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Iraqis' Love-Hate Relationship With Americans


The reporter Dexter Filkins remembers a day when he stood on a dam over the Euphrates River in Iraq. He heard an Iraqi cheerfully ask an American military officer for help in fixing the dam. And then as soon as the American left, the Iraqi said, I take their money but I hate them. Dexter Filkins recounts stories like that in his book, "The Forever War."

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "The Forever War"): (Reading) There were always two conversations in Iraq, the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us, that was positive and predictable and boring. And it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning. And the Iraqis kept it up because it kept the money flowing or because it bought them a little peace. The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered.

INSKEEP: That's Dexter Filkins reading from "The Forever War." He's a New York Times reporter who covered the war in Iraq for three and a half years. He experienced both types of conversations.

Mr. FILKINS: I had gone with my really good friend and interpreter Wazir Joff(ph) to see a Sunni sheik. And as we did, Joff and the sheik began this long conversation. And it was very animated. And I kept saying to my interpreter, you know, what's going on? I came here to talk to this guy about Sunni politics, or whatever, and, you know, he put his hand up and said, just hang on, hang on.

Finally, it was over. We had a perfectly fine interview. I think the sheik, you know, served us tea and cookies. And some time later when we were back in the car, I turned to Joff, my interpreter, and I said, what were you guys talking about back there? And Joff kind of smiled and said, well, he wanted to kidnap you. Fortunately for me, he put that fire out very quickly. But...

INSKEEP: He said he wouldn't go along with the deal?

Mr. FILKINS: Wouldn't go along with the deal, my tribe's bigger than yours, don't even think about it.

INSKEEP: And so how did you try to sort out that question of who was telling you the real story, as opposed to the fake story, when those two conversations were going on, when your own life is sometimes at risk because of that?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, that's the hardest part. I mean, if you want to talk about what it's like to be in Iraq, that's it, it's a labyrinth, it's a hall of mirrors. And I just came from Iraq. It's a lot safer there now, and it's a lot more calm. And so I think the two conversations that I'm talking about, there's less of that now, for that reason.

INSKEEP: Where did you go in Iraq the last few days?

Mr. FILKINS: I went to Baghdad. I mean, I went all over Baghdad which is remarkable. I mean, I haven't done that since 2004. And, you know, I watched a wedding procession. It was really, really different.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. And we should say this is a city that you were willing to jog through in late 2003 at night, but then became impossible for almost anybody who was American to move around in for a couple of years. And now you're back. What felt different about it?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, it's a remarkable thing because - for example, the park where I used to go jogging in 2003, it was a dead, dying, spooky, absolutely deserted place. I mean, really, really creepy. There were these checkpoints around. There were these guys with guns that didn't have uniforms. It was razor wire that was, you know, crisscrossing the whole thing. I went back there just a couple of weeks ago at sunset. There were probably 2,000 Iraqis. There were women walking around by themselves which was unheard of. I mean, they had jeans on, and they didn't cover their hair, I mean, it was families with children pushing baby strollers. It was completely normal. And so what was so extraordinary about it, I thought Baghdad was dead. And it wasn't dead, it was just hiding. And so, when there was order, the life just kind of flowed back into the streets.

INSKEEP: You said a minute ago that you went to a wedding procession?

Mr. FILKINS: I went to a wedding procession. And actually it was dusk in Adhamiyah, again which was a complete no-go zone two years ago, absolutely under control of the insurgents. And this wedding procession came down the street. It was Thursday night when they have all the weddings in Iraq. Probably 25 cars. The lead car was a Mercedes Benz. And they saw me, and the wedding procession stopped. And the door swung open, and the groom stepped out. And I could see the bride in the car, and she was very heavily made up. Long, white, flowing gown. And he shook my hand, and he said, it's wonderful, it's wonderful. And then - but then...

INSKEEP: Did you have any idea who these people were, or had you just run into the procession?

Mr. FILKINS: I just ran into the procession. But what was really fascinating about it was I was in Adhamiyah to talk to the Awakening people. And these are the former insurgents who are now on the American payroll.

INSKEEP: Sunni Muslims.

Mr. FILKINS: Who essentially are being - yes, Sunni Muslims who are essentially being paid not to kill Americans and Iraqis. And I remember when the groom shook my hand, and he said, it's wonderful, it's wonderful, he turned and he pointed to these gunmen on the American payroll. And he said it's all because of them.

INSKEEP: What did he mean, it's all because of them? That you could shake his hand, that he could get married, that there wasn't a suicide bombing on the street? What?

Mr. FILKINS: All of the above. What the Awakening did, basically, and they're happy to tell you about it, is the insurgents who were kind of reconcilable, more moderate, went after al-Qaeda, who were not reconcilable, who were the guys who were killing the Shiites and driving the civil war. They knew where they lived. You know, third house on the left. Take him out. And they did. And I remember talking to this Sunni sheik. And he said, it took us six weeks, and we killed 466 Qaeda leaders. And I said, 466? And he said, yes, we have a list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Not 400, not 500.

Mr. FILKINS: Four hundred and sixty-six. And so you can see what a crazy world it is.

INSKEEP: But let me come back to the first point of this conversation, the idea that there are two conversations in Iraq, and if you are an Iraqi, you are compelled to give the friendliest conversation you can to whoever has the nearest gun. Do you sense that that is still happening in Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: Yes. But I think it's different now. I'll give you an example. I was sitting in the office with a former officer in the Iraqi army whose last name was al-Tikriti, which means he's from Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. Sunni Muslim, probably a former insurgent. And here he was, you know, being paid $500 a month by the American military to keep the peace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: I sat in his office, and his phone rang. And there was somebody shouting into the telephone. And, you know, Mr. al-Tikriti practically had a nervous breakdown as he was listening to the telephone. And he finally put the telephone down, and he said, he humiliated me, he abused me. And I said, who? And he said, well, the Iraqi army colonel who's just down the street, who's a Shiite guy. That shows you the fragility of this whole thing that we've constructed.

INSKEEP: Well, did you see anything that struck you as a change that was not fragile, that was permanent and showing the way to a different Iraq?

Mr. FILKINS: It's all pretty fragile. I think what struck me as possibly more lasting was that ordinary people wanted peace. I really got a sense, you know, walking through Abu-Nawas Park at dusk looking at 2,000 Iraqis, you know, walking with their families. This is what they wanted, you know. And so possibly they'll be more reluctant about relying on bad people, and they'll be more eager to stand up to the bad people.

INSKEEP: Although I can remember thinking the same thing about Afghanistan at the end of 2001. Here's a country that's had more than 20 years of war. People are obviously tired of it, they're exhausted. But it turns out that there are some people in Afghanistan that were happy to do another seven years.

Mr. FILKINS: Absolutely. I had an interesting conversation with General Raymond Odierno who's taking over for General David Petraeus as the lead commander there.

INSKEEP: In Iraq, yes.

Mr. FILKINS: And what he said to me was ordinary people didn't want the violence, right. It was groups of bad people. So, on the Sunni side, it was the al-Qaeda guys who were driving car bombs into Shiite mosques. And then the Shiite militias were going to the Sunni neighborhoods and retaliating. And then, of course, you know, both of those groups were killing American soldiers. But if they could break that order, and peace would follow - and I think for the moment, that appears to be the case - could it all come back? Probably. Trying to build something that's sustainable there is the big challenge in the future.

INSKEEP: Dexter Filkins is author of "The Forever War." Thanks very much.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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