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War in Iraq: Next Week Makes Five Years


With just days to go until the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, here are the major headlines that made up the week in Iraq.

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STEWART: In additon to that attack mentioned in the newscast, Baghdad saw two other bombings that killed at least 16 people and wounded almost 50 during Iraqi patrols - at their checkpoints.


The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rapped up his landmark visit to Iraq on Monday, the first visit by an Iranian president since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. During his two-day stay he announced $1 billion in reconstruction loans to Iraq, and he signed several trade packs with what he called his brotherly neighbor. Ahmadinejad also called on all foreign forces to withdraw from Iraq immediately and denied U.S. allegations that Iran is training and funding extremists in Iraq's Shiite majority.

STEWART: Five days after withdrawing its troops from Northern Iraq, Turkey launched another round of air and artillery strikes on Wednesday, going after the Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called the attack a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He travels to Turkey today for previously planned two-day visit with Turkish officials.

MARTIN: Some 2000 troops from the U.S. Army paratrooper unit that led the U.S. troop surge into Baghdad last year are returning home. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, is currently heading back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and will not be replaced in the rotation.


STEWART: And a new report released by the Army yesterday on the mental health of soldiers finds that longer tours cause increased mental strain on U.S. troops. More than a quarter of the soldiers on their third or fourth tours in Iraq suffer mental health problems, partly because they are not getting enough time at home between deployments. 27.2 percent of soldiers are their third or fourth tour suffered mental health issues in '07. That compares to 18.5 percent of officers on their second tours and 11.9 percent on their first tours.

Now, do me a favor. Take a look at your calendar. Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Today it has cost the U.S. some $500 billion and the military almost 4000 lives. Iraqi civilian death are estimated to be as many as 223,000 according to the World Health Organization. While there is great debate about military strategy and budgets, for people living in Iraq it is about the basics: water, healthcare, electricity and money. Those subjects were the focus of a series of articles written by Alex Kingsbury from U.S. News and World Report. He just returned this week from his second month-long reporting tour there. And Alex joins us from NPR in Washington D.C. Hi, Alex.

Mr. ALEX KINGSBURY (Associate Editor, U.S. News and World Report): Hi.

STEWART: How are you?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Pretty well, how are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well. So cutting violence, moving towards autonomy, those are some of the larger goals for Iraq. But what about practical reconstruction, some of the things we mentioned in the intro? Tell our listeners how much bottled water did the U.S. hand out to Iraqis last year? What's going on with water supply?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Well, the water supply is one of those very indicative situations of how very far Iraq still has to go to get their country to some semblance of autonomy. Eighty percent of the population of Baghdad is served by one large reservoir area and that reservoir has about 12 pumps and a series of generators. And only one of the generators works, it only works at about half- capacity and that powers only one to two of these pumps that are needed to pump the water out into the city. There are also sort of filtration units that are supposed to clean the water, but they're sitting in a parking lot. There are three of them as big as a tractor-trailer truck, and the people that delivered them from Jordan reportedly also stole the filters out of them. So they just sit there idly in the parking lot waiting for them not to be used. I mean, they're totally useless. And that's just the water at one reservoir in Baghdad.

To talk about electricity, much of the city only gets an hour a day. So where do you want to start?

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STEWART: Sure. In terms of the water facility treatments, were they in a state of disrepair, or is this a result of war?

Mr. KINGSBURY: I think at this point it's fairly difficult to separate what's the cause of a lot of the infrastructure - just total collapse really. What's been done sort of changes depending on what you look at for... Electricity, for example, the initial idea of reconstruction was to rebuild these large power plants that served Baghdad and the outlying areas. And now they've moved to something called micro-generation which is smaller generators in the neighborhood, sort of disbursed and under the control of sort of these local neighborhood organizations. And that's been slightly more successful. But the reality is that many of these neighborhoods, and the good ones, you know, the ones that the Army likes to show off on the news, only get about one to two hours of city power a day. So if you think of everything - in the winter it's not so bad, but in the summer when you need air conditioning and to keep food cold and so forth, these are serious problems, especially for people who need to keep medication cold.

STEWART: Let's talk about healthcare since you brought up medication. You wrote a really poignant piece about people who are desperately in need of healthcare. And you mentioned in the report that nearly three-quarters of the critically wounded brought to Iraqi hospitals actually die. Could you explain how the war changed healthcare possibilities for those living in Iraq?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Well, it's difficult to say what it was like before the war, I wasn't there and don't know it extensively. But I can tell you what it's like now, and it's a shattered healthcare system. Thousands of thousands of doctors who worked in Iraq have fled, if they had the means to. And so the ones that remain are understaffed, overworked and don't have necessarily the equipment or the medication that they need to run these facilities. So a lot of them - a lot of the hospitals that we saw, and the clinics, just sort of sit empty. Or they have machinery there, but not all the machinery works. Or the people from another sect, either Sunni or Shia, control the replacement parts to the machinery, for example, or the re-supply capacities for medicines. So the healthcare is all tied into a lot of the sectarian strife that's sort of shredding the rest of the country.

And has a profound impact, not only on the critically injured, which is that statistic that you mentioned that most don't make it if they're taken to hospital, but the people with just regular diseases that need ongoing medical care. I mean, it's easy for any of our readers - or listeners - to imagine that anybody with a persistent medical condition that requires going to hospital, say once a month, once a week, dialysis, that sort of thing, all those people have nowhere to go in many of these areas.

STEWART: Another one of your reports discussed the exchange of money between soldiers and Iraqis of all stripes. It's a story that really hasn't received a lot of coverage. There are two issues here. There's one of microgrants, and there's one of money being given to certain Iraqis so that they won't engage in any sort of warfare, right?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Right. Well, essentially we're paying off former al-Qaida and former insurgent members not to attack us. I mean, it's really quite that simple. And the soldiers will talk quite openly about the sort of moral problems that they have with writing a check, or, in this case, handing out a wad of cash to former insurgent members.

It sort of works like this, there's the senior officer here, or a junior officer in this case, who walks around with literally a Army backpack full of wads of cash. And they distribute this money out in the form of microgrants, so it may be $2500, 2000 or less, to businesses to get them sort of jump-started. And they take fingerprint scans and iris scans of the people that they give out the money to. But that's essentially it. They don't have a whole lot of follow-up to see where the money goes. And a lot of these soldiers are quite frank and say, listen, you know, as long as they're not buying weapons with it, that could be a step in the right direction. And if it helps to get these shops up and moving and prime the economic pump a little bit, then we're moving in the right direction.

MARTIN: But Alex, why are they doing that and not U.S. aid agencies? I mean, how is that in the purview of the military, to be handing out microgrants?

Mr. KINGSBURY: Well, this is sort of the commander's - I forget the acronym - it's CERP money. It's essentially emergency funds that these commanders have the discretion to spend in the means they see best advantageous to achieving security in their areas. And for microgrants, it does seem to be working to a certain extent in that when you get these shops up and running people are - it gets more people out on the street and helps stabilize these neighborhoods a little bit.

The other aspect of this is that they're paying former insurgents and al-Qaida members to stand out there at checkpoints, in what's been termed the awakening cities, or Sunnis that are sort of brought back into the process. And it also involves not only paying them a salary, but also if they're killed, say in sectarian violence, if a Sunni kills a Shia, or vice-versa, and the person who's killed happens to be working for the United States, we pay a death benefit, essentially, to the members of these slain families. So it's quite a contradiction for a lot of these soldiers to be handing out this money.

STEWART: And before I let you go, I want to ask you about a very personal experience you had. You wrote and got to know a staff sergeant, Darrel Griffin. You met him 18 days before he was killed before a sniper. You were asked to speak at his funeral. What was that like for you?

Mr. KINGSBURY: That was quite difficult. That was a year ago, after my last trip over there - or first trip. And he was a guy that had done a tour already and was going back into the surge, when the surge really first began. And he was killed in Sadr City, which is sort of one of the hot spots of the surge, or was at the beginning, now it calmed down a little bit now. And yeah, he was killed.

We had done an interview with him. He seemed to be a really fascinating guy and had shared a lot of his photographs with us, sort of people that he had come across and battles that he fought, and people that he had killed and that sort of thing. Just a really interesting guy, and we did this long video interview with him for long particular story. And then he was killed, like I say, a week later after I got back. And I went out to speak at his funeral and share this video with his family. And it was quite an emotional moment.

Mr. KINGSBURY: Alex Kingsbury, associate editor for U.S. News and World Report where he's joining us from this morning. Thank you very much, Alex. We really appreciate you taking the time.

Mr. KINGSBURY: Sure, no problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.