NPR

Exploring 'What We Left Behind' In Iraq

New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins finds an increasingly authoritarian prime minister — Nouri al-Maliki — sectarian violence, and concern for the future. Iraq holds parliamentary elections Wednesday.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. To find out what the U.S. left behind in Iraq since pulling out less than two and a half years ago, my guest, Dexter Filkins, returned there for four weeks in January and February. What he found, according to his latest article in the New Yorker, is an increasingly authoritarian leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried about its future.

Part of the country is now under the control of Islamist extremists. Iraq holds parliamentary elections tomorrow. Maliki is seeking a third term. Many Iraqis told Filkins that Maliki's sectarianism has driven Iraq to the edge of civil war. Dexter Filkins covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times and is now a staff writer for the New Yorker. His 2008 book, "The Forever War," was about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to go back to Iraq?

DEXTER FILKINS: Boy, I didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: I really didn't. I really didn't want to go.

GROSS: Somehow I think that's the right answer, yeah.

FILKINS: I felt like I had to go. Certainly my bosses felt like I had to go. So I went.

GROSS: And why were you so apprehensive about going?

FILKINS: Well, you know, I mean the election's coming, and that's a big deal. It's the first one in the country without the Americans around. And I was apprehensive about going because it's - the situation's terrible. And that was confirmed by, you know, the month that I spent on the ground there. The situation's terrible. It's really violent. There's bombings every day. It's just really chaotic.

And you know, I've - personally I've had enough of that. But that - I was a little skittish about going, and I just - you know, I just checked into a hotel in the middle of Baghdad. So I didn't have any, you know, blast walls or armed guards or anything like that. I just - so I was there on my own.

GROSS: What's the hotel like?

FILKINS: The hotel was fine. It was called Al Andalus(ph), which is, you know, the old Arab word for Spain, when they were there for 800 years. It was fine, and the neighborhood was fine, as it turned out. But I remember the first day I got there, the first morning, and I was in my hotel room just getting ready to go out, and I heard the first bomb. It kind of shook the walls a little bit.

It had been a while since I'd heard those.

GROSS: You write about how you're having tea with Prime Minister Maliki, and you're sitting there and suddenly your tea glasses start rattling because - what was the explosion that day?

FILKINS: Tea with the prime minister. Well, I saw Prime Minister Maliki, I interviewed him, and it was about 10:00 after 1:00 in the afternoon, I think, and we were having tea, we were talking, and suddenly there was this low-pitched rumble, a bomb clearly. I think it was a car bomb that went out just outside the walls of the Green Zone, where he lives and where I was seeing him. It killed several people, that one. I think there were six bombs that day, maybe seven on the day that I went and saw the prime minister.

So it was - you know, it was a strange experience. I was interviewing the prime minister, who was, you know, trying to reassure me that all was well when a bomb went off, when a car bomb went off.

GROSS: What was his reaction when it went off? I mean did he even flinch? He's probably so used to it.

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: Well, we all stopped, and we just kind of sat there for a second, and then he turned to an aide and said go see what that was.

GROSS: Right. So you know, you write in your article in The New Yorker that there's hardly any evidence that Americans were there in Iraq. What do you mean by that?

FILKINS: Well, that's the weirdest thing. I remember, I'm thinking of a book by Barbara Tuchman, the historian. It was on the - it was called "Joseph Stilwell and the American Experience in China," and it was on sort of the long American involvement in China before - during World War II. And the last sentence of that book is, if I remember it correctly, and then the Americans left and China went on her way as if they had never come.

And that's what Iraq felt like. It felt like Iraq went on her way as if the Americans had never come. And it was so strange. You know, but for a couple of reminders, you know, blast walls, for instance, they're still everywhere, all over the place - not as many by any means, but they're still there.

I remember, there were these things called Hesco barriers, which are, you know, very, very kind of emblematic of the American experience, and they're these temporary walls you can build. They're like chain link kind of wrap-around fences, and then you fill these sandbags with sand, and they're open at the top, so there's kind of sand across the top.

And they were - some of them had been there so long that there were trees growing out of them. But apart from a few things like that - blast walls, Hesco barriers - there's just no sign that we were ever there. It is so strange. Now, it's not really quite a fair characterization of the country because, you know, for instance, there's a 275-member parliament that's there. I mean, the whole government was essentially set up under American guidance, the election which is taking place very soon, all that is essentially an American creation. They're just not very visible.

GROSS: But isn't the sectarian fighting now, which sounds like it's a civil war, isn't that one of the consequences of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the invasion by - the American invasion, I mean in the sense that Saddam Hussein ruled with such a tight fist and kept such a tight control that hatreds couldn't be expressed in the way that they are now? And surely everybody was suffering.

But I mean the kind of like car bombings and violence now.

FILKINS: Yes, the country - first of all, the country is falling back into civil war, I think. I was there in February. Just off the top of my head, I think January there were about 1,000 civilians killed. That's...

GROSS: A thousand in one month?

FILKINS: A thousand in a month. So, you know, that's 30 people a day or so. That's right up there - not with the bloodiest of months during the civil war when the Americans were there, but it's pretty bloody, and that's mostly, I think almost entirely, Shiite civilians being killed at the hands of Sunnis. But of course there's plenty of Sunnis being killed by the government, which is mostly Shiite.

But to answer your question, yes, the civil war that we are witnessing, that we witnessed when the Americans were there, is a consequence of - it's certainly a consequence of the invasion. I mean basically, you know, Iraq is this deeply artificial country kind of cobbled together after World War I, lines drawn in the sand really with very little regard for, you know, sect or tribe or nationality or anything.

And so the country has been held together, and certainly when we invaded was being held together, by this steel frame of a dictatorship, you know, overseen by Saddam Hussein. And he was a terrible, awful human being. But he held the country together in this ruthless way, and when we broke that steel frame, it all came apart, and that's what we're witnessing.

But I think the sad part here, the really sad part, is that the civil war when the Americans was there, peaked in about 2006, 2007. Those were the really horrible months, when you had 2,000 civilians a month were dying, and it was just a horrible, terrible period. I was there for much of it.

But the surge worked by any measure. The American surge of combat forces into Baghdad that was ordered by President Bush worked. And there was a calm, a relative calm that descended on the country kind of late 2008. That pretty much held until the last American combat soldiers left at the end of 2011. So it's just been over two years since the Americans departed.

And really, I mean, and this is really what my piece is about, the moment the Americans left and were no longer there to kind of restrain Maliki and his government, this civil war - they drove the country back to civil war. This didn't have to happen. This is the result of very deliberate decisions that were taken by the government.

GROSS: And the government is a government run by Shiite Muslims, and they've been cracking down on Sunnis, and Sunnis have been rebelling against the Shias, and so sectarian fighting is really in bloom there. The parliamentary election is tomorrow. What's at stake in this election?

FILKINS: Well you know, the civil war, which is now unfolding again, which is roaring back, it didn't have to happen, and I don't think it has to happen, but the - for it not to happen, you know, the Iraqis probably need - they either need a new government entirely or they need the prime minister to act in a pretty dramatically different way. He's a Shiiite. He's extremely sectarian, and that's kind of what my piece outlines, that Maliki, the prime minister, the man that the Americans essentially installed there in 2006 and is now seeking a third term, he's been fighting this sectarian war his whole adult life, for 30 years.

And he'd been fighting it before we got there, he was fighting it when we got there, and he kept on fighting it. And we were able to kind of restrain him, often restrained him, and kind of to - we tamped down his worst sectarian impulses. And now that we are no longer there, there's no one there to do that.

And so I think it's - you know, Iraq, Iraq needs Nelson Mandela, and everybody who's ever spent time in Iraq will say to you, you know, there's no Nelson Mandela in this country, but that's what they need. They need somebody who can transcend their own history and their own experience and the experience of their sect, whether it's Sunni, Shia, Kurd, whatever, and reach out to the other side. That's what they need.

GROSS: You write that some people, maybe a lot of people in Iraq, fear that if Maliki wins and becomes prime minister again, that he will never leave office as long as he is well enough to stay in it.

FILKINS: Well, I think that - certainly a lot of Iraqis told me that. I think that what you're beginning to see, now he's been in power for eight years, it's kind of the beginnings of a dynastic system. Again, just in the two years and - less than two and half years since the Americans departed there, Maliki has kind of undertaken just a series of very dramatic changes, not just aimed at increasing the power of the Shiites and of his sect, but also of increasing his own personal power.

I mean he's set about to basically dismantle any check on his power, whether it's parliament, which no longer has the right to initiate legislation, they can only vote on legislation that the prime minister writes, but whether it's shutting down the parliament or any government agency that could - or the judiciary, any government, branch of government that could block him, he's basically neutralized them.

And so this is a very, very powerful man now ruling over Iraq, and I think the fear that I heard expressed often was if he wins a third term, he's never going to leave, and he'll pass power to his son, Ahmed, who is growing in stature and in power as well. And I do think that's the fear. That's a very prevalent fear right now.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the Iraq War for the New York Times and won several awards along the way. He's now a staff writer for the New Yorker, and his latest piece is called "What We Left Behind," and it's about his latest trip to Iraq and what he saw there. The parliamentary elections are tomorrow. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dexter Filkins. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker. His latest piece is about what's happening now in Iraq. The parliamentary elections are tomorrow. And this piece, which is called "What We Left Behind," and it's about what the U.S. left behind in Iraq when we pulled out, this piece is based on four months of reporting in Iraq in January and February.

You describe al-Maliki's government as being very sectarian and very corrupt. Let's start with sectarian. It sounds like Maliki has purged Sunnis from the government and from the intelligence service.

FILKINS: Totally. It's really become - I think it's fair to say it's become essentially a Shiite government. And it's a Shiite government which is very close to the great Shiite power in the region, Iran. I think it's fair to say it wouldn't exist the way that it does without Iranian support, and it's one of the - it's really one of the great ironies of this war, of the American war, that the guys who really ended up on top with the most influence in that country, it's not the Americans, not now, but it's the Iranians.

But I think yeah, he's purged hundreds of Sunnis from the government. And I'll just give you one example, which I cited in my piece. The National Intelligence Service, which was essentially set up - I mean it existed before the American invasion, but it was set up with the help of the CIA, and it was a pretty sophisticated operation and also a kind of multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic organization, I think the number that I cite in my piece is 500 Sunnis were purged from that institution.

And now the National Intelligence Service is essentially a Shiite organization, and which is to say it's very close to the Iranians, but it serves the interests not of the Iraqi state but of the Shiites. And you could go through virtually every institution in the country like that and every branch of government, and it's pretty much the same story, that the Sunnis have been purged, Sunni Arabs have been purged, and the Shiites are on top.

GROSS: You describe the government, the Maliki government, as being incredibly corrupt. Tell us one of the more interesting examples of corruption that you learned about.

FILKINS: Well, you know, it's one of these things where you as a reporter, you know, you can't write - you end up on a piece like this, I spent - God, I spent months on this thing. But you end up only - as long as my piece was, it's about 10,000 words long, I probably only was able to put in about five percent of what I reported, just because, you know, you run out of space.

But when I got to Iraq, that was the first thing I heard. People said to me, oh my God, this place is so corrupt. You know, they're pumping I think six and a half million barrels of oil a day, which is a lot. And the oil revenues I think are about $100 billion a year. They're - the first thing that strikes you when you drive through Baghdad is that it looks like Baghdad looked 10 years ago.

Where is all the money going? You know, it's the same old, you know, broken city that we all saw, you know, either in person or on television or wherever, you know, in 2005. Where's the money going? But then all I heard when I was there were stories about, you know, corruption, bribery, extortion, kickbacks, and I'll give you one example that's just extraordinary.

Rafi Issawi, the finance minister until Maliki tried to arrest him and he fled the country, I saw Rafi Issawi in Abu Dhabi before I went to Iraq, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He was the finance minister, and he told me this amazing story. He said a guy walked into my office one day and he said, look, I've come from the prime minister's office, and he threw down a sheaf of papers on my desk, and he said I need you to sign these, and I need you to transfer $7 billion into these bank accounts, and I need you do to that right now.

And he said, you know, he laid out these papers, and he said I started looking at them, and he said, you know, he had signatures from all these ministers, and he'd come from Maliki's office. And he said - he said it was an extraordinary amount of money. I started looking at the documents really closely, and I quickly realized that everything was fake. There was no government contracts, there were no work orders.

The signatures appeared to be fake. Everything was fake. I mean, the whole thing was fake. And so he said, look, arrest this man, lock the doors to the ministry. And so this guy, who he said identified himself as Mohammed Abdullah, which is about like saying that your name is John Smith in the Middle East, runs out the door and gets away.

And so he said the next day, I took all this - I took all these papers, all these fake documents and a photograph that our security cameras had taken of Mr. Mohammed Abdullah to Maliki himself, and he showed them Maliki and said, look, you've got to investigate this, this is clearly coming from people inside your office, you've got to stop this. Use the intelligence agencies to investigate.

Nothing happened. Two months later, the finance ministry, his office, came under attack from a militia force, unclear exactly who it was, but I mean the fact of this attack of this attack is very well documented, probably by, as I was told, a force called the Golden Battalion, which is a kind of security force, which is run personally by the prime minister, they attacked the finance ministry. They basically burned down Issawi's office. They destroyed the security cameras. They burned the offices around him. And that was that.

And shortly after that, Issawi's problems began, when his bodyguards started to get arrested, and then shortly after that he led the country. And that's one story I heard of dozens.

GROSS: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: You know, one ministry attacking another. You know, it's just a state of nature.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker. His latest article, based on his latest trip to Iraq, is called "What We Left Behind." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His latest article, "What We Left Behind," is about the condition of Iraq now, less than two and a half years after withdrawal of the U.S. military. Tomorrow, Iraq holds its first parliamentary election since the withdrawal. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term.

Filkins covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times.

You've described a pretty bad picture of Maliki and his government, of it being very sectarian, very corrupt. Nouri al-Maliki is the person that the Bush administration helped install. They kind of helped choose him as the next leader of Iraq. Why did they choose him?

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: It's an incredible story. Really, I had no idea. You know, I was there at the time. I had no idea. The United States government back then, this is 2006, this is the nadir of our occupation there when the Civil War was raging, the Iraqis had had an election December 2005. There was a long deadlock. Nobody had won a majority of the seats in parliament and they couldn't pick a prime minister. And the American ambassador at the time, a really amazing guy called Zalmay Khalilzad, tells me the following story, that the prime minister at the time was an Iraqi guy named Ibrahim Jaffrey. And in a secure video teleconference with President Bush, President Bush apparently had gotten sort of tired of Jaffrey and was fed up with his, how ineffective he was. And he turned to Khalilzad and said, can you get rid of him? And Khalilzad responded, I can, but it will be difficult. And so Khalilzad then proceeded to go, you know, sort of lobby members of parliament using all of the, you know, tools of American influence at the time and essentially made it impossible for Jaffrey to become prime minister. And then that sort of left, OK, well, who's, if it's not going to be Jaffrey, who's it going to be?

And so they started going through this list of names and they said, well, here's the next guy in the Dawa Party, which is Jaffrey's party, and he said we can't have him because his father's Iranian and that means all the Iraqis will think he's really Iranian and he's not Iraqi. So and so at this moment the American ambassador turns to the CIA man in his office and he says, well, who else do you have? And the CIA guy essentially hands him a file and says there's a guy named Nouri al-Maliki and we think he's clean, he's a tough guy, he's not corrupt. And really, by the end of the night the ambassador had seen Maliki, he had dinner with him, the rest is history.

GROSS: Makes me wonder how much the Bush administration vetted Nouri al-Maliki, because you write about how his father and his grandfather were basically imprisoned for fighting against, was it the Saddam government that they fought against?

FILKINS: The father had fought against Saddam and the grandfather against the British.

GROSS: OK. Yeah. So and then Maliki joined in that fight. He left Iraq for Iran, was in Iran for a what, seven years?

FILKINS: Yes. Seven years.

GROSS: There were questions asked about whether he was connected to Hezbollah. And the Bush administration, they had a plan - from what we know - they had a plan to bomb Iran if it had - if they felt that we had reached the point where that was necessary. So they did not, you know, look favorably on Iran in any sense, and they certainly didn't want Iran to be gaining power in Iraq. So I just wonder, like were they aware of how deep Maliki's connection was to Iran, how much he owed Iran, in a way, for having given him safe haven for those seven years?

FILKINS: I think that's right. I think one of the things that I've learned in this piece, which I really didn't know, I certainly didn't know it when I was in Iraq and I wish I had a better sense of it then, but these guys, Maliki, the Iraqi Shiites for the last couple of hundred years have basically, they've been the majority in Iraq but they've been oppressed and out of power. And really Maliki left the country in 19-, 1979 he was out - basically out of the country for 23, 24 years. And so Maliki spent much of his exile, most of his exile in Damascus, in Syria, where he appears to have been involved in, I mean at the time his party, his political party, the Dawa Party, they were involved, they tried to assassinate Saddam. The Dawa Party blew up the Iraqi Embassy in Lebanon, killed the ambassador, killed 60 other people. Dawa Party activists blew up the American embassy in Kuwait in 1983. I think they blew up the French Embassy too. Those were essentially Iranian operations using Dawa Party people, but that's Maliki's party.

And then Maliki himself spent I think about seven years running a military training camp inside Iran that basically sent people into Iraq to fight against, you know, this was during the Iran-Iraq war. So he was literally fighting against his own country because they had hoped to bring Saddam down. But so he had this really intense history of at the very least he was connected to people who were involved in pre-militant activities, you know, bombings, shootings, assassinations and that sort of thing. And how much of that did we know when we picked him? It's really, I had a hard time pinning that down. I talked to a guy who was in the CIA at the time and he said, look, you know, we had it all and we gave it to them. And you know, at that point the Iraqi government was deadlocked for so long that when they found Maliki, you know, they would've, you know, President Bush would've signed off on Hannibal Lecter being the prime minister because we were so desperate to get somebody in there. But I think the fair answer is that we were aware that Maliki was like in this like milieu. He was connected to these people, but his own hands weren't bloody as far as anyone could tell. And a lot of people around him, their hands were bloody. And so he was sort of - I think I quote somebody in the piece, an American diplomat saying all we knew was that he wasn't a super duper bad guy.

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: And so and it was a kind of, you know, it was a kind of rogue's gallery, so the question was not whether he was, you know, whether he was dirty, it was whether anyone was clean.

GROSS: And what was his view of the United States, do you know?

FILKINS: People said to me, and I - who've known - I interviewed a lot of people who've known Maliki for 30 years, you know, since the beginning of his exile. And they said that Maliki was deeply anti-American. And - which is not surprising. I mean it shouldn't be surprising anyway, but that he nurtured the views over the, you know, many years in exile, where the United States backed his main enemy, Saddam Hussein. We were supposed to his main backer, the Iranian government and he was deeply anti-American, you know, even after the American invasion and when they picked him. And so that's his worldview.

GROSS: So are Maliki's anti-American sentiments and his connections to Iran among the reasons why you say that the Americans basically handed Iraq to the Iranians?

FILKINS: Yeah. I mean it - everything fits, right? I mean let me - I'll give you one example. During the war, during the American war, there were a number of really violent militias that the Americans refer to collectively as special groups. And they were essentially breakaway groups from this larger, much larger Shiite militia called Jaish al-Mahdi, but they were Iranian backed, Iranian directed, Iranian armed, Iranian trained. They were directed at mostly American soldiers. They killed dozens if not hundreds of American soldiers. The leaders of two of the special groups, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qais Khazali, now or in the Green Zone living under Maliki's protection, not very far from his house, as I put in the piece and as was described to me. And they are both running, they're still running the same militias, they're just running them now on behalf of the Iraqi government. But that's kind of what you're dealing with.

So if you take the case of Qais Khazali, who ran a special group, one of the very violent militias, the militia that he was associated with and in charge of was directly responsible for an Iranian operation involving the kidnapping and execution of five American soldiers in 2007. And this guy is going in and out of the Green Zone and he's operating the militia on behalf of Maliki's government in 2014. And that kind of gives you a sense of, man, you know, you look back, you learn that today and you look back, you look at the past much, much differently, and that's what happened to me. Like, you know, whose side is he on?

GROSS: Judging from what people told you and from what you observed, you concluded that the government is functioning worse without the Americans. What role did the Americans play in helping the government not only stay together but keep a lid on hostilities between Sunni and Shia?

FILKINS: Well, I think this is one of the most important questions, well, that we all face to this American in kind of assessing how we did in Iraq. You know, we invaded that country, we destroyed the government, we essentially build a new state there, how did it turn out? And I think the answer to that question - at least as I found - it was very surprising. And that is that we, and this was described to me very eloquently by Ryan Crocker, the former American ambassador there, who's a really extraordinary diplomat. And he said the following, which is that the problem is that we built ourselves into the hard drive of that system. And essentially the Iraqi political system only functions with us. And without us, which is to say now, in 2014, it does not function and it's falling apart.

And what he meant by that was - and I think this is true - was we became the honest broker among all these violent sects and groups, we were the umpire, we were the impartial guys. So we were the guys making the deals and we would go to the Shiites and we'd say, look, can you do A, B, C and D? And the Shiites would say, well, if you can get the Sunnis to do, you know, C, D, E and F, maybe we think about it and then we go to them this. That's what we did in Iraq and that - the system kind of functioned. It didn't function very well, but by the time we left, by the time the last American combat soldiers left at the end of 2011, that's the system that we had, that's the system we built. It was cobbled together, the Iraqi state, with us at the umpire and then we left and there's no umpire anymore and there's no honest broker. And I think you're seeing the results of that; it's basically falling apart.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins and he covered the Iraq war for the New York Times, he's now a staff writer for the New Yorker and he's continued to write about Iraq. His latest piece is about Iraq. It's called "What We Left Behind: An Increasingly Authoritarian Leader, A Return of Sectarian Violence and A Nation Worried For Its Future." He was in Iraq for about four weeks during January and February reporting for this piece.

Let's take a short break. And then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker, who covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times. His latest New Yorker article "What We Left Behind," is about the state of Iraq now. He returned to Iraq for four weeks in January and February.

Looking back on all of the mistakes that were made and all of the problems that resulted, what options do you think America had in 2011 when we pulled out the troops? Maliki didn't want Americans there anymore. The way you describe it, he made it very difficult for Americans to stay. Were there other options?

FILKINS: I think there were. In 2011, when we were wrapping up the American presence in Iraq, it was a very crucial and very difficult moment. And the question that everyone was confronted with was, do the Americans go to zero or do they leave some troops behind? It's fascinating the way it played out. What the senior American military commanders told me was that every single senior political leader, no matter what party or what group, including Maliki, said to them privately, we want you to stay. We don't want you to fight. We don't want combat troops. We don't want Americans getting killed, but we want 10,000 American troops inside the Green Zone training our army, giving us intelligence, playing that crucial role as the broker and interlocutor that makes our system work. We want you to stay. In public they said very different things because at that point, you know, after nine years, the Americans were not very popular and the Iraqi politicians had all made names for themselves bashing the Americans.

And so then you turn to the White House and its like, well, what does the White House want? And so there were these long negotiations that went on for more than a year over, you know, will the Americans keep some troops here? And it's fascinating because, you know, Maliki was saying one thing in private and one thing in public and then the White House was extremely ambivalent, the Obama White House. And I remember I spoke and I quote in my piece one of the American ambassadors at the time, James Jeffrey, and he said we got no guidance from the White House. So we would literally sit across Maliki and Maliki would say, you know, what do I got to sell to my people? How many troops do you guys want to leave here? And he said we had no answer for him because we didn't get any guidance from the White House.

And so at the end of the day, even though, as was made I think crystal clear to me, even though most of the Iraqi, if not all the Iraqi political leaders wanted a contingent of American soldiers to stay basically to stabilize things, not to fight, even though they all wanted that, it didn't happen.

And I think in late 2011, President Obama made a telephone call to Prime Minister Maliki and said, OK, how's 5,000 American troops, non-combat? We keep them to train people, to do intelligence, and that sort of thing. How's that? And it didn't happen, basically. It fell apart. There was almost a deal but essentially the sticking point was whether American soldiers would have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

Which Americans have always insisted on pretty much everywhere where they've stationed troops, and which they had. They had that immunity throughout the Iraq War. And Maliki basically said, look, I can't sell that in parliament. So if you need that, then we can't do it. And it basically fell apart over that, over that question.

Not whether they wanted American troops in the country, because I think it's fair to say they did. Maliki denies it publicly but I think it's pretty clear that he wanted several thousand Americans to stay inside Iraq.

GROSS: Do you think it would've made a difference had we been able to keep 5,000 troops in Iraq?

FILKINS: You know, we'll never know, right? And so it's hard to say. Personally, I think that that would've made an enormous difference. And I think if you talk to a lot of American and Western officials who were there and a lot of Iraqi leaders today, they say pretty much the same thing, which is if you just had 5,000 or 10,000 American troops here, say, like, you know, we've had 60,000 troops in Korea for however many years, 60 years.

And nobody complains about them because none of them get killed. If you just had left 5,000 or 10,000 troops here, that would've given the United States kind of a stake in the outcome of Iraq and you would've been engaged. And you would've had enormous influence and you could've played that role as kind of the broker, as the person who could sort of help the Iraqi political system function.

The Americans would've been there to restrain Maliki from doing the really extremely sectarian things that he's been doing, which have driven the country back to civil war. That none of those things would've necessarily happened if the Americans had even a kind of small symbolic presence of a few thousand soldiers on the ground.

I think that's a pretty persuasive argument. I mean, look, there weren't very many people in the United States today, or then in 2011, who would've supported that. It's like, look, we've been there for nine years. We've spent so much blood and treasure on this place. We've got to get out.

And I think that was, you know, a fair summation of American public opinion at the time. But if you ask me would it have made a difference in Iraq, I think pretty clearly the answer is yes. But, I mean, at the end of the day they couldn't make a deal over American troops, even though I think it's fair to say that both sides probably wanted American troops to stay.

GROSS: You think both sides wanted American troops to stay?

FILKINS: Yeah. They just couldn't make the deal. I think that's pretty clear. I think that - I mean, look, there are people who disagree with me and they make very persuasive arguments. And the most persuasive one is made by Emma Sky who is a British diplomat and adviser to the U.S. military there. She said, look, Maliki was never going to allow the Americans to stay at all after 2011 because he was beholden to the Iranians and the Iranians had said to him go to zero. We want no Americans there. If you want our support then you go to zero. Period. And that Maliki signed on the dotted line and bought into that because he had to buy into it.

That's what Emma Sky says. That's pretty persuasive too. But I think the argument that I think, as Emma put it, we didn't get Maliki, the Iranians did. That's pretty persuasive.

GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. His latest New Yorker article is about Iraq on the eve of parliamentary elections which are tomorrow. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for the New Yorker who covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times. His latest New Yorker article, "What We Left Behind," is about the state of Iraq now. He returned to Iraq for four weeks in January and February.

So now, as you put it, the United States really has no influence in Iraq anymore. Why does that matter?

FILKINS: Well, let me answer that question two ways. I think a lot of this goes back to this really extraordinary moment in 2010 several months after the Iraqi parliamentary elections. There was another deadlock. They couldn't pick a prime minister. The Americans were trying to get the Iraqis to come together. They couldn't do it. So who does the deal?

It's not the Americans, it's not the Iraqis, it's the Iranians. The Iranian government, in this case Qasem Soleimani who's the head of the Qods force which is the kind of paramilitary intelligence arm of the revolutionary guards. He summons all the Iraqi political leaders to Qum, the holy city in Iran, and basically makes the deal.

Bangs their heads together really hard, makes them sign. And out of that comes Maliki, the prime minister. We did not - the Americans did not broker that deal. They did in 2006, but in 2010 the Iranians did it. And when Soleimani did that, Soleimani had several conditions, but the big condition was no Americans after 2011. Go to zero. And that's my price for bringing this government together.

And so I think they, you know, I think Maliki stuck to that. I think the price of that, to answer your question more directly, stand back and look at the Middle East right now. It's disintegrating east of the Suez Canal, it's disintegrating in a fundamental way. I mean really, I think, if you start with Syria the catastrophe in Syria, you know, you have, like, a third of the country, nine million people, out of their homes.

You know, tens of thousands dead, probably 14,000 foreign fighters inside the country - Shiite, Sunni - going at each other. And that's just spreading across the Middle East. It's spreading into Lebanon where, you know, every fifth person in Lebanon is now a refugee. It's spreading into Iraq where the border, the Iraqi-Syrian border, is basically gone.

The whole kind of post-World War I settlement that formed the modern Middle East is in danger of collapsing and we can - we, the United States, you know, the preeminent power in the world - we can say that we want to ignore that but how long can we avert our gaze? And how long can we stay out?

I think the longer that the situation, the kind of black hole that you have in the Middle East right now, the longer that situation goes like the way that it is - untended by us - I just don't - you know, maybe we can ignore. I don't think so. I think it'll probably - we've seen before situations like this. They always come back and bite us.

GROSS: Dexter, you're one of the very few Western journalists who covered the Iraq War, you know, pretty much from start to finish and even after it was finished. Your last trip there was in January and February of this year. And I wonder if you're very sad to see how things turned out. You've lost friends. You've seen so much physical and emotional and mortal, you know, damage.

You've seen death. You've seen the destruction of cities and now you're seeing corruption and civil war. And I know you're a reporter, I know you keep your distance but, still, you know, you've seen so much since the invasion. Are you sad to see the outcome?

FILKINS: Oh, my god. Of course. I mean, just purely - I mean, you know, first just from a kind of analytical point of view, I mean, my god. Look at the sacrifice that we, the Americans made there. For this. For this. And this is, as I describe in my piece, I mean, it's an authoritarian, sectarian government in a state which is rapidly kind of collapsing and moving into civil war.

It's this that we spent a trillion dollars and 4,500 American lives for. Boy, that's pretty crushing. And there was that moment back in January that a lot of people probably remember where the pickup trucks flying the black flag of al-Qaida were rolling in through Ramadi and Fallujah. I mean think about that. Ramadi and Fallujah?

I mean I think the United States lost 1,400 American men and women in Anbar Province alone, which is Ramadi and Fallujah. And, my god, al-Qaida is back. We're gone for two years and al-Qaida is back in there. That's pretty devastating. And I think at a personal level, I mean, yeah. I mean, you know, I knew so many people, I've known so many people, who were killed there - Iraqi and American.

And, you know, when you're in Iraq, I mean, look, you know the Iraqi people. They want to be normal. They want a normal country. We're talking just people in the street. You know, they want to have normal lives. They want to be left alone. And that's just not happening.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins, thank you. Thank you for talking with us today but thank you for all the reporting you've done from Iraq over the years, really extraordinary reporting. Thank you for going back...

(LAUGHTER)

FILKINS: Thank you.

GROSS: ...to do more work even though, as you told us, it's not really what you wanted to do.

FILKINS: Thank you.

GROSS: Be well. It's always such a pleasure to talk with you.

FILKINS: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article, which is about Iraq, is called "What We Left Behind." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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