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World

American General Walks Around Downtown Baghdad For First Time In Years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Although President Trump is pulling the U.S. military out of Syria, the U.S. troops next door in Iraq are expected to stay put. There are about 5,000 of them, and they keep a relatively low profile, mostly sticking to U.S. bases. In fact, it has been years since an American general strolled around downtown Baghdad. Well, that changed today.

And NPR's Jane Arraf was invited along for the walk. She joins us now from Baghdad. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So how significant is it for a U.S. commander to be out and about, walking the streets of Baghdad?

ARRAF: You know, it's pretty significant because, really, it hasn't happened for a very long time. This particular commander was Brigadier General Austin Renforth. And he's deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. So he was taken along by his Iraqi counterpart, three-star general named Jalil Rubaie.

Now, Iraq for the past three years has been busy fighting ISIS, so it hasn't been really as safe as it is now. And also, you know, the Iraqis aren't so keen to have U.S. generals walking around their streets because there are Iranian-backed groups that think all the U.S. troops should leave. There's the legacy of the war. So to have him walking around amid thousands and thousands of people was kind of a big deal.

KELLY: And did he have a huge security entourage with him? I mean, how was he being protected?

ARRAF: He did have a security entourage. He had a personal security detail, and they were armed. And they were certainly keeping watch. But, you know, at one point we were having tea on this kind of raised platform in the middle of the street, and there were literally thousands of people who were jammed into these narrow alleys doing their shopping, going to the pet market.

He, himself, was wearing a Marine uniform, no body armor, very relaxed. That was kind of the most surprising thing that, in the midst of all this chaos, which you would normally think would be potentially dangerous, they didn't seem to feel there was much of a threat.

KELLY: And you got to talk to them as y'all were out and about walking. What did he say about what he was seeing and how he felt about it?

ARRAF: So we have to remember that this is a guy who has been through Fallujah, you know, the battle for Fallujah in 2004, which was absolutely horrific. This is not his first time around. Here is a little bit of what he had to say.

RET BRIGADIER GENERAL AUSTIN RENFORTH: To be here right now and see the city center thriving, it's like an open market. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear you're in any major city in the United States.

KELLY: Any major city in the United States, Jane? I'm going to be skeptical there. Did it really feel like Boston or LA?

ARRAF: Yeah, maybe not. But I think what he's comparing it to is all the other times he's seen Iraq, and that's what Iraqis compare it to as well. But still, let's not exaggerate. Baghdad has quite a lot of problems. But for the first time in 16 years since Saddam Hussein was toppled, when you talk to most Iraqis, they say this is the safest they've felt in years.

KELLY: Was he getting double takes from Iraqis in the markets and in the streets? What was their reaction?

ARRAF: That was so interesting because, you know, I would have thought that he would, but either people ignored him, which kind of indicates they've moved on, or they wanted to take selfies with him. There were a couple of people who yelled at him about the American presence. But by far, most of the people were either bemused or seemed quite positive to see him walking around.

KELLY: Listening to you, I mean, clearly, this is progress. Clearly, this is something that couldn't have happened even a few years back but also feels so telling that it is still quite such a significant thing 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion for a U.S. commander to be able to walk the streets of Baghdad.

ARRAF: Absolutely. And one of the things it says too is that even though ISIS has been pushed out of the cities, Renforth and his Iraqi counterpart are very clear that does not, contrary to other conceptions, mean that ISIS is defeated.

You know, it takes a lot of effort by the Iraqi military and U.S. advisers to keep it as safe as it has been. So all of those thousands of people, they're also backed by the immense efforts that go into every Friday holiday, making sure that attacks don't happen. They're very aware still that ISIS could still be out there, and they're not letting their guard down.

KELLY: Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.