Transcript

416:

Iraq After Us
Transcript

Originally aired 10.15.2010

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/416

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The US has been in Iraq for seven years and I realized the other day, when I heard this clip of tape that I'm about to play you, that I've never even really understood what Baghdad looks like.

Nancy Updike

What are we looking at?

Larry Kaplow

Right now, we're here right almost in the geographic center of Baghdad on the fifth floor of a hotel.

Ira Glass

This is Larry Kaplow, a journalist who reported from Baghdad for the first six years of the war. He went back this summer, with one of our producers, Nancy Updike, they spent a month in Iraq.

Larry Kaplow

Think of Miami, because it looks like that. It's totally flat and there are lot of palm trees and lots of big highways. And think if you came out of Cutler Ridge or Coral Gables but it was walled in. Just to drive along a street and have, two feet away from you, you look of the window of your car, you see nothing but wall. It's too tall to even see the top of it out your car window. You just looked out and you see wall segment, wall segment, wall segment.

Ira Glass

So it's like Miami, except these concrete blast walls that honeycomb the city, 12 feet tall, giant great dominoes, thousands of them, creating a kind of endless maze. They fully enclose entire neighborhoods. Which means that to run errands, or go to your job, or do anything normal outside your own neighborhood, you go through checkpoints each time you cross from one place to another, over and over. Even the soldiers at the checkpoints find these checkpoints so depressing that lots of them are decorated with fake flowers, bleached by the sun, in strands and bunches.

Now the other thing about the way the city looks, Larry says, and he's back in the states. He's actually sitting right here with me in the studio, is that with Saddam Hussein gone, Baghdad is now clearly a Shiite city. It's been majority Shiite for generations, but you couldn't tell before Saddam fell, because Saddam led a regime dominated by the Sunnis, and they tried to paper over the religious differences between the two groups.

Ira Glass

But that changed, the day the US invaded, right?

Larry Kaplow

Right. I was there and within hours after the regime fell, we immediately saw people putting up the Shiite flags, the satin-y all black, all red, all green banners going up on houses, offices, mosques. Along with these portraits or icons of Shiite figures. And it was like, suddenly there was this whole other geography of the city. A place we thought of before as like, OK, this is just a poor neighborhood, suddenly it's like, wow, this is like a really-- This is all Shiite. And then you go to the other, richer neighborhoods and they don't have any flags here. These must be the Sunni engineers and professors who were in the regime. And it really changed your whole sense of geography of the city.

Ira Glass

And let's just review before we say anything else about Iraq. Shia versus Sunni.

Larry Kaplow

Well, it's a big over simplification, but one way to think about it is that they're like Protestants and Catholics. Shiites being like the Catholics. They have a hierarchy of Priests or Imams leading all the way up to Ayatollahs and Grand-Ayatollahs the way Catholics have a hierarchy of priests leading all the way up to the Vatican and the Pope. They have much more of an emphasis on rituals, on icons, on what we call saints, their religious leaders throughout the centuries.

Ira Glass

And Sunni doesn't have that?

Larry Kaplow

The Sunni don't have that. And some Sunni will say the Shia are not focused enough just on Mohammed and God, that they've created this assortment of religious leadership. They would look at Shia and so "They are too showy. I don't need to show off my religion like that." The same way some Protestants will look at Catholics and say that and sort of turn up their nose at that.

Ira Glass

Now, the Sunnis are the minority in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was Sunni. And now that he's out, the overwhelming majority of the country, the Shia, are in control. In the past in Iraq, Shia and Sunni lived side by side, they inter-married. Since the invasion, as we've all heard, there have been been periods of Sunni and Shia killing each other. So, today are they're getting along?

Ira Glass

Well, Nancy Updike, who was in Iraq with Larry is also in the studio. Nancy, how is it going?

Nancy Updike

Well, Larry and I talked to this Shiite guy, he's an educated man, a professor, you've known him for years, right Larry?

Larry Kaplow

Right, I have. Although he still didn't feel safe to be speaking to Americans on the radio, so he didn't want to be identified. I just wanted you to meet him and hear him talk about daily life. Like he told us that his salary which was $3 a month before Saddam fell is now $1,000 a month. And that's very typical for people now, to have more money. On the other hand, he told us that he has to go through 10 checkpoints every morning to get to school. The trip used to take 15 minutes, now it can take an hour or two. And then, in the middle of this, as we were talking to him about his life, I was surprised because people don't usually talk about this so openly, he goes into the tension between Sunni and Shia.

Professor

We have not recovered fully. We are still in the recovery period.

Nancy Updike

So he's Shia, he's got Sunni friends, he's got a Sunni girlfriend. And he told us this story about a Sunni friend of his who owed him $200. And they were going to lunch to settle up this debt. The professor suggested a fish restaurant in a Shiite neighborhood, that would be safe and comfortable for him. And the friend, the Sunni friend, wanted to go to a neighborhood called Al Adhamiya. Just a year ago, the professor would never have gone to this neighborhood. It just would have been too dangerous. But he let himself get talked into it.

Professor

So we were there, in a restaurant, invited by him, to tell the truth. At that time, sitting in that restaurant, I had my concerns.

Nancy Updike

You didn't feel safe?

Professor

Yes, of course. Because I am Shiite. For a Shiite to be in Al Adhamiya, it is a danger. And a big danger. By the way, my family blamed me. "You go for such a place. And alone? Why should you have gone to such of place, and alone?" I told them, but he's my friend. Even though, do not trust him.

Nancy Updike

So the professor is sitting there with his Sunni friend in this pizza restaurant, this is all just a few months ago, and he's trying to keep the conversation on politically neutral subjects. How things are going at the university. And then an Iraqi army convoy passed in front of the restaurant's window, and his friend watched the convoy pass, and made a comment.

Professor

He said, "OK, when the Americans will withdraw their last soldier here from Iraq, we, the national resistance--

Nancy Updike

The National Resistance meaning the Sunni insurgency--

Professor

--will restore things to normalcy. Normalcy for him means that they should be in the lead.

Nancy Updike

Sunnis should be in power. Like they were in Saddam's day.

Professor

I just, you know, gave him a fake smile, which was not real and OK-- and then he says, "Why don't you claim you are Sunni? Not say I'm Shiite. Because your thoughts are very nice. And your thoughts are in conformity with ours. Always, do not ever say I am Shiite." Now in Iraq there is a freedom of speech, but still, we have to, you know, we have to be careful when speaking. In Iraq now there is a big division.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International, I'm Ira Glass. This August, when the United States declared an end to combat operations in Iraq pulled back its troops, officially lowered the numbers to under 50,000, one of the things you didn't get very much in the coverage is that you didn't hear many Iraqi voices. So Nancy and Larry spent a month in Iraq and talked to lots of people. Because we wanted to understand, with the US pulling back finally, how are things going? How well is the country emerging from the war? How are people feeling? What's Iraq going to be like, after us. That's our show today, in three access, stay with us.

Act One. What Just Happened?

Ira Glass

Act one, "What just happened?" Lots of us understand it's still kind of a mess in Iraq right now, but the specifics of that mess are a little vague. And, to get a grip on that, let's start with the story of one man, and everything that this one man has seen since the invasion. The man's named Abu Abed. Nancy tells this story.

Nancy Updike

Here's what I knew about Abu Abed when I met him. He was in Iraqi who had fought with the Americans in Baghdad during the surge, and he'd become a small legend. The game changer who help the US drive al Qaeda out of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Dale Kuehl

Probably the bravest man I ever met.

Nancy Updike

This is Colonel Dale Kuehl. The US commander of the area in Baghdad where Abu Abed fought al Qaeda.

Dale Kuehl

He confronted them face to face on the street. How many people can say they did that? Stood up to al Qaeda when they were controlling a town like that? Where 16 American soldiers died in one month.

Nancy Updike

Two years after helping the US route al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Abed was living like a fugitive. A suicide bomber tried to kill him in Baghdad, and he and his family fled Iraq for Jordan. It didn't help. They had to change addresses every couple of months. Abu Abed was attacked in the street. They were getting death threats from al Qaeda, including a note handed to his son at school. His wife was stabbed during an attempt kidnap their son. A few days before I got in touch with him, Abu Abed paid a smuggler $50,000 to get him, his wife, and their two children to Sweden.

Abu Abed, whose real name is Saad Oraibi Ghaffouri Al-Obeidi, has letters full of praise from American generals saying he should be allowed to come to the US. General David Petraeus, former top commander of the war, wrote one for him. But America turned him down flat, no explanation, even now. Abu Abed sits on the edge of a couch, unshaven, in cropped khaki pants, khaki shirt, and sandals.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

We were told to go to the embassy, where I waited in hall, fully expecting to be granted my visa. And they said, you've been denied. It's a final decision. I couldn't believe it. I felt like I'd just gotten a bullet in the head.

Nancy Updike

Sweden is still deciding whether he can stay.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

They asked me, well, here you have these recommendations, highest ranking American military personnel, why aren't you in America? How haven't they taken you to America? And I don't know what to say.

Nancy Updike

The Iraq war has had one question at its heart, with an answer that keeps shifting, who is our enemy? Abu Abed has gone from being a central character in US strategy, to an exile sleeping on a friend's floor. And those are only two of the roles he's played in the Iraq war. At every turn in the war, every change in US tactics or strategy, Abu Abed has been there, either benefiting or getting pounded. He's a living catalog of the seven years of decisions, successes and failures, that have made up this war.

During the first phase of the war, Abu Abed was our enemy. He was a captain in Saddam Hussein's air force, in intelligence he says. His country was being invaded. Then the war very quickly entered its second phase, the insurgency. IED's, car bombs, sniper attacks. The insurgency was led by Sunnis, many of them former Iraqi army officers. Abu Abed was a Sunni and a former Iraqi army officer. But he insists he was never part of that. He never fought the US. I asked him about it so many times, he got exasperated.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

If I wanted to, I could get up and say that I fought the Americans. I could take pride in the fact that I fought the occupation and I would be able to win many people's respect in Iraq and in the region. But it's just not true.

Nancy Updike

This has been Abu Abed's official position for years, so it's hard for him to back off it. But a US army captain, who later befriended him says Abu Abed told him the truth. He did fight the US, he was part of the insurgency. But to make things even more complicated, he was also reaching out to the US, as early as 2004, feeding them information. Like any smart gambler, he was placing more than one bet. In this early stage of the war, the insurgency, one of the coalition force's main tactics was raid, arrest, interrogate. Which happened to Abu Abed. He was picked up in a neighborhood sweep.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Soldiers came in, translator told me to put my face to the wall. I said, "What's going on here?" He said, "Just put your face up against the wall."

Nancy Updike

I confirmed with another US officer that Abu Abed was arrested early in the war. Abu Abed says he was interrogated by American civilians, private contractors.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I was put in a room where I was hung by my arms. I couldn't sit down, I couldn't rest, all the time with a bag over my head. For days I was dying of thirst for water. They wouldn't let me drink, they would just pour the water on my face, they wouldn't let me drink from it.

Nancy Updike

Abu Abed says the civilian interrogators held him for around 2o days. They were insisting they knew who he was, they kept calling him a name he remembers as something like "Shaddat." And they wanted him to admit it. Nothing he said could convince them otherwise. Abu Abed says the torture and interrogation ended when he was suddenly switched to a different room.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Given a bed. Given a TV with a DVD player and DVD's. They asked me, what kind of movies would you like to watch? I said, I like Sylvester Stalone movies and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. So they brought me a bunch of those movies. And they said, "Listen, we're very, very sorry. But we have discovered it's true, that you're not Shaddat." They said, "Please, you know, we we're looking for this person and we realize we made a mistake with you." And I said, "No. I can appreciate that. I understand what the problem is." And he said, "So we're friends?" And I said, "Yeah, we're friends."

Nancy Updike

By 2006, the war had changed again. Many Iraqis now refer to that early insurgency as the "Honorable resistance," to distinguish it from what happened next. Iraq turned into a sectarian war that was basically a gang war. Sunni gangs, often allied with al Qaeda, versus Shiite gangs. And if you were a regular person, trying to live your life, and weren't in one of the gangs yourself, the differences between them seemed mainly stylistic. One man told us, "The way you know al Qaeda is coming up to your house to kill you, is that their addressed like ordinary guys, and shouting "Allah hu akbar." The way you know a Shiite militia is pulling up to your house, is that they're dressed all in black, and shouting the names of Shiite saints.

Abu Abed's neighborhood in Baghdad, Amiriyah, is a Sunni stronghold. A place where members of Saddam's military got nice houses and had lived well back in the day. Some Sunnis is Abu Abed's neighborhood joined forces with al Qaeda against their common enemies. The Shiite militias and the Americans. In fact, at the height of its power, al Qaeda declared Amiriyah its capital. They appointed their own finance minister, education minister. The new Iraqi government was desperate.

Saad Motallebi

2006, we virtually lost control over Baghdad. That's

Nancy Updike

This is Saad Motallebi, an adviser in the current Iraqi government.

Saad Motallebi

We were completely surrounded. They had control of many areas in Baghdad and the Americans didn't know what to do. And 2006.2007 we were seriously worried.

Nancy Updike

But then something changed. People started to hate al Qaeda. In Amiriyah, al Qaeda kidnapped and brutally killed an older Christian couple who everyone liked. Abu Abed saw a friend whipped in the street.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

They would whip a person, strip him of his clothes and then whip him either with a whip or a stick. Cut off a person's hand, they would cut out a person's tongue. They forced every female teachers to, if she wasn't wearing a hijab, she'd be executed.

Nancy Updike

Al Qaeda went into Iraq seeing themselves as liberators, overplayed their hand, and alienated people. And that's when the American forces and the Iraqi government got their big break. The sons of Iraq, also sometimes called the Awakening or the Sunni Awakening.

Dale Kuehl

The Sons of Iraq was a very de-centralized organization. In fact, calling it an organization is probably not the right way.

Nancy Updike

This is Colonel Kuehl again, whose area of command included Amiriyah. Before the Sons of Iraq showed up, the US had been focusing, for years, on a failed plan, recruiting and training the Iraqi army and police, to get them able to secure the country. When they stand up, we will stand down. It wasn't working. In fact, it was making things worse. The police force we were building, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, had pockets of Shiite militias who would kidnap and kill people, often without bothering to change out of their uniforms. Abu Abed says two of his brothers were killed by a Shiite militia.

In Amiriyah, the Sons of Iraq started in late May, 2007, when Colonel Kuehl got a phone call from a local leader, a Sheikh and an Imam, who Kuehl had chewed out 10 days earlier, following an IED attack on his men. Kuehl had told them, "You have to help us fight al Qaeda."

Dale Kuehl

Calls me, it was in the middle of the night, and says, "Hey, we're going after al Qaeda tomorrow." And I'm like, you're going to do what? He says, we're going after al Qaeda tomorrow, we just want you to stay away. We just want you to stay out here. And I said Sheikh, I can't do that. I can't leave the neighborhood. We argued for about 20 minutes. I said, give me the intelligence, we'll go after it. He said, "No, it won't work. We've got to do it ourselves."

After awhile I said, OK, don't point your weapons at my soldiers and don't point your weapons at civilians, or we will engage you.

Nancy Updike

We will shoot at you.

Dale Kuehl

We will shoot you. I think literally I said, "We'll kill you." He said, OK. And then I wished him luck.

Nancy Updike

What followed was a quick initial victory and then a furious counter attack by al Qaeda. The Imam called Kuehl for help, and the US forces went in and pushed al Qaeda back, and then--

Dale Kuehl

That's when the negotiation started. On how are we going to do this? I got a call from another Imam, I would say who is probably the most influential in the neighborhood, and he said, "OK, there's someone that you need to meet." And so that's when I met Abu Abed. One of the strangest experiences of my life. Because I'm in there with guys who look like insurgents. It was out at the mosque, we met. And he was exhausted and the first meeting didn't go so well. He was making demands, that I'm like, "nope, we ain't going to do that."

Nancy Updike

What were his demands?

Dale Kuehl

He was saying, if you just let us do what we need to do, we'll clear this place out. Basically free rein to take care of business. That was a bit much. Their point to me was that the US army and the Iraqi army could not do it without their help. And it was a humbling experience, someone telling me, what do you mean you know I'm--

Nancy Updike

I'm the US army.

Dale Kuehl

I'm the US army, I can do anything. But he was right. We could not do it alone.

Nancy Updike

And this was Abu Abed saying this to you?

Dale Kuehl

That's correct.

Nancy Updike

Each Sons of Iraq group developed its own working arrangement with the US military in the area. When Abu Abed and Kuehl joined forces, they signed a memorandum of agreement, which was also signed by the Iraqi army commander in the area. The deal was, Abu Abed and his men had to coordinate their operations with the US military and the Iraqi army. No going off on their own. Anyone they detained had to be turned over to the US, at first within 24 hours, later within two hours. No torture. All the fighters had to be fingerprinted and given and eye scan. In return, Abu Abed got an office, four pick-up trucks, they all got uniforms. The US paid them about $300 a month, and promised to help them get jobs later. Abu Abed commanded a shifting group of men that, at one point, numbered several hundred. Overall, the Sons of Iraq was a total of 103,000 people countrywide at its height. A huge boost to the American forces, who numbered 170,000 in 2007.

This is the most successful phase of the Iraq war. The part we've come to shorthand as the surge. What this meant in Abu Abed's case, was that the same men who'd fought the Americans, who've been picked up and tortured by coalition forces three years earlier, had reached out to the US military and was now working with them every day.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

You're having a soda on top of a US tank.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

Abu Abed has dozens of photographing from his time fighting alongside the US military. The photos were among the few things he insisted on bringing with him when the family was smuggled to Sweden. In the photos, Abu Abed is leaner than he is now, with a mustache. He looks relaxed and energized. A man whose talents are in demand. The more he shuffles through the photos, the happier he gets, telling war stories.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

There was a time when we went right into a al Qaeda hide out, and bullets were flying from every direction, flying at us.

Nancy Updike

It's a most animated I ever see him.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Nancy Updike

Every American we talked to who fought with Abu Abed said he was an incredible soldier. One, Captain Brian Weightman described his as fluid. That 1% who can remain calm in the middle of hair raising chaos, able to inspire men, Weightman said, including him. Some Americans called him a brother. Once the Americans embraced the Sons of Iraq, it forced the Iraqi army to work with them. And in Amiriyah, the three groups together were an unstoppable force against al Qaeda. In the midst of this triumphant military campaign, in which Abu Abed was a crucial partner, trusted every day with American lives, two US captains Abu Abed worked with came to him and said they'd been told to take him to some meeting with some people. So Abu Abed went to the meeting, not thinking much of it.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And they open the door and I saw this group of people that said they wanted to meet me, and I instantly new who they were. I knew exactly who they were.

Nancy Updike

It was the group of civilian who had interrogated him in 2004. The same people he says beat him, hung him from his arms, and held him captive for as long as they wanted. Those same people were now smiling at him, and saying how glad they were to see them. Abu Abed tried to stay calm.

Abu Abed

Translator

They asked me if I remember them, and I said, "No, I don't know who you. I don't remember you." Because I was so hurt I said I don't remember you, even though, of course, I did. And they said, "Well, we forget the past right? We're friends now. Are you sure you don't remember us? "Yeah, I don't know who you are," I said. Then they opened up a laptop with a picture of me, and they said, "well, who's this?" And that picture of me with a number across my chest, the number of me when I was captive.

Nancy Updike

I spoke with one of the captains who said in the room, not really understanding what was going on, who these people were to Abu Abed. The captain said there were other photos on the laptop, too, like a book of mug shots. Fighters the US was looking for, and the interrogators seem to be asking Abu Abed if he knew anything about them. But all Abu Abed could focus on was his own picture. Why did they show that to him? Either it was a threat, help us or else, or maybe to the interrogators the torture of three years earlier was such ancient history that they didn't think it would matter. That was yesterday, we're friends now.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I started asking myself all kinds of questions. All kinds of questions were spinning around in my head. I wanted to know how did they see me? What was I in their eyes? Was I a terrorist? Is that how they perceived me? I feel incredibly wronged. But I didn't know what the point was.

Nancy Updike

It's still not clear what the point was. Except that Abu Abed got whipsawed by two different phases of the war. The raid and the interrogate phase, and the brotherhood phase. The Sons of Iraq were widely loathed by the Iraqi government and its security forces. And they didn't keep their loathing to themselves. And Iraqi army officer accused Abu Abed of killing one of his relatives. The US investigated, but could never confirmed that the man who'd allegedly been killed had ever existed. Other accusations against Abu Abed cropped up, some are still out there, unproven, but impossible to refute. He killed 35 Shiite civilians. That he beat an innocent man to death. And then in November of 2007, a story came out in a British newspaper, The Guardian, that starred Abu Abed in the worst way. The reporter spent three days with him and painted a portrait of an arrogant, power hungry thug, kicking and slapping a man outside his house for a supposed insult, screaming at the security detail for Iraq's Vice President, "Do you know who I am? Here I rule. I am the commander of Amariya. Did you dare to show your faces here before I kicked al Qaeda out?" Also, interrogating a child about an alleged weapons cache. The lingering image from the article is Abu Abed's men holding him back as he tries to put his gun in the child's mouth.

Dale Kuehl

I did not believe that that story was truthful. I thought it was embellished. Could I be wrong? Sure.

Nancy Updike

Colonel Kuehl published a long rebuttal to the story, saying the overall picture of Amiriyah it showed was wrong. The Sons of Iraq seemingly running rampant, with little or no supervision by the US military or the Iraqi military. His rebuttal did not, however, refute any of the specific incidents the story described. In fact, he concedes that some of them happened, though he doesn't believe Abu Abe put a gun in a child's mouth.

When the story came out, Kuehl was furious at Abu Abed. He believed Abu Abed's vanity, his desire to build up his own reputation as a tough guy, was putting the entire Sons of Iraq project at risk. He called Abu Abed in for a talk.

Dale Kuehl

I was telling him, listen, I might have to remove you.

Nancy Updike

Why didn't you?

Dale Kuehl

People were very willing to report bad things going. Whether it was Abu Abed or somebody else. In this case, I got nothing. And so, why I didn't believe the story, and again, could I be wrong? Sure. But I just didn't have the evidence here other than the story. And am I right or wrong? I don't know. And there was one time we actually considered, is he the right guy for this?

Nancy Updike

What happened?

Dale Kuehl

We came to the conclusion that this is the right guy.

Saad Motallebi

I compare them to having a crocodile as a pet animal.

Nancy Updike

This is Saad Motallebi again, the government adviser who talked earlier about how he worried they might lose control over Baghdad. He's talking about the Sons of Iraq, they were the crocodile he saw. Armed men, not under government control, roaming the streets. The US military had a solution to that. They thought the Iraqi government should absorb most of the Sons of Iraq into their security forces, the police and the army. Make those mostly Shiite forces represent the country as a whole, by adding Sunnis. But to many in the Iraqi government, the Sons of Iraq were insurgents, period. And its leaders like Abu Abed were former officers from Saddam Hussein's army.

Saad Motallebi

The insurgency, they didn't fights for the new Iraq. That's the way we saw it. They fought for control over the region that they had previously control over.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

The way that the government dealt with us was to just slowly squeeze us out.

Nancy Updike

Abu Abed says he and other Sons of Iraq wanted to form a police force in Amiriyah. He says they were prevented by the government.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

They appointed a police officer to lead the police station in our area, who was from the south.

Nancy Updike

Meaning Shiite.

Translator

And then they appointed his deputy, and then they appointed others who would work under him, all to make sure that we were squeezed out and that we wouldn't have any official capacity.

Nancy Updike

The Iraqi government essentially won this argument, in part because the US was eager to move on to a new phase of the war, the phase it's still in: achieving political stability so the US forces can leave. What this meant for Abu Abed is that when he talked to US military guys, there was a new catch phrase: Iraqi sovereignty. Meaning, if the Iraqi government wants to put someone else in the police in this area, instead of you and your guys, that's their business and we're not going to intervene. He says this was different from what the US military had been saying to him before this point.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

One of the things that they said often was that you will have a place in the new Iraq. That they won't deal with you on a sectarian basis, that you will be included in this new leadership.

Nancy Updike

And did you believe them that that was possible? And they could deliver that?

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

At the time? Yes.

Abu Abed

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Why did I believe it? Because this was the force that brought down the previous regime in Iraq. This was the force that created the Iraqi government, that established the Iraqi army. Of course I believed it.

Nancy Updike

The more successful the Sons of Iraq were in neutralizing al Qaeda, the less necessary they became. They made themselves obsolete. Kuehl saw this coming and tried to warn Abu Abed. Later, Kuehl led a big effort to try and get him to the US, rallied a network of churches and people and vouched for Abu Abed personally. But Kuehl was blunt with him when they were recruiting for the new police force in Amiriyah.

Dale Kuehl

Did not really see him as a serious candidate to be the head of the security force.

Nancy Updike

You didn't?

Dale Kuehl

I didn't. And we were actually trying to figure out who would be the right guy to do that, so.

Nancy Updike

Just so I understand fully, this is somebody you'de been working with for months, leading this group, trusting him, the bravest man you ever met, why not him?

Dale Kuehl

It goes back to what I think he was good at. I think he was a great fighter. I think he was great at-- very charismatic. I think he was the right guy to go fight al Qaeda. I did not think he was the right guy, and the right temperament to lead a police force of a community like that. He's a hot head.

Nancy Updike

Meaning what?

Dale Kuehl

He has a temper. And it has caused him some problems that he is still having to deal with. We would not have rooted al Qaeda out there without a guy like him, but I think there was a transition that needed to happen. Somebody that had a probably better temperament, that could deal with the politics of just being the leader of a community.

Nancy Updike

General Petraeus added a handwritten note to hit type-written letter of recommendation supporting Abu Abed's application to the US. The notes says, "He risked everything to stand against al Qaeda in Iraq, and he's paid a heavy price. we should help him." He underlined should. A lot of Iraqis have helped the US and paid a heavy price and we've turned many of them away. For any blemish, or seeming blemish, and who has more blemishes on his record than a fighter? The Sons of Iraq, our alliance with them, was a big success for us. And this is the mess that goes along with it.

Abu Abed's old neighborhood, Amiriyah, today is mostly calm, but bleak. Some of the buildings are pitted by gunfire and crumbling from bombings. There isn't a Sons of Iraq leader in Amiriyah anymore. Abu Abed's successor was blown up by a suicide bomber a few weeks before we got to Iraq. One of the few Sons of Iraq foot soldiers left in Amiriyah was working at the check point into the neighborhood. He hadn't been paid in two months.

US and Iraqi officials say the Iraqi government has stalled on services in Amiriyah and others Sunni areas, in part to undermine the popularity of Sons of Iraq leaders. The US has been pushing reconciliation ion Iraq, saying it's key to stabilizing the country. Trying to get Sunnis and Shiites, plus the Kurds, to work together and share power. It's not working. The Chief of the US reconciliation program in Baghdad told me.

Sons of Iraq, especially its leaders, have been arrested, some are being killed, sometimes with their families, by al Qaeda, by other rivals or enemies. Some, like Abu Abed, have fled. There's an arrest warrant out for him in Iraq now. Some US officials believe the charges are politically motivated. The cold fact is that Iraq may not need reconciliation to have stability, depending on how brutal the Iraqi government is willing to be, and we're willing to let them be. If they put enough Sunnis in prison, or drive them out of the country, while welcoming the few they do feel able to work with, the Shia majority might be able to run the country without ever reconciling with the Sunnis. Which might be fine with us, if Iraq were only war. In Afghanistan, Afghan fighters have raised the issue of what's become of the the Sons of Iraq in meetings with the US, according to an American officer who served in Afghanistan.

Everywhere we want local fighters to help us, they're going to ask themselves, how will we end up?

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike. Coming up, what is that crushed garbage under foot everywhere in Iraq cities? And other things that nobody has told you about life in Iraq today. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Politics as Usual.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show, "Iraq after us." Reporter Larry Kaplow and one of our producers, Nancy Updike, spent a month in Iraq this August as US troops were ending their combat mission. And they traveled around the country interviewing many, many more people than we will be able to fit into one hour today. To try to understand how things are going in Iraq, in this half hour of the show we are going to hear two more stories, two more acts from the stories that they gathered. And we are going to go straight from one to the other. And we're going to start with Act two, "Politics as usual."

One of the biggest political challenges facing Iraq today has to do with something that's so basic, and that is that for decades the country was run by a dictator. And even before that dictator, before Saddam Hussein, there were other strongmen, and there were kings. Government in Iraq has basically meant somebody at the top imposing order and control on everybody below, and the United States has tired to convince Iraqis that democracy means distributing that power. Sending it out of Baghdad, out of these big, central ministries, and sending it all over the country. Giving political power to local mayors, and newly formed provincial councils. Iraq is divided into a bunch of provinces that are kind of like states.

But Iraqis are not used to that. They're used to top down. Nancy and Larry went to Diyala Province, just north of Baghdad, to see whether the old mentality has changed at all. They started at the bottom rung, in a top down government. The mayor's office, in Diyala's capital city Baqubah. Larry tells this story.

Larry Kaplow

The mayor's office is behind blast walls and barbed wire, and it's not really a municipal building, it's basically a large house at the end of a residential street. Inside there's a short dusty hallway with scuffed walls, in a small foyer with a few loose metal chairs. And it's filled with people, maybe 50 of them. People are literally pressed against a plexiglass divider at the end of the hall. An old woman shouts, "I'm not a dog, I'm a human being."

Woman

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

Nancy, our interpreter Sarah and I approach a man who tells us he was injured in a bombing back in 2006. He's a Shiite and they were usually the targets. After more than a dozen operations on his leg, a doctor classified him 70% disabled, and he can't work his farm. So he's here hoping to get a note from the Mayor to help get compensation promised by the government.

Farmer

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Ther is a million Iraqi dinar ah as a claim for my injury. It's been one year. I want to get this million and no one give it to me.

Larry Kaplow

A million Iraqi dinars is about $850. The man with the leg injury, and everyone else here, wants to see the guy behind the plexiglass divider. It's kind of like The Wizard of Oz, they're hoping he can solve their problems. But when we get back to see Abdullah Al-Khayali, the mayor of this district of 500,000 people, it turns out, like the wizard, he's mostly powerless.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

Al-Khayali tells us he doesn't control what's happening on the city streets. The police force answers to the army, not to him. The schools and the hospitals are run from Baghdad. He can't authorise big public works projects. It's not so different from how it all worked under Saddam, and there's no plan for that to change. He still depends on the central government for almost all his money, too. Definitely no hospitality budget. He points to the table in front of us.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And for our information, too, this is a simple example, the tea, the water, it's all from my own money.

Nancy Updike

You mean the tea that we're drinking, the water, here on the table?

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

He says the tea is no big deal, he's just trying to make a point. Al-Khayali in his mid-30's, and he's charming. Both times we see him, he's dressed like he is going to a nightclub instead of City Hall, in perfectly coordinated suits and ties and even socks. He's dapper, but beleaguered. Take the issue he says everyone's complaining to him about: roadblocks. The Iraqi army has barricaded all the roads into the center of town. They're meant to prevent car bomb attacks, but they've completely choked off the downtown.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Yes, yes. They blocked and they stopped everybody from working and make living for their families.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And without taking my order or ask me for it first, because I am here, the highest authority.

Larry Kaplow

Just imagine if an army blocked all the traffic to your downtown, without consulting the mayor or anyone else.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I don't want to be proud, but really I am a social leader and they make decisions without asking me or telling me about it.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And really I want them to hear this message.

Larry Kaplow

One thing he does have a say in is who gets houses that the United Nations is giving away. They're supposed to go to refugees whose homes were destroyed. It's a US funded program to bring back people who fled the violence. But we heard he was giving some of the houses to relatives, even if they still had homes. So we ask Al-Khayali, expecting a sharp denial.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Yes, many of these things happened.

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

I don't want to talk about ethics and say that I am a perfect man, yeah.

Larry Kaplow

Are you saying that sometimes you do have to give houses to your friends and family because they pressure you?

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Not by force but--

Nancy Updike

But by love. Calling you up and--

Abdullah Al

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Yes, maybe they really pressure on me because maybe sometimes they wouldn't even do some work for me because I didn't give them the house.

Larry Kaplow

In Iraq, family comes first, because family might be the only thing you have to fall back on. All the other institutions are so fragile. The next rung up the government ladder, above City Hall, is the Provincial Council. If the provinces in Iraq are like states, the Provincial Council is like the State Legislature. The Council meets in a fancier building the mayor's office, much fancier. Tea and water flow freely. But that doesn't mean it works any better.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

All the Provincial Council, no one of them served the citizen of Diyala. No one of them.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

Meet [? Ahmer Thamer Mustafa Al-Khirke ?]. He's a member of the Provincial Council, but he's mastered the political art of being outraged like he's some man on the street. Sarah couldn't keep a straight face as she was translating.

Translator

He speaks to much.

Nancy Updike

I know, I know.

Translator

The citizen of Diyala are disgusted by the situation of the Provincial Council.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

There's no electricity, no sewing services.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

Garbage everywhere.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

It was a fascinating interview. Picture [? Al-Khirke ?], a trim 54 year old in a dark suit, in the imperious bearing of the army general he was under the old regime. He had two main points he wanted to make. One, I live to serve the citizens of Diyala. In fact--

Translator

If I am not able to do or serve the people in Diyala, I will quite.

Larry Kaplow

And two, my allies and I refuse to me with the other members of the Council.

Translator

No we will not. We will not attend the meetings until they meet our demands.

Larry Kaplow

We spent most of an hour trying to understand how [? Al-Khirke ?] could serve the people of Diyala as an elected representative, without participating in the political body to which he was elected. But to Al-Khirke, this whole line of questioning was beside the point. What's important to him, is that his party didn't do well in local elections about two years ago. They got three out of 29 seats on the Provincial Council. But by early this year, the mood had shifted, and the party, lead nationally by Ayad Allawi, did very well in the national election, the one held this past spring to choose Iraq's new Parliament and Prime Minister. So [? Al-Khirke ?] is threatening to call a do-over.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

And we will make a new election here in Baqubah.

Nancy Updike

Why? But why?

Larry Kaplow

It's as if the Republicans in America looked at their poll numbers and asked for a do-over of the 2008 Presidential election right now.

Nancy Updike

But that's the way elections work, but that's the way elections work, you don't get to say when the election comes, when you're popular. You have to wait for the four years, right?

Man

No. [SPEAKING ARABIC]

Larry Kaplow

He's saying, "No, the law says that if a third of the Provincial Council wants a new election, they can petition the Parliament to call a new election." Which is true, but trying to do that would throw Diyala into many more months of paralysis and drift, which is what the bombers and militants want, too. They've killed 381 people and wounded over 1,000 in Diyala so far this year.

American Man

Al Qaeda's using this fighting to blow things up and to show people that nobody is in charge. People are getting hurt in this time.

Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

God willing, we will solve all these problems and we will find the solutions for all troubles in Iraq.

Larry Kaplow

This is politics in Iraq today. All these institutions are so new and so weak and the politicians don't see the point of working together and compromising. For them, you're either in charge or you're not. Like in the old Iraq. And if that's your mentality, with everything in flux, if you're not on top, the most sensible strategy is to stall until power shifts again.

Act Three. Today in Babylon.

Nancy Updike

Act 3, "Today in Babylon" Iraq is stable now. In geo-political terms, Iraq is stable. We saw that when we were there. Kids go to school. People with money go out to dinner and take vacations. Men go hit the night clubs in Baghdad and drink beer. Young couples have fancy deafening weddings.

Larry Kaplow

But stable in Iraq just means it's not flying into pieces anymore. Stable means stable enough for us, the rest of the world. For people who live there, it's still dangerous, frightening, and just plain difficult. There aren't enough jobs. Huge numbers of people survive on a couple of days of work a month, or they live off relatives. Officials expect bribes for everything, passports, business permits, police protection. The prisons are horrific.

Nancy Updike

There isn't enough clean water. The entire country is carpeted with trash that seems to be 90% flattened water bottles. And there are still bombings and killings. 200 to 300 dead per month. That's a tenth of what it was three years ago. But imagine if a dozen or more people were being blown up my bombs each month in any US city, for seven years. You don't get used to it. Iraqis haven't developed some special mid-East super immunity to violence, just because they've seen a lot of it. Larry and I talked to so many people who were just exhausted by relentless, low-level fear.

Larry Kaplow

So we made it our mission to seek out people who are happy and plowing ahead in spite of at all. We stopped in at a shop in Abu Abed's old neighborhood, Amiriyah.

Nancy Updike

It was full of women, and stocked floor to ceiling with herbal remedies of every kind including--

Nancy Updike

Snake oil.

Woman

Snake oil makes long hair for the women and it's so good to make the hair strong.

Nancy Updike

An actual snake oil salesman. His shop was clearly a hub for women in the neighborhood. He joked around with them while he told them how to take the medicines, through some English in.

Shop Owner

One before breakfast, one before lunch, and then I'll welcome my sister.

Nancy Updike

After the women left, I started to ask my first question.

Nancy Updike

How are things in Amiriyah now? How is Amiriyah now?

Translator

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Shop Owner

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

He said, I want to check, because one of the ladies left here at bag. I need to check it.

Nancy Updike

He was checking her bag to make sure she hadn't left a bomb behind.

Shop Owner

My friends with the women-- [SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

She is my friend, but I also got my suspicions about it.

Nancy Updike

Within five minutes, he was telling us how during the worst of the violence, three years ago, his older brother had been kidnapped and the family impoverished itself to pay $17,000 ransom.

Translator

We sold many things, our car, another shop, everyone from my sister's and sister-in-law's gold, we sold it.

Nancy Updike

They killed him anyway.

Translator

And we asked them, why you killed him? His name is Hussein.

Nancy Updike

Hussein is the name of a Shiite saint. He was killed by a Shiite militia.

Translator

They said, he's a Sunni and he's a Dulami.

Nancy Updike

Dulami, his last name, is the name of a large Sunni tribe in Iraq. The man started to cry, and went to the back of the shop to collect himself.

Larry Kaplow

We didn't give up on our mission, but the reality was almost any person we talked to in Iraq was only one or two questions away from despair. Even our translator, Sarah, who was always sunny and joking around, broke down during an interview. It happened after a man we were talking to, a Sons of Iraq leader in Diyalah, plucked a tissue out of a box to make a point.

Translator

I'm sorry. He says the American forces use us like a tissue. I feel the same thing. I'm sorry.

Larry Kaplow

Sarah was an interpreter for the US Army during the surge and she was wrongly accused of aiding the insurgents, put in prison, and by the time the charges were dropped, she'd been blacklisted and couldn't go back to work for the US, one of the few decent paying jobs in Iraq. She's the only bread winner for two boys. Her husband was killed because of her work with the Americans.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

Nancy Updike

We went to what seems to be the happiest place in Baghdad. Zawra park, which is a big amusement park, with rides and places to picnic. In the rest of Baghdad this summer, you might get an hour a day of city electricity. But Zawra park is always lit up, like any carnival midway. It was packed with groups of young single men and families.

Larry Kaplow

One family was having a night-time birthday picnic, with cake and candles, for one of the women's two-year old granddaughter.

Translator

We came here today to just sort of escape from the lack of water, and the lack of electricity. Just to come here to have fun, to have a change of atmosphere. To celebrate. To smile.

Larry Kaplow

The park costs money. The cake and the outing were a big deal for this family. They are Shiites from Sadr city, the poorest part of Baghdad.

Translator

We are just laborers, day by day. Basically if we get paid, then we eat and we drink and things like that. If we don't have a job-- you know labor is a day by day job. If you get a job, it's great. If you don't, you know.

Larry Kaplow

Of course, this being Iraq, where hospitality to strangers is a national creed, the family insisted we join them for cake. And we were two minutes in, I clocked it, when they started telling us there version of the snake oil man's story. An aunt, chased down and killed by some of her Sunni neighbors, the rest of the family driven out of their home.

Translator

Even our neighbors were trying to kill us. They were waiting for us at the end of the street. My neighbor from the other side had called me and told me that, "You should leave immediately." So I took my boys, and my husband, and we left the area.

Nancy Updike

I asked them what they thought about the US. These were people who had been terribly oppressed under Saddam Hussein. At the same time, many more Shiite civilians have been killed in the last seven years than Sunnis or American troops. The woman I was talking to clammed up, and had to be coaxed by our translator. Finally she said--

Translator

Basically, I don't want to give you the truth, because I don't want you to be disappointed or upset, because I don't want you to feel that I'm degrading your country or anything like that.

Nancy Updike

I said, "Let me have it."

Translator

We see Americans as the enemy. As they came in, they were the enemy, because as you might know, or might heard, you saw all the killing in the streets and the kidnapping and the ransoms. Their the enemy. I mean, there's no point. I mean I can't emphasize enough to you how much that they hurt the Iraqi community. We were under the impression that they would pick up the pieces, they would put everything together again, but instead they shattered it.

Nancy Updike

There's a quote from the US military's counter-insurgency manual, the text book for the strategy that help turned the Iraq war around. It says, "Sometimes societies are most prone to unrest, not when conditions are the worse, but when the situation begins to improve and people's expectations rise." The worst violence in Iraq ended about two years ago. But in those two years, Iraqis haven't seen their daily life improve at all. Their relief at not being in constant danger has worn off, and now they want more than just survival. They want to move forward with their lives. But they can't.

Larry Kaplow

We did eventually find someone who didn't cry. A soft spoken man named Faraz Khaldoon with a shiny spacious store, full of ice cream soda and canned goods from Syria and Turkey. Even condiments from the US. But even him, when we ask him how it's going, he says with a laugh--

Faraz

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Translator

About 85% bad.

Larry Kaplow

In the six months since he opened his shop, two bombs have gone off nearby, one of them shattering his windows. The city's decrepit power grid surged and started a fire in the store. And bombings in the market downtown led the Iraqi army to close off a bunch of the roads. So when he tries to restock his store, to run his business, it takes a Rube Goldberg series of motorbikes and trucks.

Nancy Updike

He told us the same thing a lot of people did. The snake oil salesman, our translator Sarah, people in the Mayor's office, the park and stores, hardworking middle-class people. He wants to leave Iraq. Most of these people won't be able to leave. But they want to. And there are a lot of them.

[MUSIC - "WEN INTI, HABIBIT UMRI? (WHERE ARE YOU, THE LOVE OF MY LIFE?) BY HUSSAM AL-RASSAM]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program today was reported in Iraq by Larry Kaplow and Nancy Updike, produced by our Senior Producer, Julie Snyder and Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Shawn Wen. This song you're hearing is by Hussam Al-Rassam, one of the biggest Iraqi pop singers. It's a love song.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website: thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he is not just our boss. He is not just a great public radio professional. He is also a part time professional mind reader.

Man

Your thoughts are very nice.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.