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NYTimes Reporter Damien Cave Talks Iraq

1:16 PM, Feb 18, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Is the surge working and how long should American troops stay in Iraq? These are the questions Americans want answered. But according to Damien Cave, who spent most of the last year covering the war in Iraq as a reporter for the New York Times, they are not the only questions to ask. Home for a little more than a month now, he spoke Friday at an event in New York City hosted by the Phillips Foundation. Cave said that the question Americans must ask is "what do we owe the Iraqis as people?" And he pointed to what he called a "lack of intellectual rigor" on this issue from across American society.

Americans have a "moral responsibility to the Iraqi people," said Cave, though he did not elaborate on what would be required of us in order to fulfill our obligation. In particular he highlighted the sacrifices made by Iraqis who work for the American government and American companies, and the millions of innocent Iraqis forced to leave their homes by Iraq's violence. He expressed some frustration that politicians, think-tanks, and foundations had spent so little time addressing the question of what can or should be done for such people. He offered as an example the corruption that pervades Iraqi government and society, and he noted that there seemed to be little effort to develop a strategy for dealing with the problem, which he said severely undermines faith in the Iraqi government. Cave did not speculate on why American civil society had failed to maintain an interest in the challenge of rebuilding Iraq.

In fact, he offered far more questions than answers in what was a largely informal discussion on the nature of reporting from a war zone, but he spoke at length about "how psychologically damaged the Iraqi people are after decades under Saddam's rule." One of the legacies of that regime, he said, was that "no one trusts anyone." As to whether the surge is working, he allowed that violence was down across the country, but he explained that there are "no simple answers." He pointed to the combined effect of the ceasefire called by Moktada al-Sadr, the Awakening movement's war on al Qaeda, and the new strategy and increased numbers of U.S. forces. Whether it was the Iraqi or American dynamic that was more dominant is an open question, he said, but he did emphasize that from the American point of view, he believed the change in strategy--the move out from large bases and into Iraqi neighborhoods, as well as the increase in money set aside for new American allies--was more significant than the increase in force levels.

Again and again he pointed to the "complicated, nuanced reality" of Iraq. It is "more complicated than anyone realizes," he said. And he added that this complexity also extends to Iraqi public opinion. Cave was dubious of public opinion surveys showing that Iraqis want American troops out of Iraq. They "resent the American presence but still expect a lot from it," he said, and he recounted conversations with Iraqis in which they would say they wanted Americans to leave the country immediately, only to demand that before they withdraw they repair this or that element of the infrastructure--no matter how long it takes. For many Iraqis, he said, this isn't simply a question of "either or."