It had been years since anyone had seen an American military commander walking around the streets of downtown Baghdad.
So when Marine Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth went with his Iraqi counterpart for a tour of the city’s most crowded neighborhoods on Friday, it wasn’t clear what kind of reception he would get.
Sixteen years after the United States and its coalition partners invaded Iraq, most Iraqis still blame the U.S. for disbanding the Iraqi army and for the security vacuum and devastating civil war that followed.
For most of the past decade, U.S. forces have been largely confined to Iraqi bases — mostly out of sight and out of mind for Iraqi civilians. But the country’s military commanders have relied on American, as well as Iranian, support to help fight ISIS and improve security in the Iraqi capital and elsewhere.
“People think Baghdad is not secure,” Iraqi Lt. Gen. Jalil Jabbar al-Rubaie told NPR, the only news organization along for the walk. He invited Renforth to sit next to him on plastic chairs set up in the middle of a traffic circle in the teeming Shorja district. “No — Baghdad is secure and very normal. It is my pleasure for any people to visit Baghdad and walk in the street.”
Renforth and Rubaie mingled with Iraqis in the street. They wore uniforms but no body armor. They drank glasses of tea under a billboard depicting Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, best known in the United States for leading a militia that fought American troops after the 2003 invasion. Sadr has since become a major political figure.
The streets in Baghdad’s Shorja district were closed to traffic Friday, packed with thousands of pedestrians looking for bargains at sidewalk stalls selling discount clothing. Pakistani pilgrims visiting a Sufi shrine weaved their way past young men carrying cardboard boxes with pigeons from a pet market. An Iraqi wearing a white monkey mask with tufts of orange fake fur sold balloons.
“I hope sometime you bring your family here to Baghdad,” Rubaie told Renforth over tea.
“I would love to bring my family here,” Renforth responded.
He later said he meant it.
“It’s amazing, don’t you think?” said the Marine general, wading into the crowds as his Iraqi host stops at a sidewalk souvenir stand. Armed Iraqi soldiers stood watch on the outskirts of the group.
The stroll through Baghdad had been planned before President Trump paid a surprise Christmas visit to U.S. service members in the western Anbar province — a visit that provoked a political backlash in Iraq when Trump failed to go see the prime minister in Baghdad.
While Trump has said he will withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, he has indicated he would like troops to remain in Iraq, where they are focusing on fighting ISIS along the country’s border with Syria.
Entire Iraqi army divisions collapsed in the north of the country rather than fight ISIS in 2014. But reconstituted and retrained, after three years of fierce fighting against the militant group and visibly improved security in Baghdad, Iraqi commanders have emerged as heroes to many Iraqis.
A 9-year-old girl, Linda Raed, approached Rubaie to read him a poem praising the Iraqi army, as her grandfather recited the words along with her.
Few people seem to give the American or his entourage a second glance.
“I’ve been in Iraq in the worst of times,” Renforth said. “This is progress.”
His previous four deployments here included fighting al-Qaida in Fallujah in 2004, considered the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War.
As deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq over the past six months, Renforth works closely with Rubaie, who is in charge of securing Baghdad.
“Before it wasn’t like this,” Rubaie said, motioning to the thousands of people in the streets in what had been one of Baghdad’s most dangerous outdoor markets. “Because of the safety, life is returning back to normal. We need people to be happy. We don’t want them to be scared.”
The Iraqi capital is generally considered safer today than it has been in many years. Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. help in areas such as intelligence and surveillance, have dramatically reduced the number of militant attacks in the city.
To secure downtown Baghdad to the point where Iraqis feel comfortable enough to crowd the streets on weekends, Iraqi forces fan out at 4 in the morning to ward off potential bombings.
Roughly 5,000 U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. But their presence remains controversial, particularly among Iranian-backed armed groups, which are now an integral part of Iraqi politics and security.
“Politicians can say what they want,” said Rubaie. “But we in the military deal with reality. To be truthful, we still need American forces in Iraq.”
He and Renforth agree that while ISIS has been driven out of the cities, the group is not gone and still remains a potential threat.
“ISIS isn’t defeated — they’re still out there,” said Renforth. “But we’ve pushed them out — the physical caliphate is gone, but there are still remnants of ISIS in the mountains, in the wadis [valleys] taking insurgency-type tactics.”
The group moved on to Baghdad’s cultural heart, al-Mutanabi Street, near the Mada’in district that became a haven for al-Qaida foreign fighters.
In 2007, a suicide car bomb tore through al-Mutanabi’s famous book market, killing almost 30 Iraqis. The street was rebuilt after the bombing.
Iraqis stopped Renforth to take selfies with him, even though some weren’t sure who he was.
“You were defeated in Syria and you will be defeated here,” an Iraqi university student shouted at the American general in perfect English. Switching to Arabic, he told the Iraqis around him it is shameful that U.S. troops are allowed to walk around in the country at all.
The student backed down when Rubaie approached to remind him that the general was a guest of Iraq and there was a journalist present.
In a nearby square, Iraqi oud player Falah al-Baghdadi played a song for Renforth. He said the song has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, 3,000 years ago in what is now Iraq. A coffee seller offered small cups of Arabic coffee.
Rubaie led Renforth and his staff to a Baghdad landmark at the heart of the city’s cultural life for more than a century — the Shabander Café. Inside, Iraqis crowded the wooden benches, catching up on the day’s events while servers rushed to bring trays of tea poured from samovars.
Among the images of towering figures of Iraqi history on the walls are photos of the owner’s four sons and a grandson, who were killed when part of the building collapsed in the 2007 bombing.
For years, owner Haj Mohammad al-Kashali was so angry at the United States he didn’t allow Americans in his café. Like many Iraqis, he blamed the U.S. for Iraq’s security vacuum and descent into violence after its forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
But on this day, Kashali greeted both Rubaie and his American guests and sat next to Renforth, offering him lemon tea.
Kashali explained later that he eventually had to choose between acceptance and despair, and he chose acceptance. Before, the U.S. military was an occupier, he said. “This is a different era.”
For some of Iraq’s political factions though, the past is prologue.
As news of the general’s stroll filtered through Iraqi media, several paramilitary and political groups expressed outrage that even a small group of unarmed U.S. military people accompanied by Iraqi forces were in the streets.
“We warn these forces not to repeat such barbaric behavior,” Hamdallah Rikabi, the spokesman for Sadr’s political faction in parliament said in a statement Sunday.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iran-linked paramilitary group that also has members in parliament, called it a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty. It said if U.S. forces were to return to the streets, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s own fighters would return with greater force.
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