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Fear and Mistrust Travels with Troops in Iraq

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

There is a harsh assessment of Iraqi troop readiness in today's Washington Post. Two reporters spent three days traveling with Iraqi and American soldiers in northern Iraq. Their story reveals profound distrust on the American side of the abilities and commitment of their Iraqi counterparts. And the Iraqi soldiers display fear and anger about the conditions under which they work. Washington Post reporters Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru wrote the story. They're both in Kirkuk in northern Iraq and join us by phone. And we're going to start with Steve Fainaru.

Steve, you were embedded with American soldiers from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Describe a bit where you were and what the military operation was.

Mr. STEVE FAINARU (The Washington Post): Well, we were in Beiji, which is a desolate town of about 140,000 people in northern Iraq. And the operation was--you go into the western part of Beiji and conduct a series of raids in which the Americans and the Iraqi company that they were working with would try to arrest terrorism suspects who had been working, they suspected, in a series of car bombs that had gone off in the area over the last several weeks.

BLOCK: The American soldiers that you were embedded with gave you pretty withering appraisals of how they see the Iraqi army's readiness. What did they tell you?

Mr. FAINARU: Well, I think that they were very candid that they were, to begin with, not ready; that they were very early on in a process; but more than that, that they lacked a certain dedication, they lacked courage. And one of the advisers even referred to the Iraqi army here as `preschoolers with guns.' And I think that that was reflective of sort of a wider view by the Americans about the people that they were training.

There was one incident in particular that I think was the turning point, where the Iraqis were attacked on a bridge, and instead of confronting the insurgents, they fled. Four of the soldiers disappeared, and the Americans had to go find them. That signified to many of the Americans that the Iraqis lack courage at this point. And I think for the Americans, in a situation like that, to run was simply unacceptable. When the leading American adviser returned to the base after the incident, he lined them up, then told them that they were cowards and referred to them as women and potentially wimps.

BLOCK: Steve, is it possible that expectations for Iraqi troop readiness are just too great? I mean, couldn't you say, look, they're doing pretty well given the circumstances, given the obstacles they have and the time that's been spent so far?

Mr. FAINARU: Yeah. I mean, I'm hesitant to make, you know, broad, sweeping generalizations about the entire country and the nearly 170,000 Iraqi security forces who are being trained. But in the areas where I've gotten a look at the training process that's going on, you hear a lot of this, that the process is moving very quickly, and that in many cases a lot of the American trainers feel that the process is simply moving too fast; that the US military is building an army from scratch here. And the expectation that they would be ready to take over in a short period of time is simply too great. And in this case, there was an expectation that this company would be able to control its own area of operations by the fall. And I think that most of the Americans in Beiji would agree that that estimate right now is wildly off the mark. One soldier told us that he thought that they definitely would not be ready when he leaves Iraq this year, and that he was anticipating he would be in Iraq within the next three or four years. And he didn't think that they'd be ready then.

BLOCK: Now, Anthony Shadid, you were traveling with the Iraqi army soldiers to get their side of the story. What are their complaints?

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post): I think most of the Iraqi soldiers felt that they were treated poorly. And that was often their biggest complaint. They live in a pretty bleak compound. Most of them were sleeping in two tents and the equivalent of an open-air barn. There was no shower. Drinking water was kind of scalding because the water tank was outside. And they felt their weapons were substandard. They kind of looked in envy at what the Americans had--armor-plated Humvees, the most modern weapons. And they were often saddled with 20-year-old AK-47s, Kalashnikovs.

I think at a deeper level, though, often the Iraqis would complain that they didn't feel they were respected by their American colleagues; that they were exposed to the same danger, that they were asked to do the same duties, but when they came back to the base, or when they were actually on the raids themselves, they felt like the Americans looked down on them, didn't feel that they were actually their equals.

BLOCK: You describe an incident where the Iraqi soldiers refused orders from the US soldiers to arrest everybody inside a mosque that they had searched. The Iraqi soldiers actually had a sit-down strike of a sort outside the mosque. How did they explain what they were doing there?

Mr. SHADID: Well, to the Iraqis, the very idea of going into a mosque with guns is uncomfortable to them. I mean, this is where they live; they know everybody in the neighborhood. And to be seen entering into a mosque--obviously, they're Muslims--is something that almost would border on sacrilege to a lot of them. In fact, one person told me that when the Americans asked them to arrest the leader of the mosque, they then sat down on the sidewalk and refused to do so. In the explanation of one of the soldiers, he said, `You know, we had to show the Americans that we wouldn't do this in the future. We had to teach them a lesson.' I asked him if they would ever enter a mosque to arrest people there. What they told me is that, you know, usually when the Americans will approach a mosque, they have a suspicion that somebody's inside. And to them, that was unacceptable. You had to be 100 percent sure. They said if they were 10 percent sure, or 20 percent sure, or 30 percent sure, that wasn't good enough for them, and it wasn't worth the repercussions they'd have to face once they went back to their homes and they had to explain why the entered a mosque to their neighbors and their family.

BLOCK: Had any of these Iraqi soldiers experienced threats, intimidation from their fellow Iraqis?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it was remarkable how many actually had faced these threats. And when I was sitting with them at the compound, their housing compound, nearly every one of them had received a letter warning them to quit the Iraqi army or to face an attack. They said they would attack them or their families. I was sitting one day with 15 of them. And of those 15, five had actually had their houses attacked. They're definitely targeted. And you often see the Iraqi soldiers on patrol wearing black masks or green handkerchiefs over their faces to hide their identity. And when they go into these houses, when they search these houses, they're searching the houses of their neighbors and their relatives. And there's a certain degree of humiliation in that.

BLOCK: Well, what keeps them going, then?

Mr. SHADID: I think money is the thing that keeps them going. It's basically the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police are the only jobs in town.

BLOCK: And are they committed to actually staying with the Iraqi army?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I was struck by, in our conversations, almost to a man, they were threatening to quit at this point. They said, `Two more weeks, and if conditions don't change, we're all going to quit.' I think there's a deeper question at stake here, and that's a lot of them ask themselves what are they fighting for. And I'm not sure they really know at this point. When you ask people what they want, when you ask these soldiers what they want, they basically wanted what they had before the war--not necessarily Saddam himself, but the stability, the security, the sense of knowing what was ahead that was there before the invasion. And that's probably what, you know, hangs over everybody there, is this sense of not knowing what's ahead, this sense of insecurity.

BLOCK: Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post, thank you both very much.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

Mr. FAINARU: Thank you.

BLOCK: Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru spoke with us from Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.