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U.S. Forces in Baghdad Keep Ear on Iraq Testimony

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For some perspective on today's testimony, we're joined by NPR's Anne Garrels. She's embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division in east Baghdad.

Anne, thanks for being with us.

ANNE GARRELS: I'm delighted to be with you.

BLOCK: And, Anne, let's talk about some of what General Petraeus said today. One thing he mentioned, the military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met. He talked about a drop in security incidents - his phrase -over the past several weeks. Does that jibe with what you've been seeing and hearing when you've been there?

GARRELS: Yes, it does. Most people - most commanders here say that things have improved. But they also say that the gains are still very fragile. The U.S. is still keeping a lid on sectarian fault lines, and they've seen spikes in - just as recently as July, so they say there could be spikes again. I mean - but the trend, they say, is very much in the right direction.

However, life for Iraqis, as General Petraeus said, is still circumscribed by fear. There are still too many, as he said, civilian casualties.

BLOCK: And I suppose it depends on what you're comparing this year to. I mean, as Ambassador Crocker said, 2006 was a bad year for Iraq, so 2007 is looking better.

GARRELS: That's right. It's slow. And I think when General Petraeus said it's downright frustrating, the troops I was with nodded in agreement.

BLOCK: They agreed that it is downright frustrating. You've been able to watch the hearing with troops from the 82nd Airborne?

GARRELS: That's right. I sat with them on a hot Baghdad night. A lot of the troops were out on patrol, on guard duty, but several of the senior officers and some of the young ones did watch.

BLOCK: And what was their reaction when General Petraeus talked about 30,000 troops possibly being withdrawn by next summer?

GARRELS: People were really relieved. A lot of the young soldiers were really scared that in fact they were going to be extended further. I mean, they're already serving here for 15 months at a stretch. And generally speaking, they thought that his timeline made sense.

A lieutenant colonel here said that we learned the danger of handing over to the Iraqi forces too quickly in the past. And I have to say the response, generally, was that Petraeus gave the most honest assessment, laying out the good and the bad that any American military commander here has done, which was sort of a tacit criticism of Petraeus' predecessors. One captain said to me, listen, we're finally engaged in counterinsurgency strategy head on and it's working. Let us make it work.

BLOCK: Let's turn to some of the talk about Iraq's political progress, and it was mostly Ambassador Ryan Crocker who talked about that. And he said that - in his view, Iraq's political path, generally, is upwards. He said although the slope of that line is not steep. Would you agree with that?

GARRELS: I think that Ambassador Crocker gave a more optimistic picture than the military commanders see. They're extremely frustrated. They are beginning to see real efforts at reconciliation at the lower level. And that, I think, has surprised General Petraeus, from what I understand, and others that the momentum is coming from the streets, in the neighborhoods, where you're finally getting quiet, tentative, once again, fragile talks between Shiites and Sunnis. That's not being reflected as much with the central government. And the military certainly is enormously frustrated that they are still basically taking the lead on economic development and that the government is not stepping up.

BLOCK: One thing that tends to come up in these discussions is talk of Anbar province and the success there in terms of getting Sunni tribal leaders to cooperate with the U.S. military. Is that a model, do you think - based on what you've been hearing from folks you've talked to - for what could happen in other parts of the country? They were pretty careful when they talked about Anbar today and how it might or might not be replicated.

GARRELS: Well, it's - they're actually trying to do it right where I am in Adhamiyah, here in east Baghdad. The question is, once again, will the central government support it? What they're trying to do is to get so-called volunteer Sunnis to protect their own neighborhoods, that they will eventually be incorporated into the Iraqi army. There are no firm promises on that. And they would like to see the central government be more forthcoming.

Right before General Petraeus' testimony, Prime Minister Maliki suddenly went to Anbar, promised lots of money, because the Sunnis want legitimacy. They want something to show for, you know, beginning to support the central government. They want more economic aid. He's promised it, but military commanders and politicians here say, you know, we'll wait and see if all those words are turned into deeds. They've made promises in the past. But the signs are better than they were.

BLOCK: Okay. Anne, thanks so much.

GARRELS: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Anne Garrels embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division in eastern Baghdad. 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.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Anne Garrels