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Impressions from Iraq: Part Three

SOURCE: AP/Dusan Vranic

General Ray Odierno, the commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, is seen during a press briefing at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, last year. Korb is writing a report assessing Iraq’s security situation for General Odierno and Iraq Ambassador Christopher Hill and will brief it on Saturday.

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Due to security concerns, precise locations and security precautions cannot be explained in detail in this post.

I’ve had two interesting discussions over the last four days that have led to some more impressions and points about Iraq, and I also met with some local Iraqi political officials. But before I get to that I want to say a little about Camp Victory.

I flew to Camp Victory in a Blackhawk on October 17, 2009, and then flew around the country in the helicopter over the next four days. The camp is located at Baghdad International Airport and has between 20,000 and 40,000 people (depending on who you ask), including General Ray Odierno, the commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, soon to be renamed U.S. Force-Iraq because we are the only military force still in Iraq and essentially have been the only force since we invaded.

The camp received its name in March 2003 when the U.S. military seized it on the way to Baghdad. I’m sure the soldiers who named it would be dumbfounded that 120,000 troops would still be here almost seven years later.

The first provocative conversation I had happened before leaving the embassy compound—where I’d been staying since my arrival—for Camp Victory on October 17. Our group spoke with an expert on the region who serves as an advisor to General Odierno. This individual is outspoken about the situation in Iraq and General Odierno deserves credit for having someone like that on his staff. Some of the points our speaker made in the discussion were:

  • Anyone who knew anything about Iraq would have told the Bush administration not to invade.
  • The Iraqis view us the same as the British—that is, another Western power who’s come to colonize Mesopotamia. But they believe we will not leave the country’s infrastructure in as good condition as the British did.
  • The Iraqi political leaders feel neglected because Obama does not hold the weekly video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that President George W. Bush did.
  • Vice President Joseph Biden gets some credit from the Iraqis for being proactive on the country.
  • Maliki has grown in stature and needed to become more powerful in order to get things done. If he loses in the upcoming elections, he will step aside peacefully because he does not control a militia.
  • Iraq is a fragile state, and it can become a stable or failed state depending on whether the government increases or decreases in legitimacy and competence. If it does not become more competent or regresses, there is danger of a coup. Losing legitimacy could lead to a civil war.

The second most interesting event over the last four days occurred at Camp Victory, where we had lunch with the Wounded Warriors. These are young men—eight soldiers and one marine—who were severely wounded in Iraq and whose physical wounds have been treated. They’ve come back to areas in Iraq where they were wounded to deal with the mental aspect of their wounds.

I was fortunate to sit between two brave young soldiers in their early 20s, one who had lost a leg and another whose face had to be completely reconstructed. Their mood was surprisingly upbeat and both said they were well cared for by the Army and Veterans Administration (one who was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center even said the conditions there were not as bad as reported by the Washington Post). Both were retired by the Army and one was 90 percent disabled, the other 100 percent.

Their only problems centered on getting funds from both the Army and the VA simultaneously—that is, military retirement pay and disability pay (called concurrent receipt) and access to educational benefits under the Webb-Hagel GI bill, which was passed after their retirement.

Their former brigade commander, who was at the lunch, estimated that 75 percent of the soldiers in his brigade, even those that were not physically wounded, had mental problems.

My living quarters at Camp Victory were, to say the least, spartan. The former generals and ambassadors on our team stayed in the palaces while we plebeians were in glorified trailers with three bunk beds in a room about half the size of a small meeting room and with the facilities outside about 50 yards away. I have not slept on the top bunk since Officer Candidate School.

On the other hand, the food here and at the embassy is great and the lobby has a television where I watched the New York Yankees win twice at 12–1 a.m. eastern standard time (7-8 a.m. Baghdad). The game they lost was on while I slept.

While at Camp Victory, we took trips to four places to visit the provincial reconstruction teams, which are joint civilian and military teams tasked with providing economic, governance, and security support in their areas of responsibility. We also met with their military supporters and with local political officials from Kirkuk, Basra, Najaf, and Baghdad. Some of my impressions from the visits are:

  • About half the U.S. troops we spoke with would rather be involved in the “real fighting” in Afghanistan. Most are not into supporting PRTs and assisting the Iraqis.
  • As we reduce our military footprint, the number of PRTs and their funding will be reduced, thus limiting the effectiveness of the remaining PRTs. This reduction will occur because the military units provide a great deal of support and use commanders’ emergency response program funds from the Defense Department to help the PRTs. After the withdrawal, the State Department will have to absorb these costs with a limited budget.
  • The political leaders in each area complained about lack of funds from the U.S. and Maliki governments.
  • The politicians in Kirkuk think we owe them because they helped us overthrow Saddam Hussein and want us to solve the political and economic stalemate in Kirkuk for them.
  • Politicians in Najaf want their own consulate.
  • Officials in Basra claim that half the Iraqi revenues come from there but the city receives less than 10 percent of the overall budget.
  • The Iraqis do not call on our troops very much because they see it as a sign of weakness.

Our group will spend the next two days writing a report on our assessment of the country’s security situation for General Odierno and Iraq Ambassador Christopher Hill and will brief it on Saturday.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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