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Iraq war chat

The Globe's Charles Sennott discussed the war at the five-year point

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March 17, 2008

Charles_Sennott Hi, this is Charles Sennott. Ready to try to answer any questions you might have about my recent reporting trip to Iraq.

pat Five years, billions of dolars, thousands of lives and Iraq is still nowhere close to peace or democracy. Was it worth all this and will the US ever pullout?

Charles_Sennott Some of these questions are above my pay grade. But a few of the facts are: 2 trillion dollars (according to Linda Bilmes of Harvard's JFK School) and we are just about at 4,000 lives of US troops and by conservative estimates 100,000 Iraqi lives as well as more lives of other international troops and contractors and journalists.

Charles_Sennott Was it worth it? The question hangs over Iraq and over the American presidential race and to some extent will be answered by Americans in the election. For Iraqis, the answers I heard on the street might surprise you. Many say they are very thankful to be rid of Saddam but just as many feel the US invasion was poorly planned and ill conceived and based on mis-perceptions. There is consensus in Iraq on all sides that many mistakes were made. The question how to fix it?

marko given the roiling financial markets, is the average iraqi impacted by global economic factors? or are they still mostly trying to get by day-to-day?

Charles_Sennott There is a very important report released today by the International Red Cross which spells out just bleak the economic situation is for Iraqis. This is a country which sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the world and should be using those resources to better the lives of their people. The US funding is in the hundreds of billions over the last five years. And still when I visit Iraqis in poor neighborhoods they have very few services. Widows for example get no support at all. Children who suffered trauma from bombings or the war around them get very little in the way of help. The Iraqi government has access to considerable funds, but its system of governance is too broken (and in many places corrupt) to deliver it to the people. And many critics would say the US is not doing a good enough job ensuring that the money gets to the people and that the electricity and water projects we are funding are actually getting completed on time and anywhere near on budget. There is a lot of blame to go around.

WorriedDad Have any of the presidential candidates, McCain, Obama or Hilary come out said they wouldn't reinstate the draft?

Charles_Sennott I have not heard any candidate be pushed on this question very hard. And it is my sense that they should be. Only one percent of our country is fighting this war and the servicemen and women and their families are carrying an extraordinary burden for our country. The new question to be asked in the debate on the draft is this: What about a new model of national service. A system in which college tuition and other benefits are offered to those who serve the country, not only in the military but also in the many projects that need to be done in our country and around the world. Teaching in schools. Building in New Orleans. Working in new Peace Corps like programs. City Year in Boston is a great model. I would hope to city national service be taken up by the media and presented to the presidential candidates. Clinton and Obama have both voiced support for the idea, but they and McCain should be pressed on details. I think it would be good for our country.

freddie In your story, you seemed to intone the war is going well, that reconciliation efforts are working. Do you see the war as a success, with an end in sight?

Charles_Sennott I tried to honestly and fairly present what I heard on the ground from US military and diplomatic officials and Iraqi members of parliament and Iraqi families and just plain people caught up in the war. And what I heard and saw was that the "surge" strategy was having considerable success. The question now is: Can it hold?

Charles_Sennott I do not see the war as a success. The invasion was based on a flawed strategy that , in retrospect, most people -- from military officials to political analysts and journalists on the ground -- would certainly say was built on bad information. There is no question that for the last five years it has led to a disastrous outbreak of sectarian violence and chaos and carnage. Is there an end in sight? I don't know. But I think there is a beginning in sight, a beginning of some hope that I heard expressed in the Iraqi people. The hope is that the sectarian killing can be brought to an end so that perhaps they can find a way to build a new future for their country.

henry Are there any signs the Iraqis will be ready to take more responsibilty for defense?

Charles_Sennott Yes, the surge of troops is not only 30,000 US troops. It includes 100,000 Iraqi troops. The Iraqi military has a very long way to go. The US officials in the early days of occupation made a fateful and ultimately disastrous decision to refuse all former Baath Party officials to join in the future of the military and security forces in Iraq. The US officials know that was a mistake now and have sought to correct it. But the endeavor in Iraq lost many years to violence as a result of these miscalculations in the early years of the US presence in Iraq.

JTN I heard a poll on the radio today that 53% of Iraqis feel the US troop surge has not improved safety in their country. That number is actually better than a previous poll, which had 70% (or so) saying the troop surge hadn't improved the situation. Is this evidence to prove that Bush/others were right about simply needing time to let the plan work?

Charles_Sennott I have not seen that poll. But it suggests improvement in public opinion in Iraq about the viability of the surge strategy. I don't know if that is evidence that "Bush/others were right," as you say. But what is undeniable is that violence -- by any measure is reduced -- and that is good for the Iraqi people and all of the troops stationed there trying to help Iraq create a new future.

cape Is there any evidence that things will fall apart if we continue to pull troops out of Iraq? What do analysts say about the country's infrastructure/leadership and how it will continue to rebuild in the coming years? Any concensus out there as to when U.S. troops will officially be out of Iraq completely?

Charles_Sennott If you have time, please read my story in the Globe on Sunday. Many of these questions are explored in depth. And in more detail than I can provide here.

Charles_Sennott The infrastructure in Iraq is a mess. It was badly neglected by Saddam's regime and is more difficult than the US officials originally thought to rebuild. This is particularly true of the oil industry infrastructure, the pipelines and the refineries and shipping ports. Iraqi leadership has for too long squandered an opportunity to come together to rebuild their own country. But as Ambassador Crocker pointed out in our interview, there are signs that they are doing better. The most key indicator is the far reaching legislation that was passed last month.

Wally1234 How are the living conditions for the majority of peace keepers? Is the Green Zone any safer than most streets

Charles_Sennott What do you mean by "peace keepers?" If you mean US troops. I can tell you that those connected to the surge are living within the communities where they are posted. That has brought more peril, but it has also brought them closer to the people. And the troops I saw in the field were outstanding at connecting with the people and helping them facilitate reconciliation. Again, if you have time, please read the article I wrote on Sunday.

Charles_Sennott And, yes, the Green Zone is infinitely more safe than most streets. The Green Zone has Subway and Pizza Hut and a huge perimeter of concrete and barbed wire and troops. And the Iraqi streets are every day open to the peril of suicide bombers and IEDs.

orville_hamner The media concentrates on baghdad, but what about the rest of the country? How's that looking?

Charles_Sennott Good question. While violence decreases in Baghdad, it is escalating in the northern city of Mosul. It seems Al Qaeda in Iraq and other elements have sought to regroup there. But the good news, according to military officials on the ground, is that means AQI is on the run. The south has different problems, which are largely based on corruption and competition for control of resources and violence that can grow out of that. The Northern Kurdish areas have had a spate of bombings, but they also have had a lot of stability and improvement in their lives. The invasion last month by Turkish troops pursuing Kurdish insurgents hiding in Iraq poses a potential for instability. But that seems to have quieted now that those Turkish troops -- or at least most of them -- appear to have left.

778_gg Once and for all: Was the Iraq war just an oil grab for the US?

Charles_Sennott I don't think it was "just an oil grab."

Charles_Sennott But I think it is delusional to think that long term security for the US oil supply was not a factor in invading the country. The plans to invade, as we now know through investigative reporting and memos that have come out from the Bush administration, indicate the plan to invade was being considered before 9-11. And we know that no weapons of mass destruction have been found. And in a recent report we learned that Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before 9-11. So we as journalists have to continue to push hard for answers to these questions. Why did we invade? Why was our intel so poor -- or manipulated -- in the run up to the war? This reporter believes we should push harder for answers.

Charles_Sennott But after many years covering the region I keep coming back to a feeling that it would be inaccurate to believe that oil is the only factor. The tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the industrial killing of innocent people that he carried out was a real international outrage that many in the US government and the Iraqi exile community felt needed to be confronted. The regional instability and potential for Iraq to become a base for terrorism under his rule was certainly another aspect of the US decision to push for an invasion despite warnings from so many allies.

Charles_Sennott The world oil markets are complex, too complex for me to fully understand. But oil is what moves underground in the Middle East and it is the force that gives shape to our relations to the region and its leaders. To not recognize that would be absurd.

Charles_Sennott Not sure if that answers your question. It's the best I can do.

Paul_G How much of the reduction in violence can be attributed to neighborhoods being already cleansed and Sadr's cease-fire as compared to the increased troop levels?

Charles_Sennott This is a very fair question for General Petraeus and Amb. Crocker when they come to Washington next month to testify about the surge. I don't think I spent enough time on the ground to fully answer it. My impression is that there was ethnic cleansing for sure and the cease fire is critically important to tamping down violence. But the US troop increase is important in tamping down violence as well. Please read my article on Sunday which was about the Rashid district on the southern fringe of Baghdad. There, the community is both Shia and Sunni and they live side by side and they were a red hot zone of sectarian violence just six months ago. What I saw there and the efforts made by the Black Lions commanded by LTC Patrick Frank were very encouraging. They have built a reconciliation hall and worked hard to bring the communities together.

kaka_rick In your Boston Globe magazine sty on Empires fall, you proposed that both the Roman and the British empires fell due to conflict in Iraq,will it be any diffrent for America

Charles_Sennott Kaka Rick This is an excellent question and you are clearly a loyal reader. So thanks for that. My magazine piece a few years ago suggested that we were entering "The Perils of Empire" as the title put it. And now I would say we are fully engulfed in those perils. No country can occupy another country successfully for long. Read history and that becomes glaringly true. Unless overwhelming force is brought in to do that. And to do that -- to seek to occupy a country -- runs completely contrary to the birth narrative of our own country which rose up against an empire. So in the end of the day, the longer we stay as occupiers in Iraq the more we undercut the ideals of our past. Based on my reporting, I would say we need to find the fastest way possible to fix as best we can the country we helped to break and give the Iraqi people and their government a tool kit to go forward and continue to mend and build their own future. Then get out. If we stay too long, (and we are dangerously close to that) we will have fallen to the perils of empire.

huerconan Did you read the Times' story on Sunday about how insurgents are using gas profits to fund their armies? Did you get any inkling of this when your were in Iraq? How do we stop them?

Charles_Sennott I did read this article. It was excellent. And Rich Oppel is a tremendous reporter. Heb is doing the kind of work there that can only be done when a journalist is based in country on the ground. And I think we owe him and the other reporters over there working hard to find truths a debt of gratitude. I was only there for two weeks as the Globe has shut down its foreign operation and no longer has a bureau in Baghdad. So thanks for pointing out excellent journalism.

Charles_Sennott That the insurgents are morphing into criminal gangs is a dangerous development but it also is not surprising if you read the history of other insurgencies from the IRA in Northern Ireland to the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza.

Maeve Watertown Cable Access TV had the Winter Soldiers Hearing(Silver Spring , MD aired this weekend. The info seemed new. Why isn't it in the main-stream media?

Charles_Sennott The Winter Soldier Hearing was very important and I know quite a few of the veterans involved. This information was passed on to editors at the Globe and a reporter was assigned. I think there was coverage over the weekend, but I will follow up and check.

Charles_Sennott The time is up here. These were great questions. Thanks.

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