying the rent?
Col. ANDERSON: Unemployment in Abu Ghraib, it's our biggest problem. In northwest Baghdad, urban unemployment is really tough. Our farmers out in Abu Ghraib have some real challenges competing with the subsidized products that come in from farms in Iran, Syria and Turkey. And so we're working hard to try to help them upgrade their produce. But creating jobs is a real tough job in Iraq right now because of the low oil prices and so forth.
CONAN: And another aspect is just the services that the country, that government is able to provide. Has there been any noticeable improvement on things like electricity and clean water?
Col. ANDERSON: Yeah. I think there has, particularly in downtown Baghdad. My predecessor really did a great job in northwest Baghdad building public work substations in the neighborhoods themselves to get trash picked up, sewers fixed and so forth. We're trying to create mobile - sort of flying squads to help the rural area right now in Abu Ghraib. We're calling them mobile rural support teams and we're going to have them going out to places where they've never seen essential services before, even, well, prior to the Saddam regime.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Glen. Glen calling us from the road in Minnesota.
GLEN (Caller): Yes, hi.
CONAN: Go ahead.
GLEN: Well, we've heard a lot of talk over the years about suicide bombers, where they come from and what, you know, this great pool of people wanting to become martyrs. But I don't hear a lot of talk about where they're getting the C4 plastic explosives, maybe the colonel could elaborate on that.
Col. ANDERSON: You know, I'd have to probably - my son is an intelligence guy in the army and he studies this sort of thing. I probably have to defer to him. But, you know, there is no lack of high explosives in Iraq. And there is certainly some coming across the border from other countries. But the issue is - the thing that makes it hard for them is they have to put together a willing, you know, a willing participant to high explosives and all of that makes them prone to get caught. A lot more of them get caught than actually go off. And that's probably the good news story.
CONAN: And then there's also a bottleneck if you can find the person manufacturing these vests and putting all this elements together and the people bringing together the martyrs, if you will, with the person who has got the vest. That's the nexus of the operation.
Col. ANDERSON: My brothers in the Army would tell you that breaking of these networks is 90 percent of the work they're doing right now. They spend an awful lot of time and had a lot of success, but it's a difficult proposition. And this is an adaptive enemy that we've been dealing with for the past six years.
CONAN: Glen, thanks very much.
GLENN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Bye-bye. I do have to point out, it is difficult for Americans to realize what an armed camp Iraq was before the invasion. How much of the country was given over to military activities, and cashes of explosives were stashed in so many areas, very few of which were protected by American forces after the invasion.
Col. ANDERSON: You know, it's really interesting how much is - how much you don't see happening out on the streets and so forth. The, you know, the really horrific bombing is anomality(ph). It obviously makes headlines. The fact that you open up the Washington Post, the Washington Times in the morning and don't read about Iraq is a tribute to their job that our military and hopefully our -my brothers in the State Department, brothers and sisters, have been doing too.
CONAN: Our guest is Gary Anderson, working with the provincial reconstruction team, worked with the State Department - a traitor.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I have to ask you, on a personal level, Gary, you could be stateside doing lectures at the war college and being a media consultant and talking about these situations from Washington, D.C., why did you decide to go back to Iraq?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, I've had a son in Afghanistan. My son-in-law has been commanding a ship out in the Gulf and I was kind of feeling a little bit left out. You know, the money is good consulting, and I guess I can always go back to it, but taken a year off to do this. It's been a - you know, it's been a tremendously rewarding experience for 16-hour - 14-, 16-hour days, but it's one of the most rewarding times of my life.
CONAN: What - if you had to point to one thing, what do you think you will have accomplished?
Col. ANDERSON: Well, you know, it's interesting, I don't think we've accomplished it yet, but sometimes the easy things are hard. But - Abu Ghraib, we're going to rebuild a milk storage facility, a cold storage facility that the - that al-Qaida in Iraq blew up a couple of years ago. That's totally taken them off line to produce the kind of - the farmers to produce the kind of dairy products and get the prices they need.
That doesn't sound very glamorous, but to them that's going to - when we get that thing rebuilt, it's going to be a really big eel.
CONAN: Make a lot of difference in a lot of people's lives.
Col. ANDERSON: To make a lot of people happy.
CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we got another caller on the line. This is Judith(ph). Judith with Chico in California.
JUDITH (Caller): Yes. I just have a suggestion. Since you are talking about redeveloping agriculture in Iraq, fair trade organic agricultural products is a growing global market.
JUDITH: So that's my suggestion.
CONAN: …these would be for export?
CONAN: Okay. How about that for an idea, Gary?
Col. ANDERSON: Hey, I'll take any good ideas I can get. Would you like to come out and be an agricultural expert for (unintelligible) I'll take your name.
JUDITH: Actually, if I could deal with the heat, I would go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Col. ANDERSON: Okay.
JUDITH: It's 107…
Col. ANDERSON: You're hired.
JUDITH: …in Chico right now, and it's too hot for me.
CONAN: Judith, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
JUDITH: You're welcome.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Gina(ph). Gina with us from Charleston, South Carolina.
GINA (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I'd like to know what percentage of the Iraqi royal money is being used to rebuild the infrastructure in the country in relationship with the amount of money the United States has been spending for that effort.
Col. ANDERSON: It's a good question. And I'm not an economic expert - I'd have to defer to one of my, you know, one of - somebody that knows that. But the bottom line is the Iraqis are doing a lot to rebuild the actual infrastructure, which we didn't destroy. That was well under the - well underway of declining during Saddam's era. But they're spending an awful lot of their money, but the oil prices are depressed right now so they're having a hard time keeping up with the plans that they had laid down on '06 and '07 when the oil prices were higher. I don't know if that answers your question, but they are putting a lot of money in the infrastructure.
GINA: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.
Col. ANDERSON: Thanks ma'am.
CONAN: Thanks, Gina. And how is it easy - is it - to deal with Iraqi politicians?
Col. ANDERSON: You know, as a governance adviser, what they - you know, the challenge, of course, is an awful lot of the midlevel, the technocrats that made things work under Saddam, left the country during the troubles. So we're trying to lure them back, and I think to some extent we're being successful.
But - so that causes you to have to be training a lot of people from ground up. So a lot of my time is spent sitting down with people, going over some of the basics of management, leadership and things like that. But there are a lot of dedicated people out there, and we've got some great things done.
We - they actually are - our little town council put together an anti-cholera campaign the other -a couple of weeks ago that really seems to be taking off and that's as a big deal in Abu Ghraib.
CONAN: When are you headed back?
Col. ANDERSON: I'm going to be heading back 10th of July.
CONAN: Best of luck, Gary. Thank you.
Col. ANDERSON: Well, thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Retired Colonel Gary Anderson works for the Department of State as a provincial reconstruction team - or on a provincial reconstruction team in Baghdad. Today, he joined us here in Studio 3A.
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