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Iraq a Year Later: Our Man in Baghdad

While media scrutiny has focused attention on November polls for the next U.S. president, the war over the future of Iraq continues to consume lives and money.

In July 2007, Larry Kaplow, 45, a longtime resident of Falls Church, spoke with the News-Press about his experience and perspective as a reporter in Iraq.

Kaplow served as the Iraq correspondent for Cox Communications from 2003 until he moved to his current work with Newsweek in May 2007.

A year later, as the new bureau chief for Newsweek in Baghdad, Kaplow caught up with the News-Press to share the latest tales and news from the world’s most dangerous wartime city.

Much has changed since last year, said Kaplow, who noted profound changes to the war’s daily operation and conditions on the ground in Iraq. He stressed, however, that a dubious future remains for a nation still wracked by poor services, government instability and the looming threat of Iranian power-play in Iraq, whose three main ethnicities – the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – are largely independent and weary of their counterparts.

The most apparent change over the past year has been a marked decrease in internecine violence across Baghdad and Iraq. While credit goes to the surge’s ability to quell violent factions, Kaplow pointed out increasing segregation among the ethnic groups: what had been deemed a “civil war” last year has gave way to ethnic cleansing of neighborhood blocks.

The U.S. war effort, which has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $500 billion so far, an estimate that is expected by budget analysts to expand into the trillions of dollars, has also reached a turning point, as politicians in Iraq and the United States debate timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a political solution to lingering rivalries in the Iraqi government.830kaplow.jpg

For his own part, Kaplow has taken on more administrative duties within Newsweek’s bureau office, but also has “more say in how the story is covered, which is a good opportunity,” said Kaplow, in an e-mail interview with the News-Press. Excerpts from the interview follow:

News-Press: The last time the News-Press caught up with you on July 18, 2007, Eisele’s article described the situation in Iraq as a “vicious civil war.” As Iraq enter the “next phase” of the war, how has that description changed?

Larry Kaplow: As it happens, July, 2007 was about the height of violence in Iraq, according to U.S. military accounts. It was really anarchy – convoys of militia would close off streets in broad daylight and kidnap entire offices of people. Large bombings occurred almost daily – sometimes several times a day.

Now, the sectarian violence has dropped steeply, just like most violence has across Iraq. The most important thing is that Iraqis notice it and comment on it. It’s still violent. There were several bombings and assassinations in Baghdad this week. But people feel better because it’s not as bad as it used to be. It’s all relative. But there is still deep sectarian bitterness that could flare into violence again. One of the several reasons for the decrease in sectarian fighting is that the Shiites militias largely won the battle in much of Baghdad.

 

NP: Last year, you were startled by “how much the security has deteriorated” in Iraq. Is there a feeling that post-surge Iraq is more secure or closer to political stability?

 

LK: Right, it’s better today, post-surge Iraq is safer, but there are big question marks about tomorrow. For Iraq to stabilize there has to be development on jobs, electricity, water. That might happen. Otherwise, the violence still occurring could easily escalate again and feed renewed general dissatisfaction in people’s lives. This has always been a race between efforts to put a country together and build faith in the system and the forces trying to tear it apart.

NP: Has there been progress toward securing basic services for Iraqis?

 

LK: Unfortunately, the services are not improving very quickly and in some areas have worsened. The state department says there’s about 9 hours of power per day in Baghdad, up from about 6.5 [hours] last year at this time, but usually even less actually gets to people’s homes and it’s very rough on them.

NP: What’s the status of the Iraqi government today? Is the political structure credible to Iraqis?

LK: They still plan on some kind of federalism but they haven’t sorted out how it will work, whether local provinces can form their own federations and such. But the main problem now is that there are nearly more than 20 areas of the country that both the Arabs and Kurds claim is theirs and want to govern. The Iraqi government is growing stronger, but it is also the scene of petty and major corruption. The court system is very weak and judges and witnesses are subject to intimidation. None of the political leaders has a lot of grass roots support and they’re basically still divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

NP: Whether U.S. troops begin to withdraw or not, what is the outlook for U.S. contractors and reconstruction projects?

 

LK: The money the U.S. had for construction in Iraq has nearly all be spent or committed so the role for American contractors will be winding down unless they get contracts from the Iraqi government. They’re still around in numbers, working on military contracts, but the bulk of the U.S. funded reconstruction is done.

NP: Could you encapsulate sentiments in Iraq towards the future of the country’s stability and the U.S. war effort?

 

LK: They’re daring to hope because they know how much things have improved from early 2007. But they remain skeptical.

They’re very skeptical of the U.S. here and believe that America came to Iraq for its own purposes, not to help Iraqis. The failures in security and utilities reinforced their doubts.

They’re trying to assess and calculate the future. It’s important to note that the vast majority of Iraqis who fled their homes and country have not returned – even though there is a pretty steady small stream of people returning and more are returning than leaving. (Well over 100,000 have come back – I don’t have the numbers handy – but it’s a small percentage of the millions who fled). Refugees are watching, waiting and calculating whether they can bet their lives on Iraq. That says something about how they see the future. Then again, some say more will come back when the temperature goes down a little. It’s been a hot summer and there’s little electricity to power air conditioners.

Reporters notice the improved security and notice the moderate but significant change in Iraqi attitudes.iraqbox.jpg

NP: You said last year that “it’s probably as hard to report from Iraq now as any other time.” Has that dangerous environment for reporters changed since last year?

 

LK: It’s much easier to report now but still much more restrictive than other places, even other conflict zones. As westerners, we still can’t stay in one place too long in most locations in public. You can’t sit in a restaurant and speak English in Baghdad. But you can ride around to most parts of the city now – a huge change from last year. I recently went to do some shopping in a grocery store I hadn’t been to in about 18 months (instead of sending Iraqi staff out to buy things). We can interview people in stores and offices and their homes and linger an hour or so if it’s a good area.

Last year, all but a few neighborhoods were too dangerous to do anything but make the quickest drive through.

In all this, I’m talking about travel in our own civilian cars. All along, we’ve done trips everywhere with the U.S. military.

NP: Has the U.S. election played any role in Iraq?

 

LK: I’ve found regular Iraqis to be skeptical that either Obama or McCain will change things for them. Some Iraqi politicians have surprised me by how little they know about the two candidates and sometimes they’ve ended up asking me about their various policies.

NP: How is your time as one of Newsweek’s correspondents in Iraq? Are you still coping well with the personal and professional demands?

 

LK: I hope so. I’ve been doing this since 2003, first with Cox Newspapers and, since May of last year, with Newsweek. The story really does just change drastically every six months or so. Look how different the questions are now than they were a year ago. It remains hard to figure out or predict and that keeps it interesting.

Newsweek’s been great to work for. There’s a lot of big collaboration with other reporters in the states and other foreign bureaus, and that can really work well to make a story complete.

NP: We heard that you were on leave recently back here in the States. Was it another relaxing break from the daily grind overseas?

 

LK: Yes, I was back in August and have been getting back to Falls Church about every six months. We get frequent breaks from Baghdad and that really helps recharge. When I get back to Virginia, I usually try not to focus on Iraq for a few days but then I have to start reading back up on what’s going on and thinking about what I should do when I return. It doesn’t take long to fall behind on the changes here. Otherwise, I take advantage of the many restaurants now around Falls Church that weren’t there when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.

NP: Do have any changes in personal opinion about the current viability of the Iraq state and the success or failure of the U.S. war effort?

 

LK: Well, trying to speak objectively from what I see on the ground, things are much better but I still think Iraq is going to need a lot of help. Iraqis haven’t had much control over what has happened to them and many have lost things they’ll never get back – loved ones, homes – no matter how this turns out. Much of the money the U.S. spent here did not result in tangible improvements for Iraqis. The electricity is still awful, the water is often contaminated and scarce, despite outlays of American money that was spent very ineffectively overall – and paid through U.S. contractors.

I think the best scenario now – and U.S. officials basically say this when you press them – would be a country that can hold itself together without spasms of ethnic cleansing and civil strife. For U.S. interests, about the best to expect in the short term – the next few years – is a country that won’t be used for Al Qaida bases and won’t pull the neighboring countries into some regional war or chaos. That’s what U.S. officials warn of when they say the U.S. can’t have a rushed disengagement from Iraq. But it will still have a lot of problems, including human rights abuses, corruption, weak rule of law and strong influence and meddling from Iran next door.

In the command hand-off ceremony the other day from Gen. David Petraeus to Gen. Ray Odierno, they repeatedly stressed how fragile and unfinished things are here. That doesn’t mean troops can’t be withdrawn at some rate. With the right diplomacy with Iraqi leaders and the neighbors – including Iran – it might help to pull soldiers out quicker. But it will take a lot of attention. It won’t be pretty here for a long time and could get really ugly again.

NP: What does the future hold for you: more time in Iraq?

LK: I expect I’ll still be doing this next year at this time, though by then I might be thinking of the next step. I do have some interest in following this through farther but I’m also interested in reporting from other parts of the world.