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Iraq Getting Worse, Not Better


After two veteran correspondents finished their most recent tour in Iraq, they had a chance to ask this question of each other.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Washington Post): Did it feel as grim to you as it did to me? Or...

ANNE GARRELS: Oh, it was just awful. I mean, I've been there pretty regularly.

Mr. SHADID: Yeah.

GARRELS: I mean, I'm sort of, I go in for two months and then I come out for a month or two and then I go in for... And just the inexorable slide.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anne Garrels, who has been in and out of Iraq since before the fall of Saddam Hussein. This week she is back in the U.S., and we got her on the line with Anthony Shadid. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, and also just returned from Iraq. Because they've gone again and again, their most recent trips give them a chance to see how the country has changed.

Mr. SHADID: You know, I was really struck, almost immediately after arriving there. You know, I've always thought that, you know, resilience was such a quality that Baghdad had. And, you know - Anne will probably remember this - during the invasion, after some of the nights, you know, worst nights of bombing, the next morning traffic would be in the streets, shops would be open. It struck me almost immediately after leaving the airport how different the city itself looked. That there was less traffic, that shops were closed, that there weren't that many people in the street. It was almost as if the face of Baghdad had undergone quite a bit of a change since I was there last time.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels, I seem to recall that you told me once, that every time you go back to Baghdad, things seem a little bit worse than they did the time before. Is that still true?

GARRELS: Absolutely. And it's not just a little bit worse, it's a lot worse. Everyone I know has had a close relative, and probably several close friends, killed. And when you talk about economic activity, I was going around trying to find bankers. Well, 25 percent, at least, of the leading bankers in the country have had to flee. And that has a huge impact on economic development. I mean, you've got almost a million Iraqis, if not more, probably, now in Jordan and tens and tens of thousands more in Syria. And these are the educated, the middle class, the people who could build Iraq. And they're all leaving.

INSKEEP: You know, when you do find a banker, what do they consider an acceptable business risk that they want to loan money on these days?

GARRELS: They're actually not loaning a lot of money. They're dealing more in securities, foreign bank stocks, that sort of thing. At the moment, there's no loan insurance. A lot of banks have gone belly-up.

INSKEEP: I want to ask both of you about an incident that has taken place this week. Iraq's government orders the U.S. military to abandon its checkpoints inside Baghdad. And in fact, they did. What does that signify to you?

Mr. SHADID: I think just, you know, right on the surface of things, it speaks about the power of Muqtada al Sadr, of the young Shiite cleric and the role he plays in some ways as a king-maker these days in Iraqi politics. But, at another level, it's this question of legitimacy, and how does a government secure legitimacy when the Americans are seen by many Iraqis as the final arbiter? In other words, how is the government going to ever look independent? And I think that's the struggle going on right now. Is this government trying to secure some kind of legitimacy or credibility in the eyes of Iraqis?

INSKEEP: Is the Iraqi government still fighting the same war as the United States?

Mr. SHADID: That's a good question.

GARRELS: Not at all. I mean, Iraqis, I think, are fighting, quite frankly, for their own - I mean the people in the government, for the most part, it's quite venal. I mean, they're fighting for power, they're fighting for money. It is highly corrupt. There is no sense of national unity. No, I mean, for all this talk of a government of national unity, people are not working together for the betterment of the greater whole - far from it. And the ministries have enough money at this point. Money is not the issue. It is not filtering down to the people. I mean, the American commanders have been tearing their hair out because, you know, they would go in and clear an area, and the ministers and the ministries would not appear on the ground. They did nothing to improve the infrastructure.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it is - I was in Basra, down in southern Iraq when I was there this last time and it's just like Anne was saying. I mean there is, nominally, a government in place in Basra. But basically, what you have on the ground is a free-for-all between competing militias, you know, vying for power, money and influence at this point. And, you know, basically the way they deal with each other is through assassinations and killings.

I mean, one morning we woke up and... The killing in Basra is not like the killing in Baghdad. But you wake up one morning and 20 people had already been killed. And most of those are assassinations.

INSKEEP: Have you had an opportunity to ask an Iraqi leader a question along the lines of, what is the matter with you? Your country is falling apart and you're arguing over who controls some bit of turf?

GARRELS: Absolutely. But Iraqis tend to blame everybody but themselves. And this is an age-old problem. They did it under Saddam. They blamed their Arab neighbors for their problems. And now you ask them why aren't things working better? And they'll blame the Jordanians. They'll blame the Syrians. They'll blame the Iranians, depending on who you're asking, and they'll blame the U.S. I mean, they refuse to admit that Iraqis are behind most of the violence.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's such a... I swear, it is so grim at this point. And I have to say, you know, a friend of mine I'd gone to see, he's a professor at Baghdad University. You know, I asked him the question. I said, would it get worse if the American military withdrew? And he looked at me for a couple of seconds, and he knitted his brow, and he said, you know, how could it get any worse at this point?

INSKEEP: Let me pose that question that the gentleman asked you. Can it get worse?

Mr. SHADID: Oh, I'm sure it could get worse. You know, that's a - let me put this...

GARRELS: I mean, it's really, really awful, but it could get worse.

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, it could.

GARRELS: And I mean many Iraqis, be they Sunni or Shia, will say they hate the U.S. but they don't want them to leave because the U.S. at least keeps some kind of a lid on at this point.

INSKEEP: That incident that I mentioned, the Americans being removed from the checkpoints, reminded me of a conversation with an American who had just come back from Iraq not too long ago. And he said one thing to remember is that we have even less control in Iraq than we think we do.

Mr. SHADID: The Americans definitely don't feel like...

GARRELS: Oh, there's no question that we've seen that now, three years in. You know, from day one there were never enough troops. There was very little understanding of Iraqi society, and we're seeing the legacy of cumulative mistakes.

Mr. SHADID: I think that's such a great point. You know, that's what it feels like to me at this - you know, it's these forces that we saw unleashed when the invasion happened, those forces that were just taking shape in the first months after the fall of Saddam. You know, this idea of the sectarian divide, you know, the role of religion, the influence of militias, all of these forces have finally kind of come together and intersected into this chaos and this anarchy that we see in the country today.

INSKEEP: Either of you going back soon?

Mr. SHADID: I don't have any plans right away. I would like to get back. You know, I'm sure Anne feels the same way. You spend so much time, you know, there, and you do meet people that you want to stay in contact with, and... But it is, you know, I think it's more and more frustrating at some level as a journalist trying to do the work you want to do and just, you know, not sure how to do that work.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels?

GARRELS: I'll go back in January. It is frustrating, but it's still possible. I mean, but I keep wondering, you know, when am I going to wake up that morning and realize that it's simply no longer doable, that it is simply impossible? And you know, I anticipate one morning that I will wake up and say, okay, we've got to get out of here now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels, thanks very much for speaking with us.

GARRELS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Anthony Shadid, of The Washington Post, good to talk with you.

Mr. SHADID: Likewise.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from Anthony Shadid's book, Night Draws Near, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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