Islamic State Was Fueled By 'Epic American Failure In Iraq,' Reporter Says
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Among the atrocities committed by the group ISIS was the capture and mass execution of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in June. One soldier who managed to survive by playing dead told his story to my guest, Tim Arango, the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Arango has been reporting from Iraq for nearly five years and has served as Bureau chief since 2011, the year the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal from Iraq.
He's watched the rise of ISIS, and he's covered the Iraqi government, which, under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was corrupt and sectarian, persecuting Sunnis. ISIS, which is a Sunni group, has been able to exploit the Sunni's anger at the government. A new government was formed earlier this week after President Obama said he would not provide additional support unless the government become more inclusive. Tonight, the president will address the nation about a strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS.
Tim Arango, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the story you recently wrote about the survivor of an ISIS massacre of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. How did you find this survivor?
TIM ARANGO: Yeah that story came about because, you know, we have stringers, local Iraqis around the country in different communities. And we're in touch with them almost daily to just talk to them about what they're hearing and seeing in their communities. And one of our guys in the South of Iraq, you know, mentioned this guy to us and said, you know, you might want to meet him and hear his story.
And I drove down there to his town to meet him, and, you know, we knew something about this massacre because it happened right after Mosul fell in June. And it briefly got a lot of attention. We had a front page story on it. And then there was so much going on in Iraq that it sort of fell away. No one really looked into exactly what happened. And the scenes that ISIS, the group who did the killing, released in terms of videos and photos just show this horrendous scenes of industrial scale killing.
And so, you know, I was really eager to hear what he had to say, and I also went into it with a little bit of skepticism as well. And so - yeah, so we drove down and heard his story, and at the same time a video journalist had - for us, had interviewed him as well. It was just such a gripping, gripping story and one of those miracles. And by focusing on one individual and his personal story, you can tell the bigger story of what ISIS is doing and what the effect is.
GROSS: So his name is Ali Hussein Kadhim. He's 23. He had joined the Iraqi military 10 days before the massacre. He and hundreds of other soldiers were rounded up by ISIS. How did ISIS capture them?
ARANGO: Yeah, that was another part of the story that was just amazing to me, and that I didn't - I hadn't understood because, you know, there were, like, thousands of Iraqi soldiers on this base in Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein's hometown, called Camp Speicher. And after these guys capture - ISIS captured Mosul and they started making their march South, the soldiers on this base where Ali was started freaking out.
You know, there's still a lot more information, you know, to come as people figure out in the years ahead of what exactly happened. But these guys took off their uniforms. Ali and others have claimed that they were told they would be safe and that local tribes said they would be safe. And so they took our uniforms, left their guns, put on mostly tracksuits and walked out of the base and walked down the street, you know, they said they were going to try to get to Baghdad, which is like - I don't know - 100 miles South - something like that.
And as they were walking - and there's scenes of - there's some video. I don't know if it's cell phone video. But it's just, like, thousands of these guys just walking down the street in, like, sandals and tracksuits. And then apparently they were rounded up and put in trucks. And at first, they were told they would be safe - that we're going to get you to Bagdad, and you'll be fine.
And of course they weren't fine. It's just a horrific, horrific massacre - what happened there in Saddam Hussein's palaces. There's this huge complex of his palaces there, and that's where the killing occurred.
GROSS: So once they were captured by ISIS, they were divided up between Sunni and Shia. The Shia were massacred. What about the Sunni soldiers?
ARANGO: Well, there's a whole back story to that, too, and - or a little bit more texture to that. They - you know, it's not always obvious if you're a Sunni or a Shia by looking at you or hearing you speak or looking at your name. Sometimes it is, but not always.
And so there were many, many - at first, many of the Shia claimed to be Sunni, hoping that it would save their lives. And then when they realized they would have to take a test - they'll give a test - ISIS - to determine if you're Sunni or Shia if there's any sort of - you know, if they're unclear about it. And one...
GROSS: Like to quiz you to see whether you're...
ARANGO: To quiz you. Like, how do you pray and that kind of thing, and how do you wash before praying - that kind of stuff. And most of the Shia just - and Ali told me this, too. He was like yeah, yeah. At first he was like, I'm Sunni. And then he realized he would not be able to pass the test. So he didn't bother, and a lot of them didn't bother. But there were a couple of guys at the massacre where Ali was who were able to convince them that they were Sunni. So those guys survived - I think there were maybe three or four of them.
GROSS: Describe what Ali Hussein Kadhim told you about the massacre itself.
ARANGO: What he said was they were first put in trucks and bound by - with handcuffs behind their back. And there's pictures of this. They look like, you know, they're treating them like cattle. And they're shipped off and - to the palace complexes. And then they're sitting there. And they would start taking them in groups of 10 out to - you know, out to the grounds outside.
And while Ali was sitting inside with the others, you could hear the gunshots, and they knew what was going on, and they were just waiting to be killed. And then they would lead them out, you know, in a line. And there's pictures of this that ISIS released.
And then Ali - as he told his story, he was leaning down. He was number - I think he was number four of 10. And as the first person was shot, he says he turned his head just slightly, and blood spattered on his face. And he also, at that moment - I believe he also saw another gunman with a video camera filming it. And then he was just waiting. He said he saw his daughter's face in his mind, and he was kneeling down, and he felt another bullet wiz by his head, and he just fell forward. And the bullet didn't hit him, but he was covered in the other guy's blood. So he looked like he was hurt. And so he just - you know, he played dead until he was able to run away.
GROSS: Now you mentioned he saw that one of the gunmen had a video camera. And one of the just bizarre and grotesque things about ISIS is that they make sure to have a videographer on hand to document their massacres and their beheadings. And there was a time not long ago when massacres were covered up. And human rights groups and reporters had to uncover evidence about a massacre. It just amazes me that they want to document it and show an edited version to the world.
ARANGO: Yeah, it's amazing, and hopefully it's evidence for future prosecutions if these guys ever - you know, ever are going to face trial. But that's true. That's really one of the things that has struck me is why they want to put this out in the open because, as you said in the past, it was tried to - you know, people tried to cover it up, and then they would deny it. And it took years sometimes of trying to discover and see what's happened.
GROSS: So you write that the story of this massacre tells a lot about the woeful state of the Iraqi military. What's the story about the Iraqi military the massacre tells us?
ARANGO: Well, first, the Iraqi military was created by the Americans - I think $25 billion. And the whole scope of what's going on, starting with - not just with Mosul in June, but before that, was that the Iraqi army was not capable of fighting these guys. And in this case the - Ali and the others were told by some of their officers, you should put your guns down and leave, and you'll be fine - not to stay and fight, not to stay and not to just stay in the base.
And the other thing I should have mentioned - we were just talking about this where I meant to - was a really, really remarkable thing about Ali's story is that if they had just stayed on the base, they would have been fine. The base is still in control of the central government. Maliki, who's now the former Prime Minister, but a week or two ago went there to the base and renamed it. And so they didn't have to put down their guns and walk out the front gate to be slaughtered. So I think that tells a lot about this institution.
GROSS: For the people who stayed behind in the places that ISIS have taken over, what are their lives like? Do you have any idea?
ARANGO: I guess it's different in different places. Fallujah feels like kind of a black hole right now. That was the first one. They were taken - they took Fallujah at the end of last year, and many, many people have left Fallujah. But in Mosul, I think it's probably a slow - it's a slow evolution. When Mosul first fell, I went to the North where the refugees were coming from.
And most of the people who were fleeing at that moment - you know, especially if they were Sunnis - were saying that they were happy to see the Iraqi army go. They were happy to see the evaporation of any sort of state authority, and they sort of welcomed a new authority. And they were leaving because they were scared of Iraqi army airstrikes and what they would do.
But as time goes on, and these guys show their true face, you see people slowly starting to become disenchanted. And in Mosul it started with - the militants started destroying these very cherished shrines and cultural things and - in Mosul. And people were very, very upset. And now you're seeing things like people being stoned to death in public. And it's hard for me to imagine because I've been to Mosul many times, and the people are - you know, they're wonderful people by and large. And I can't imagine them wanting to live like this.
GROSS: When you say seeing things like people being stoned to death, are there videos of that, too?
ARANGO: I'm sure there's a video it, but they've done it in public in Mosul for the residents.
GROSS: Right - basically inviting audience?
ARANGO: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango. He's the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango. He's The New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief and he's on a brief trip to the United States.
So you're based in Baghdad. And you've said things are actually quieter there now than they have been because all the action is going on in other places where ISIS has either taken over, or they're moving in. But, are there any fears in Baghdad now that ISIS will eventually try to take Baghdad too?
ARANGO: I think there were two, three months ago, after - or, three months ago - after Mosul fell. I was not in Baghdad at that moment but, you know, I was obviously following it and talking to people. And there was a real fear right then and that's why I think, you know, the Americans paid such close attention and sent military advisers. They thought that Baghdad was under threat. But then, that's certainly not the case. And I think that fear has eased. I think people - there's a widespread feeling that it would be impossible for them to take Baghdad. There's too many Shia.
GROSS: Right. So the Sunni ISIS militants would be outnumbered. It's a losing battle.
ARANGO: Yeah, vastly outnumbered - absolutely.
GROSS: So where is it reasonably safe for you to travel now? And where are the no-go places?
ARANGO: Yeah, you know, the sad thing for me in covering right now is, you know, when I first showed up in Iraq in the beginning of 2010 it was probably the most hopeful time in the last decade. And so the whole country was wide open, to me and to others. There really wasn't a place that you wouldn't go on your own, with your team. Fallujah, Mosul, anywhere. And over time, it'd slowly become a smaller, smaller and smaller area of which where we can go. And so right now, you can't go anywhere that's really connected to the main story. You can't go see things in Mosul. You can't go to Anbar Province. So you can do whatever you need to do and want to do in Baghdad as normal. You can go to - you know, and the South is wide open. The Shia-dominated South, which is relatively safe. And beyond that, you can go to the Kurdish region in the North, but you can't drive anymore, you've got to get on a plane. That's pretty much it.
GROSS: Yeah, well, in talking about taking risks - there was a time when I think journalists could say to themselves, well, if you're smart and if you don't get yourself in situations that are too risky, you'll be safe. But now like, if you venture out of a super safe place - a relatively super safe place, like Baghdad - you're in - you're so vulnerable.
ARANGO: That's true, but the narrative I tell myself to feel like it's OK is that Foley and Sotloff were taken in the chaos of the civil war in Syria. They didn't have the support structure, as freelancers, that we do. And we don't go to these places in Iraq where ISIS is. You just can't.
GROSS: What kind of support do you have with The New York Times that a freelancer wouldn't?
ARANGO: There's a security advisor who kind of - we used them, Western security advisers in Iraq, a long time ago and up until 2012. And then, now we have that again. So it's that. And it's just the oversight, it's the training, it's - when you're out, someone knows where you are and someone's waiting for you to come back. And they know where you're going. And they know who to call along the way. But the most important thing we have is a team of Iraqis that are like family to me that have worked with us for, you know, for years, and years and years. And they know their own country. They know what to do. And so that's what we rely on.
GROSS: And are those people that you rely on kind of undercover?
ARANGO: In the sense that they probably don't tell their neighbors that they work for The New York Times?
GROSS: Yes, that's what I mean. (Laughter).
ARANGO: Yeah. Certainly in the past - I haven't asked them in a while - but I think for sure, they don't share that very widely.
GROSS: You've said that after the American troops pulled out of Baghdad - and you were covering Iraq at the time - that the Obama administration pushed back when you reported that the levels of violence in Iraq were still actually high.
Can you talk about the pushback you've gotten from the Obama administration?
ARANGO: Yeah, for sure. I think it's an experience that any American reporter who has covered Iraq has had. You're kind of out in the country talking to people and seeing things and trying to the best of your ability to understand this very, very complex and unstable place. And then you go into the green zone where there are thousands of American diplomats who don't - aren't allowed to leave. And then they try to explain to you that what you've seen and heard is not true and that Iraq is on the right path.
So that was a common - a very common - experience. But I think after - when the American troops left at the end of 2011 and Obama was trying to claim that as a victory - I mean, that's what he rose to the, you know, the political stage the way he did. It was his opposition to the Iraq war. And so he was leaving and the narrative had to be that Iraq was - that this was an American victory. That the war was over and that Iraq was in good hands. And they actually became more aggressive after that, say, the beginning of 2012, about negative stories about what was going on in Iraq.
And there was one bizarre example where - I felt was bizarre - it was a kind of a - not even a huge story I did. But it was a story about the rising levels of violence and the sourcing was, you know, obviously the attacks that are going on. But there was actually United Nations data showing that civilian casualties were up fairly substantially. And the pushback was such that Tony Blinken, who was, you know, Biden's national security advisor - and I believe he's now a White House staff on the Obama side - and he wrote a letter to the editor. And he wrote me emails and saying - and his argument came down to that civilian casualties should not be the metric to judge the level of violence in Iraq. They had some other obscure metric to do this.
And so he was trying to claim that Iraq's violence was at historic lows.
And that always stuck with me because it was sort of - it was just this very stark example of them trying to obfuscate the truth and what was really going on. And they just wanted to move on from Iraq. And so the lengths that they would go to sort of obfuscate the truth was sort of breathtaking in some instances.
GROSS: President Obama made it clear recently that he isn't going to supply more military aid to Iraq. Well, until al-Maliki stepped down and the government became less sectarian and more inclusive. And this week, a new government was formed, or at least partially formed and Maliki is no longer the prime minister. But you say that you have gotten pushback in the past when you reported that Maliki had become very sectarian and was pushing out Sunnis from government.
ARANGO: Yeah. I mean, as recently as after - as earlier this year, after Fallujah fell. And most of Anbar Province at that time - this was at the end of last year - most of Anbar Province fell into the hands of ISIS and so - and you know, in trying to explain why this was happening and how this was able to happen. You know, you find yourself writing and explaining about some of the things that Maliki has done to alienate Sunnis. And many of the things that he's done to alienate Sunnis are things he learned from the Americans actually, which is very, very interesting. Which doesn't get a lot of attention. But, sort of - you'll explain obvious things about the practices of the Malaki government. And even then, after the militants took control of like, half the - the western half of the country - you know, you get these emails from, you know, someone at the State Department saying, you know, we don't really see it that way. We think, you know, we're going to get some great Sunni support to push these guys out. And - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And it just seemed so divorced from reality because you'll be writing things that aren't even - you don't even feel are - like, you can't argue against them. But even at that point, after Fallujah and Anbar fell, they thought they could still keep their gaze averted from Iraq.
GROSS: You mean not get militarily involved again in Iraq?
ARANGO: Yeah, exactly. There was not - it wasn't until Mosul that everybody really woke up. And that's when you saw all this discussion of troops going back and advisers going back and the - you know, eventually, the airstrikes.
GROSS: Tim Arango will be back in the second half of the show. He's the Baghdad Bureau Chief for The New York Times.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tim Arango, the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. He's covered Iraq for nearly five years. He's in the U.S. for a brief visit. Tonight, President Obama addresses the nation about his strategy to degrade and eventually defeat ISIS. He's already laid out some of his plan. President Obama wants to, you know, continue airstrikes to help stop ISIS but does not want to send American boots on the ground. Who is there to fight them on the ground?
ARANGO: Yeah, that's a good question 'cause when you look at what the Americans are doing, you wonder how, with just airstrikes, can we achieve a good outcome given that we had a hundred thousand or more troops on the ground, and we couldn't defeat this organization? ISIS, as we call it now - we used to call it al-Qaida in Iraq - it's the organization that the Americans fought then. Secondly, if you just stick to airstrikes, who's going to fight these guys on the ground? They're relying on the Kurds, for example - the Peshmerga. And they've been in the fight lately. But if - as long as their borders are protected, you can't rely on them to go in the rest of Iraq to fight. They want to fight for Kurdistan. And then you have the Iraqi army, which is completely decimated, which we spent maybe 10 years building and billions and billions of dollars to build. And that collapsed. So how are you going to do that - are you going to do that again? The best fighters in Iraq to go after these guys are the Iranian-backed Shia militias. And ironically, the Americans and them have been fighting on the same side. But you can't rely on those guys to go into these Sunni places because it's just going to create, you know, a sectarian bloodbath. And so what you need to rely on is Sunni forces like we did in the past with the Awakening movement. And that's going to be very, very difficult because all the Sunnis who once sided with the government or worked with the Americans feel so betrayed by the Maliki government and by the Americans that they're not going to easily decide to do this again.
GROSS: Right. So during the counterinsurgency campaign, we actually paid Sunni groups to side with us against the Islamist militants. And they did. And then, when we pulled out, we helped install a Shia government - a Shia-led government that totally alienated the Sunnis. So you don't think they're coming back to our side?
ARANGO: It's not going to be very easy. I mean, it's not just that they were paid to switch sides. They were also given promises of permanent jobs in the Iraqi security forces. And when the Americans turned the program over to the Maliki government, it was basically, you know, shelved. I met a lot of these guys who were fighters for the Awakening. And, you know, they thought they would become soldiers or policemen in their communities, and some of them were given, you know, menial jobs sweeping the streets. And so it's very hard to imagine that you're going to get Sunni tribal armies, all of a sudden, to rise up, you know, and fight these guys.
GROSS: Why, with all the investment America made in training the Iraqi military, have they been such a failure and showed such a lack of courage in many instances?
ARANGO: I think it's partly the sectarian thing 'cause you have, you know, the Iraqi army in a place like Mosul, which is, you know, majority Sunni. And they're not going to stick around and fight. And in the Sunni areas, the Iraqi army was sometimes considered a foreign force. Like in Anbar, the Iraqi army was almost considered, like, a foreign army occupying their territory because the Iraqi army is a Shia institution, largely. So it was sort of that. And beyond that, there's sort of a culture over there of top-down. And so, like, nobody lower down in the ranks of the Army could, you know, could make decisions. The only decisions that are ever made are from the top. And then, the last thing is corruption. It was just so - you could buy postings. You could buy officer positions. It's very, very common to be an Iraqi army soldier and you get a no-show soldier. You get your salary. You keep half. You give your commanding officer half. And then you just get on with your life.
GROSS: Do you think that ISIS would have existed if not for the American invasion of Iraq?
ARANGO: No, absolutely not.
GROSS: How did the American invasion help create ISIS?
ARANGO: The Americans come to invade Iraq, and I think it's partly because the Sunnis are going to be out of power. The Americans come in and topple Saddam Hussein and...
GROSS: Who was Sunni.
ARANGO: Who was Sunni. And, you know, there's been a Sunni elite governing Iraq for, you know, centuries. And they come in. The Sunnis realize they're going to be left out of this. They're not going to be running the country anymore. And so resistance movements sprung up. And the other things the Americans did was disbanding the Iraqi army, which created a whole group of would-be potential insurgents. And so al-Qaida in Iraq is formed. And, you know, many of the things that the Maliki government has done to alienate Sunnis they learned from the Americans. The Americans taught them how to exclude Sunnis from political life with debathification and things like that. The other thing Maliki's done is, you know, these mass arrests of Sunni men and of suspected terrorists. And that's exactly what the Americans did. And so as the Americans tried to fight these guys, they would do these mass arrests. And they would put them in places like Camp Bucca. And most of the leaders of ISIS were in Camp Bucca. And, you know, they got to know each other. They got to plan. They got to hang out. And so, you know, on every turn in the Iraq story, now, is the American legacy and the epic American failure in Iraq.
GROSS: Well, the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - he was detained by Americans and imprisoned for how long?
ARANGO: He was captured in 2004. He wasn't a target. He happened - they did a raid in a house in Fallujah looking for some guys, and this other guy was there. He was kind of a hanger-on. He was with them, and so they just arrested him as well. I believe he was held - the Pentagon will say he was held for eight months. There are other Iraqi officials who say he was held for five years. So it's unclear. But, you know, I don't know why the - if the Pentagon is saying he was held for eight months, there's no reason to suspect they would lie about that, but who knows? So yeah, he was in Camp Bucca, for a time, with many, many other leaders of this group.
GROSS: So Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS - you write when he first latched on to al-Qaida, in the early years of the American occupation in Iraq, it wasn't as a fighter. It was as a religious figure. What was his religious background and who did he present himself as, in terms of religion?
ARANGO: Part of the reason he's got credibility with the people who follow him is because they say he has these religious credentials that someone like Zarqawi, who was that brutal - that brutal psychopath who ran al-Qaida in Iraq early in the American occupation...So in contrast to him, Baghdadi, they say, does have these religious credentials. He has a PhD, apparently, in Islamic studies from a University in Baghdad. He claims to be from the tribe of Prophet Mohammed, which gives him some bona fides. And apparently early on, he was a preacher in Samarra and also in Diyala.
GROSS: But you describe him as being raised in a Sufi family. Sufi is the more mystical branch of Islam and known for, among other things, it's tolerance.
ARANGO: Yeah, that was another interesting thing I found out. And there's still a lot of mystery about this guy. But that, you know - so you wonder how he went from the Sufi - the Sufi thing to what he is now.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango. He's the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Arango. He's been the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times for the past four years. He's on a brief trip to the United States, and then after this visit, he'll be returning to Baghdad.
Largely from Baghdad, and you've been following the government there. And there was just a new government formed this week that's not complete yet. There's still a couple of key vacancies. But there's a new prime minister who replaced Maliki. What can you tell us about the new Prime Minister?
ARANGO: Yeah he's kind of - I mean he's not an unknown. He's been around a while. But there's not a great deal of a back story to suggest one way or other how he's going to be. Is he going to be great for the Sunnis and the Kurds and bring them together, or is he going to be like Maliki? It's not clear.
He comes from the same Shiite Islamist party as Maliki and has sort of this - a similar life story in the sense that he, you know, spent a great deal of his life working in opposition to Saddam Hussein. That's typical of many of the Shia leaders in Iraq. And having that life experience shapes your views of the world. And it shapes your abilities to now be accommodating to other groups that you once considered your enemy. And so we will see how he how he does.
And so we do now have a new government that was formed this week. And that's, like, one step, but it's not the big thing. It's not - that doesn't mean that now there's this inclusive government that Obama has been demanding. Maliki had a government that on its paper - on paper was - you know, it had Sunnis, and it had meaningful roles for Kurds.
But the issue is the behavior of the Prime Minister going forward. Can he govern in a way that accommodates the Sunnis who want to be part of the political process and the Kurds and keep the country together? That's the question going forward. It's not a matter of getting the right sectarian or ethnic breakdown in the cabinet, which - that's all that's happened.
GROSS: So what does the new government have to do in order to win back the allegiance of Sunnis who were so alienated by the Maliki government?
ARANGO: They need to make meaningful concessions in terms of security policy, in terms of detainees - things like that. There was a long Sunni protest movement - largely peaceful - from 2012 to the end of '13, actually. And so there were actually a list of demands that the government - that the Sunnis were asking for. And the government - they didn't make much progress in trying to address those.
So there are real things they can do. They can end the de-Ba'athification policy or reform it to allow more Sunnis to come into the political process. And they can deal with - you know, the jails are filled with young, Sunni men that are just held on terrorism charges indefinitely - things like that. They need to make real changes in that respect.
GROSS: So you were saying there's still a lot of Sunni men in prison. Are you suggesting that one of the things the new government in Iraq could do to win over the Sunnis is release some of these men? And if so, what might some of the consequences be? Maybe they were radicalized in prison.
ARANGO: Yeah, I mean, I - but I think what needs to happen is some sense that there's a fair justice system and that there's a process for adjudicating some of these cases to determine, OK, is this guy a terrorist, or is this guy just - you know, just young, male and Sunni, and so that's why he's in jail? There needs to be some sort of confidence that the judicial system can deal with these things. And that's one of the things that the government needs to do if it's going to win back some Sunni support.
GROSS: So you think a lot of men are in prison for, basically, no cause.
ARANGO: Oh, for sure. There's no question.
GROSS: How does the judicial system work now for crimes like that - well, for adjudicating whether there was a crime or not?
ARANGO: You know, I think Maliki claimed for himself vast powers in terms of fighting terrorism. And so as far as I can tell, there's no real credible judicial system or fair judicial system that can deal with this sort of thing.
GROSS: Was he known for locking up people who just seem to oppose him personally?
ARANGO: Yeah, that was the other thing he did. I mean, he went after some big, big Sunni politicians and political figures. And that was one of the catalysts for some of the protest, which was a step in this process towards what's happening now. He went after the vice president in 2000 - end of 2011. And he's in exile in Turkey. He went after the finance minister, another Sunni guy named Rafi Issawi. And he can't come back to Baghdad. And so his efforts to just push aside some of the Sunni leaders, you know, had a huge impact on how the Sunnis felt about their place in Iraqi political life, of course.
GROSS: We still have an American embassy in Iraq, right?
ARANGO: Yeah, a huge one.
GROSS: Describe the embassy and who's there and what they're doing.
ARANGO: I always describe the embassy as a cross between, like, Arizona junior college and a maximum-security prison.
ARANGO: That's what it looks like. There are many, many diplomats there. There are security advisers - or security consultants security, private security contractors. There's a small - it's bigger now, but before this there was a small American military office that oversaw a weapons sales program to the Iraqis. There's people doing economic development.
One bizarre - and they sometimes put out these bizarre press releases about what they're up to. And one that just stands out in my mind was a few months ago, before Mosul, they put out this press release about how they're trying to promote economic development in Iraq. And they had this big meeting where they brought sort of representatives from American fast food chains from like Quiznos and places like that to Baghdad to meet with Iraqis about franchising opportunities. And so, you know, things like that which sometimes seem completely, you know, off key to what's going on. But there's also a huge engagement from, like, the top levels with the ambassador with the Iraqi political leaders to try to influence them.
GROSS: So what's the larger goal of the embassy?
ARANGO: I mean, it's to secure American influence here. It was supposed to be the greatest - the largest embassy in the world. I think it still might be the biggest because of all the security guys. But, you know, they had this grand ambition in 2011 that the military was going to leave, and it was going to be replaced by this huge diplomatic army. And they quickly expanded the size of the diplomatic presence as the Americans were leaving. And then very quickly, like, within a month, they started reducing it because they never asked the Iraqis. They never went to the Iraqis and said, hey, is it OK that we have 16,000 people here now? Are you going to let us get our food into the country? You know, and they had all these problems. And so they quickly were just like, all right, this isn't going to work.
So they vastly downscaled the number of people. And they also vastly downscaled the ambition that they had. They were going to train the Iraqi police. The biggest thing that they were going to do when the army left was this multibillion-dollar program of training the Iraqi police. And that was an absolute disaster and a waste of - I don't know - hundreds of millions of dollars. They never asked the Iraqis if they wanted it. And so that program never happened.
Now I think the main thing is to - it's about security. And it's about politics and trying to push the Iraqis to have a new sort of inclusive politics and to help them with security.
GROSS: Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
ARANGO: Yeah, I mean, the thing that I always come back to with Iraq and people talk about - and it's always about all these bad things and, you know, how terrible things are in the country. But, you know, these places are never as you imagine them to be when you actually get there. And the biggest thing I always come away with with Iraq is the nature of the people and how wonderful they have - you know, they have been. And I don't understand why because we went to their country and destroyed their country. And they still treat me like - you know, like I'm their best friend, and they love to have me around, and they talk to me. And anywhere you go in the country, to be honest - I mean certainly not - there are many places you can't go now. But, you know, I don't think I have felt threatened once in five years. And I don't understand why to be honest with you.
I don't understand why they're so welcoming. But there's so many wonderful things about the culture that we could learn a lot from. And that always gets obscured with the bigger picture of the crisis going on.
GROSS: Well, I hope it stays that way for you. Tim Arango, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you safety and good travels, and thank you for your reporting.
ARANGO: Thanks, Terry. It's always a thrill to come on your show.
GROSS: Tim Arango is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times.
Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the new Ken Burns PBS documentary series about the Roosevelts - Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.