Tim Arango: After Troops Leave, What Happens To Iraq? Tim Arango, the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, shares personal stories from his time covering the war, including how he tracked down the subject of a famous photograph. He also talks about what the U.S. troop withdrawal means for the future of Iraq — and what will happen after the troops are gone.

After U.S. Troops Leave, What Happens To Iraq?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tim Arango, is the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief. He used to cover media for the Times. In fact, you may have seen him in the documentary "Page One," about the Times media desk.

All U.S. troops will be pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year. This brings to a close a divisive chapter in American history. About 4,400 troops were killed in the war, and over $1 trillion were spent on it. But now comes a new chapter of uncertainty about the future of Iraq, the insurgency, ethnic divisions, Iraq's position in the region, and its relationship to the U.S.

I spoke with Tim Arango yesterday, as his brief stay in the U.S. was coming to a close. Tim Arango, welcome to FRESH AIR. America is leaving behind less of a presence in Iraq than was originally planned for a couple of reasons. One is financial. We don't have the money for what was originally planned. But the other is the Iraqis refuse to give American troops legal protection. Americans wanted protection against being prosecuted in Iraq. Why was that such an important issue for America, and why did Iraq refuse to say yes?

TIM ARANGO: Yeah, the interesting thing about the fact that the troops are leaving - and, you know, I've been there this year since March, and I think the expectation on all sides was that they would be able to get a deal where some troops could stay after this year. And that of course didn't happen. And so we have them leaving at a time when just about everybody involved in the discussion, from the American military leaders to the Iraqi military leaders, did not think it was a good idea that all the troops leave, that Iraq is not ready for that.

But there was always this issue in the background, which was immunity. And on the American side, it's a very fundamental and standard issue. We don't put troops anywhere in the world, whether it be Korea or Germany or any other places, where they would be subject to local laws.

TIM ARANGO, NEW YORK TIMES: And in Iraq it was this issue that they never dealt with over the summer, and then it finally came to a head in the fall. And I think for Iraq it was – it was this tortured legacy of the American involvement and, you know, issues from Abu Ghraib to the shooting by Blackwater in Nisour Square to the incident in Haditha and Anbar Province, and those issues where American troops acted badly and acted tragically and resulted in the deaths of Iraqis. And that legacy just came back to haunt this process, and the Iraqis said no way.

ARANGO: And it was an easy issue for politicians to demagogue on, particularly those that were opposed to the American involvement all along, particularly those Iraqis that are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

GROSS: So would that immunity have extended to American contractors in Iraq?

ARANGO: No. The issue of immunity for contractors in Iraq, they stopped having immunity in 2009. So that was never an issue. It was basically an issue for American troops, and not that they would be immune from a prosecution but that they would essentially be immune from Iraqi prosecution. If an American soldier over there commits a crime, the American government is supposed to prosecute them here.

GROSS: Do you think that the future of Iraq is in some ways even more important now because of the Arab Spring and the instability in the Arab world?

ARANGO: I absolutely do because the whole old order, the whole American-backed order of supporting people like Mubarak, has crumbled. And for the United States to maintain influence there, they need an ally in Iraq, and it's unclear going forward if they will have that ally. And it certainly is incredibly important.

And people tend to look at Iraq sort of as its own particular, unique case right now. They don't look at it in the context of the Arab Spring. But you see Iraq, they've had elections, you know, before Tunisia and before Egypt, and it's still unclear if they're going to become a stable democracy. So in some ways it's still a test case as to if, you know, democracy can flourish in this part of the world.

GROSS: So we're leaving Iraq, and Iraq might not even be our ally after we pull out?

ARANGO: For the time being, they are. You know, while the troops are leaving, we are still going to have our biggest diplomatic presence since - the way it's described, the biggest diplomatic mission since the Marshall Plan.

There's going to be 16,000 diplomatic personnel, whether they be diplomats from the Foreign Service or contractors. And so there's a very ambitious plan to maintain influence there. But the problem will be that they will rarely be able to get around and travel around the country and see how the country is doing and interact with ordinary Iraqis.

And I think as time goes on, we're going to see, and one of the stories I - you know, is going to be, how hard it is for the State Department to maintain that influence in that environment when they can't move around and interact with the local population.

GROSS: So America's going to be leaving behind much less of a presence than was originally planned. Can you compare for us some of the things that were planned to remain behind when the American troops pulled out, compare that with what's actually going to happen?

ARANGO: Sure. On the military side, those are the big duties that the Americans will not be able to perform, things like intelligence gathering to the degree that they were going to do training of the Iraqi military. There's still a lot of deficiencies in the Iraqi security forces and the American military.

It was envisioned that they would still play a robust role in training them. Other issues that were potentially on the table were mediating disputes in the north, particularly around Kirkuk, which is the city that's disputed by Arabs and Kurds and Turkmen and is a potential flashpoint for violence after the Americans leave, issues such as patrolling the air, issues such as securing the borders.

Many, many things that the Americans had been doing they will not be able to do. And then a final one is counterterrorism. I believe to this day they still go out and do night raids with the Iraq special forces on suspected terrorists, and that will cease.

And there was a very robust partnership between the American special forces and the Iraqi special forces, and the Iraqis, while they were in the lead on the missions, they really still, you know, up until this summer and even to this day relied on the Americans for helicopters, for example, to get to target.

So there will be many, many things in terms of securing Iraq that will not be able to be performed after they leave.

GROSS: When we started - when the American military started the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, part of the method was to basically pay insurgents to go over to the American side. And this was called the Awakening movement.

And it seemed to be fairly successful in getting people to switch teams, but the question was always, okay, when you stop paying these guys, what happens then? So what has happened, do you know, to a lot of the men who had been in the Awakening movement and had been on the American payroll and are no longer?

ARANGO: Yeah, the Awakening has been an interesting story for the last couple of years, particularly there was this hope among the - these are obviously Sunni fighters, former al-Qaeda fighters, formal tribal fighters, particularly in Anbar Province and other Sunni areas. And there had been this hope that they were going to be able to transform that movement into political power, but that did not happen after last year's elections.

There's been a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty among the Awakening because the Iraqi government has not lived up to their promises to integrate them into either the Iraqi security forces or into other jobs. So there's a lot of disenchanted former Sunni insurgents out there.

And then on top of that, they're constantly getting assassinated. Almost every week there's a number of assassinations of former Awakening leaders, and so they feel very disenfranchised and disillusioned. And so the risk is if you continue to alienate those people, you sort of have a ready group of people willing to rejoin the insurgency.

GROSS: There's still a lot of attacks in Iraq. Are the attacks still coming from insurgents?

ARANGO: Yeah, absolutely. If - the rule of thumb is if there's an attack on Iraqi civilians in the form of a car bomb or a suicide bomb, it's generally al-Qaeda in Iraq or one of the other insurgent Sunni groups. And those are the ones that still cause a lot of bloodshed.

Aside from that, there's another level of violence, which comes in the form of assassinations, frequent assassinations, mainly in Baghdad against ministers, judges, academics, and those are generally regarded to be carried out on behalf of militias loyal to some of the politicians.

And then the third level is the Shiite groups, which throughout this year have continued to attack American troops, usually with rockets and mortars against, you know, United States bases. And so the question with those folks is, who will they attack when the American troops leave? So it's still a many-layered and complex insurgency.

GROSS: So it's still not safe to serve in the Iraqi government. It's still not safe to be an Iraqi journalist and report what's going on, because those two groups are still subject to assassination threats and actual assassination.

ARANGO: Absolutely. A very prominent Iraqi journalist was murdered earlier this year named Hadi al-Madi, and I did a piece on him. He was a radio personality and one of these - he'd been an Iraqi who had been in exile and came back after 2003 with the hopes of contributing to this architecture of ideas and the language of freedom. And he was - you know, he was murdered earlier this year.

And he played a big part in sort of a burgeoning protest movement in Iraq, which did not pick up steam like in the other countries in the region.

GROSS: Now you say that there's a lot of threats by text. Like you get a text message warning you that you're, you know, you're going to be killed. Have you gotten any like that?

ARANGO: Now, but it's such a common experience among Iraqi journalists or anybody who has a role in public life who dares to speak their mind or say something that somebody objects to. It's just a universally common experience. And it's funny, I have an Iraqi cell phone, and every now and then I'll get a text, and it'll be Arabic.

And I'll run down to the newsroom, and I'll show it to one of my Iraqi colleagues, and I'll say: What does this say? Is this saying I'm going to be killed tomorrow? And it's usually always something from the cell phone company or a spam text.


GROSS: Now let's keep it that way.


GROSS: So if you get a threat by text, if one gets a threat by text, is it easier to trace who sent it, or are people using, like, disposable phones?

ARANGO: No, they generally use throwaway phones. And it's gotten to the point where Iraqi journalists and others, they're so used to it that they almost, you know, disregard it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango, he is the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. He was formerly at the media desk and was one of the people featured in the documentary about the media desk called "Page One." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more about Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango, the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief. You recently paid a visit to someone who was in a very famous photo that was taken in 2005. The photo was taken by Chris Hondros, one of the two photojournalists who was killed in Libya in April, in Misrata, While reporting on the uprising in Libya.

So the photo, the famous photo in question that Chris Hondros took in 2005, was after an Iraqi family drove through an American - drove through a checkpoint, and American soldiers fired on the car. The two parents were killed. There were five children in the backseat.

And the photo is of a five-year-old girl with her arms held out. Her mouth is open. She's clearly either screaming or crying. There's blood pouring down her cheek, and it looks like she's crying tears of blood. Her hands are all bloodied, and there's like drops of blood surrounding her.

Next to - oh, and the blood just perfectly matches the roses on her dress. And standing next to her in the shadows you see a soldier with a gun pointed toward the ground. What you did is you decided to track her down and see what's become of her six years later.

And when you tracked her down, you found out that she had never seen the photo. So you were the first person to show her this photo, which in some circles is a very famous photo about the damage of this war, you know, the civilians who have been killed, the children who have been killed.

So what did you think you were taking on, emotionally, when you showed it to her? And what was your reaction when you did?

ARANGO: I was not prepared for that, to be honest. I was sitting there in her living room, and it was her and myself and our photographer and one of my Iraqi colleagues, who was helping translate. And it was us sitting there with her and her guardian, which happens to be her brother-in-law.

We realized that she hadn't seen it, and they said they had never seen it. They said they had vaguely heard of this famous photograph that she was in, but they had never tried to find it or see it.

And they asked if they could see it. And I felt very uncomfortable at that moment. I was like, what should I do? And I had my translator very deliberately explain to them that this can be traumatic, are you sure you want to see it, are you sure you want to see it?

And they said they wanted to see it. And so immediately there I said OK. And so we pulled it up and showed them. And I still don't know if it was the right thing to do at the time, but it is what we did. And it was quite emotional for her to see it, but her reaction was more muted than you would think.

And I don't know if that's just a function of all the trauma that they've been through, and that a photograph, after everything they've seen, is, you know, not what we think of it as. And she became very loquacious after that. She had been very guarded before that, and then I guess emotions came flooding out, and she became very talkative and very interested in speaking about that and what she's been through. And I still don't know if it was the right thing to do, but that was what we did.

GROSS: Do you think the photo might change her life? Do you have any idea? Seeing the photo?

ARANGO: I don't think so, to be honest with you. I feel like all the trauma that they had been through - I mean, that wasn't the only thing. After that, her brother was sent to the U.S. for treatment, and he came back, and people thought that they were close to the Americans because the brother had been in the U.S.

They became a target of insurgents, and they blew up her house.

GROSS: Oh no.

ARANGO: And her brother was killed. So that wasn't the only moment for her that we saw in the photograph. And I don't know what that does to people over a long period of time. She's been taken out of school. She's been on medication. The way it could change her life, and this is what I've gone to in my head, is the number of people who came forward and sent me emails who wanted to help her, and maybe that will lead to something.

And I'm still trying to, you know, direct people to the right way without being a - taking a big role myself in that. But a number of people came forward and wanted to provide assistance.

GROSS: OK, so Americans helped her brother and flew him to the United States for medical treatment, to save him and then help him recover, and their home was blown up, and he was killed because of that help. Is it still the same now? If she got American help, would that make her a target? Or is it safer to get American help now?

ARANGO: It's safer now. It's not safe. I mean, that's the thing about Iraq in every way you look at it. It's safer, but not safe. And there's still that worry that any relationship to the Americans makes you a target, and you see that throughout all facets of Iraqi society, including the many people who have worked for the military over the years that are out of jobs. They're very nervous, as well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango, the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief. So you used to be on the media desk at the New York Times. How did you get from media desk to Baghdad?

ARANGO: I raised my hand, basically.


ARANGO: It was the summer of 2009, and there was a transition going on in the Baghdad bureau, and people were leaving. Some people were going to the Kabul bureau. And they needed new people to go and, you know, and work in the bureau and cover Iraq.

And it was something I always wanted to do, and that was why I always wanted to work for the New York Times, in the sense that it's a place where you can have a long and varied career covering many different things. And I always wanted to go abroad and cover a conflict.


ARANGO: That's a very good question. I think it's a bit of a sense of adventure. It's a bit of sense of doing something substantial and something that gives you a certain satisfaction of being engaged in the big issues of the world. That's basically what it is, and I just sort of had that urging to go off into the world and do something different.

GROSS: Meanwhile, while you were in Baghdad reporting on Iraq, the News Corps phone-hacking story broke, and you'd covered News Corps when you were at the media desk of the Times. And there were several stories in the past few months where your name appeared with others on the byline, stories about News Corps and the scandal. So were you continuing to cover it from Iraq, or were you just, like, feeding information that you already had from previous reporting you'd done?

ARANGO: Yeah, it was funny because I'd covered the Murdochs for years, and even before the Times, I had been at the New York Post, covering the media. And so if you cover media at the New York Post, you get to know Rupert in a certain sense, and you get to know the Murdoch family. And so I had those relationships.

And so I brought them with me to the Times, and I covered that, and right before I left in March, I had done a long, long profile of James Murdoch. And so when the story broke initially, they asked me to reach out to a few people I knew. And so I would, and I'd send some feeds.

But then one day I got a call. It was about 7 o'clock at night in Baghdad, which was like noon in New York. And I was about to have dinner, and they said actually, we need you to write a front page story tomorrow on James Murdoch and what the scandal means for him and succession.

And after initially panicking a little bit, I just, you know, I stayed up all night and did it. And it was lucky because I had those relationships, and I could call on them. And I also had done a lot of reporting - a profile of James Murdoch that I did right before I left. And so I could draw on some of that and the people I had met.

I had gone to London, and, you know, somehow I put it together. But it was funny to be covering that from there. And I - you know, it would have even funnier if they had put a Baghdad dateline on it, but they didn't.

GROSS: So today's your last day at home and that you're making another stop in the United States for a story that you're working on. And then it's off again to Baghdad. At this point, when you're on the verge of returning to Baghdad, what are your feelings about going back? Looking forward to it, anxiety?

ARANGO: A little of both. The hardest part is the comings and the goings. It's when you leave, it's saying goodbye to, you know, your family and your friends and your dog. And then when you get there, it takes a couple days to get connected to the story again.

And then when you come back, it takes a few days when you get back to get Iraq out of your head. But after, you know, a short period of time, it's like when you're here, I don't think about Iraq, and when I'm in Iraq, you know, you don't think as much about here.

But you have to get yourself in that headspace, particularly, like, right now I'm in Vermont, and I drove to the studio, and it's just normal. When you're over there, you're in, like, a couple cars. You have armed guards. You're always sort of on edge a little bit wherever you're going because, you know, there is always that risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you're always - it's trying to turn off the voices in your head when you're there and just sort of let go a bit and turn it over because you have to do your job, and you can't always be thinking about what's in this car's trunk, or what is under this guy's shirt.

Do you know what I mean? It's trying to get to a point where you can just do your job and let go of those thoughts, and it's hard.

GROSS: Well, thank you for your reporting. I wish you safe travels and safe reporting. And be well. I really appreciate your doing this interview during your limited stay in the United States. Thank you.

ARANGO: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tim Arango is the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. We recorded our interview yesterday. You can see the photo we were talking about, taken by Chris Hondros, on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find links to Tim Arango's recent articles. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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