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“Iraq Is a Shattered Country”–Nir Rosen on Obama Declaring an End to US Combat Mission in Iraq

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President Obama declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq Tuesday night in the second Oval Office address of his presidency. Although tens of thousands of US troops, special operations forces and private contractors remain in Iraq, Obama announced that Operation Iraqi Freedom is now officially over. We go to Baghdad to speak with independent journalist Nir Rosen. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: President Obama declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq Tuesday night in the second Oval Office address of his presidency. Although tens of thousands of US troops, special operations forces and private contractors remain in Iraq, Obama announced that Operation Iraqi Freedom is now officially over. In doing so, he said he was fulfilling his campaign promise to end the war.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Seven-and-a-half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night. A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives. Tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested.

    These are the rough waters encountered during the course of one of America’s longest wars, yet there has been one constant amidst these shifting tides: at every turn, America’s men and women in uniform have served with courage and resolve. Because of our troops and civilians, and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people, Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

    So, tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over. And the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country. This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen the Iraq’s security forces and support its government and people. That’s what we’ve done.

    Our combat mission is ending, but our commitment to Iraq’s future is not. Going forward, a transitional force of US troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s security forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians. Consistent with our agreement with the Iraqi government, all US troops will leave by the end of next year. As our military draws down, our dedicated civilians — diplomats, aid workers and advisers — are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government, resolves political disputes, resettles those displaced by war, and builds tied with the region and the world.

    Ending this war is not only in Iraq’s interest; it’s in our own. The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people. We have sent our young men and women to make enormous sacrifices in Iraq and spent vast resources abroad at a time of tight budgets at home. We persevered because of a believe we share with the Iraqi people, a belief that, out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibilities.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Vice President Joe Biden is meeting with Iraqi officials in Baghdad today to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony to mark the start of what’s being called “Operation New Dawn.” But not all Iraqis see the drawdown of US troops as a new beginning or much of a change at all.

    IRAQI CIVILIAN: [translated] We are still an occupied country. Therefore, whether the US Army withdraw or not, we remain an occupied country. Only when the last US soldier leaves Iraqi bases and no US bases remain in the country, then we can say that the US troops have withdrawn. Now the US Army is still here, and the country is occupied, and it will remain occupied.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For more, I’m joined on the line from Baghdad by independent journalist Nir Rosen. He’s been covering the Iraq war since 2003. He’s now a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. His forthcoming book is called Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.

Nir Rosen, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you respond to what President Obama said last night in his Oval Office address and what you’re seeing on the ground in Iraq right now?

NIR ROSEN: Well, I was offended by it. He spoke mostly about American soldiers and their suffering and their sacrifice, and the only time he came even close to mentioning that Iraqis had a hard time these last seven years is when he mentioned their resilience. He said that the US has paid a high price, a huge price. Not as huge as the Iraqis have paid. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed. Tens of thousands of Iraqis who were rendered in American detention, their lives ruined for years, children who didn’t know where their fathers were. A couple of million displaced internally and abroad. Iraq is a shattered country. He said we persevered because we share a vision with the Iraqi people. Most of the Iraqi people, their vision has been, for the last seven years, that the Americans would withdraw.

Now, really, nothing has changed, obviously, from one day to the next. You have 50,000 troops who remain here. When Iraq occupied Kuwait, the Americans said that as long as there’s one Iraqi soldier left in Kuwait, Kuwait remains occupied. So the presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq forecloses many options, precludes many options for the Iraqis, with the implied threat. At the same time, the Iraqi security forces, I think, would like to have a continued relationship. And while Iraq is sort of occupied, it’s also sort of sovereign. You don’t see —- you haven’t seen really for the last year in most parts of the country American soldiers on the ground. So, nothing changed today. The big change, you could say, was a year ago, when the Americans withdrew from cities and mainly stayed on bases. And we’ve had a test since then of the Iraqi security forces in their ability to handle the situation. And I’d say they, more or less, can handle it. It’s not very pretty -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Nir Rosen, Nir Rosen, we’re having a little bit of trouble hearing you. The line from Baghdad is breaking up a little bit. We’re going to try and reconnect with you to get a better audio quality on the line.

This is Democracy Now! We’re going to go to a break for sixty seconds. When we come back, more from independent journalist Nir Rosen. Stay with us.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Our guest on the line from Baghdad is Nir Rosen, independent journalist who’s covered the Iraq war since 2003.

Nir, we have you on a better line right now. Can you just pick up where you left off? You’ve also written recently about Iraq, saying that Iraq remains in a twilight zone, neither completely sovereign nor completely occupied. What do you mean?

NIR ROSEN: Well, I mean, the [inaudible] Americans [inaudible] on the street, for the most part, [inaudible] arresting people, kicking down doors. And that’s been the case for the last year. So — and the Americans also have been complaining for the last year that they’ve lost their leverage. I would say that the sort of occupier-puppet relationship is no longer the case. The Iraqi government does have a quite a bit of authority. The Iraqi security forces are all over the place. They’ve filled the security vacuum. They’re the ones providing security, to the extent that it exists here. So it’s not an occupation in a sense of a constant physical presence of American soldiers on the street conducting operations, for the most part. But at the same time, obviously, the presence of 50,000 soldiers precludes many options for Iraqis, with the constant implied threat.

And on the other hand, it’s also perhaps a reassuring element for the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi air force, the Iraqi navy are still quite weak. The Iraqi intelligence assets are still quite weak. So the Iraqi security forces certainly believe they require a bit more American assistance to handle outside threats. But in terms of handling security within Iraq, the Iraqi security forces have been doing that. It’s not pretty. They’re corrupt. They’re brutal. But they seem to be able to handle it. There’s no real threat of an insurgency overturning the new order, whatever that new order might be. Iraq remains stable at this level. I wouldn’t call it nice. Violence is terrible. There are no services. Life is really horrible for many Iraqis, perhaps most of them. But this level of violence is stable, and I think we’ll likely see an improvement, as well.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Nir Rosen, what about basic services in Baghdad right now, like water —-

NIR ROSEN: —- [inaudible] Obama made no mention of the suffering of Iraqis. None whatsoever.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Nir, well, talk about that suffering. I mean, there was a — you’ve documented closely the civil war that gripped Iraq a few years ago, as well as the refugee crisis that the war spurred. What has Iraq gone through in these past seven years?

NIR ROSEN: It’s become a [inaudible]. There’s not a [inaudible] I meet that hasn’t [inaudible] touched by [inaudible] having a loved one killed or beheaded or wounded in an explosion. There’s not a trip I make to Iraq where I don’t have to delete somebody’s name from my cell phone because they’re dead. Every time, there’s a few new names. Everybody has been touched by it.

Life, in most ways for people, has gotten much worse. In terms of services, most places here have one hour of electricity a day. People can’t go to sleep at night — it’s like 120 degrees — until 3:00 in the morning or quite late, because they’re waiting for the power to come back just so they can turn on the AC on. No sewage, dirty water, mounds of trash on the street. Baghdad and other areas are heavily militarized, which means that every minute or so when you’re driving, you get stopped by police or army. They search your car. Now, on the one hand, it’s reassuring; on the other hand, it’s just one more indignity and hassle the Iraqis have to go through to survive. And they don’t have the chance to think about the future. They have to think, in many cases, just about how am I going to get electricity today, how am I going to travel what should be a fifteen-minute trip across town that will take four hours because the city is so destroyed and shattered.

And, of course, there’s constant killing still, with silenced pistols, with magnetic sticky bombs, as they’re called. Nobody knows who’s doing it or why. Some of it’s mafia-related. Some of it’s political parties feuding with each other. Some of it, of course, is terrorist-related. Life remains quite scary for many Iraqis.

So, you have a competing trend, however, because despite the violence that’s quite scary, you also have life improving significantly since the peak of the civil war — people out until quite late. There’s a curfew at midnight in Baghdad, but until then, you have people out in many neighborhoods. It’s quite normal. New shops being opened, new cafes. Those who have money are no longer afraid to display their wealth. Obviously that’s a sign that criminal gangs are less of a threat than they used to be.

And you do have an Iraqi security force which is relatively competent and able to take out militias. And, in fact, they get many tips from citizens. I was talking to an Iraqi intelligence officer in one neighborhood and asking him if he was worried about the militias coming back, and he said no. Just recently, a former militia leader returned from Iran to the neighborhood, and he got over a hundred calls on his SIP line from people in the neighborhood letting him know.

So there are some improvements, but obviously Iraq deserves much better than this. In many ways, life was better under Saddam, certainly in terms of security, the cleanliness of the street. But I think it’s offensive to be celebrating this or even to be paying much attention to this day. It’s an artificial milestone. You still have 50,000 soldiers here. They consider themselves combat troops. I’d say that — their general says they’re combat troops on a non-combat mission. But they’re still authorized to to take preemptive action against any perceived threat. And in Mosul, it’s a real war. A friend of mine who’s on a base up there got killed — nearly got killed by a mortar just last night. In other parts of the country, you still see American military vehicles on the roads on patrol unescorted. So the Americans are still engaged in combat, and you have 4,000 American special forces troops who are going out with Iraqi special forces. Basically they can kill whoever they want, whenever they want. They’re nominally beholden to Prime Minister Maliki, but in fact they operate pretty much independently.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Nir Rosen, how has Iraqi society changed? You’ve written about how mixed Sunni and Shia neighborhoods no longer exist in Baghdad. And also your piece, one of your latest articles, is titled “Iraq’s New Generation of Despair.” What do you mean?

NIR ROSEN: Well, the youth [inaudible] especially [inaudible] so many children and young people, and they’ve seen death and corpses on the street and dogs eating corpses and their friends being shot and their friends being run over by tanks, or their mother has been hit by a stray bullet. And, of course, Iraq — Iraqis also suffered under the sanctions and the American bombings in '91 and ’98 and the Iran-Iraq War. So you have several generations have been exposed to war. But being exposed to occupation is much different, because it's constant. It’s right there outside, the soldiers kicking down your house and taking your father away.

I have one friend who’s eighteen years old, and his father was driving a taxi by the scene of an explosion in 2003. The Americans arrested all the men in the area. And a year later, the family decided he must be dead, because they hadn’t heard from him, so they held a funeral. And only two years afterward, he suddenly appeared home one night. And so, this kid lost his father for two years. He’d wake up at night and hear his father screaming every night, because he had been in Abu Ghraib and was tortured and was so traumatized. And this kid, himself, ended up spending three months in American detention, where he was beaten because he was suspected of being a terrorist.

Kids playing with guns everywhere. Kids who lost years of schooling because their neighborhoods were shut down, because they had to flee to Syria or Jordan. The educational level in Iraq has really deteriorated. It’s quite terrible. You have a lost generation here. And their options will be very limited as a result of that. The educated middle class, some were killed, many fled. But you talk to children, and they can very casually tell you about the various dead bodies they’ve seen, people being killed that they’ve seen, and it’s really quite sad.

In terms of what’s changed in Iraqi society, well, many mixed neighborhoods obviously are no longer mixed. Neighborhoods have been shattered, relationships shattered. There’s still some mistrust now. Iraqis say that the sectarianism is over. Iraqis also describe the civil war phase as the sectarianism. They’ll say, “My father was killed in the sectarianism,” or, “My father was killed in the Sunni-Shia.” And you ask them, “Is it over?” And they say, “Yes, the sectarianism is over.” Now, what they mean is that the sectarian violence is over. And I do believe that’s true. Iraqis say, “We understand now,” meaning that they no longer really respect those authorities, as we’ve seen from the election results, as well. They no longer respect militias. For the most part, Iraqis would rather have somebody secular and nationalist. At the same time, there is a lot of mistrust between the communities. Many Shias perceive Ayad Allawi, despite being Shia, as being a Sunni candidate. Many Sunnis fear that Shias are sort of loyal to Iran. You have wives who had to leave their husbands because they were a Sunni-Shia marriage. So the fabric of Iraqi society has really been torn apart. It’s very difficult to sort of regain that trust, when it was your neighbors who expelled you from your house, or the people you went to elementary school with who shot your brother in his front lawn.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Nir Rosen is an independent journalist who’s covered the Iraq war since 2003, now a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. His forthcoming book, being published in October, is Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World. Thank you, Nir Rosen.

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