Monday, August 17, 2009
The helicopter ride from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone was the first indication that life has improved for the Iraqis. When last I took that ride in December 2006, during what General Odierno refers to as the "dark days," the streets were largely empty, barricades were prevalent, and evidence of explosions was everywhere. Now from the air I could see many cars on the roads, people congregating in front of cafes and stores, and intact buildings and fewer checkpoints. Still I had only to look at the gunners manning the open helicopter windows to be reminded that Iraq is still a dangerous country.
Upon arrival in the Green Zone, we went immediately into a briefing with General Ray Odierno, the Commanding General of our forces in Iraq, and our new Ambassador Chris Hill, a 1974 graduate of Bowdoin.
I first met Gen. Odierno in 2003, and he is on his third tour of duty in Iraq, having served 45 months (not consecutively but still an astonishing amount of time.) Although proud of the progress made by American and Iraqi troops, he looked tired and thin, and I was glad to hear that he was going on leave next week.
He told us that the withdrawal of American combat troops from all Iraqi cities had met the June 30th deadline and generally had gone better than he had expected. The number of violent incidents is at an all-time low although the number of Iraqi civilian casualties per incident has climbed because the insurgents and Al Qaeda are choosing "soft" (lightly guarded or otherwise vulnerable)targets with lots of civilians.
We discussed the restraint shown by the Shiites in respond to sporadic attacks by Al Qaeda intended to spur retailiation against the Sunnis.
Another topic was the continuing tensions over the future of oil-rich Kirkuk, which is predominately Kurdish.
American troops twice have had to avert clashes between the Kurdish militia and the Iraqi Army in recent months.
I raised the issue of Iraqi refugees. More than a million educated, middle-class Iraqis fled to neighboring countries, particularly Syria and Jordan, to escape the war. Since their skills would help to bring prosperity and stability to Iraq, I asked what steps Iraqi officials were taking to encourge their return home. (I believe the number returning is also an important measure to evaluate how safe Iraq is becoming.) Ambassador Hill said that only about 20,000 had returned since the beginning of the year. Both he and Gen. Odierno urged me to raise the issue with the Prime Minister whom we would be meeting with next this evening. They suggested that the Prime Minister, who heads a Shiite political party, is not pursuing the return of the refugees, who are largely Sunnis, because he wants to get past next January's elections first.