Best of Summer ’08

Two Iraqi soldiers during a nighttime patrol in the city of Mousel in northern Iraq. Photo courtesy of Ayub Nuri.

This week on War News Radio, we proudly present some of our favorite pieces from the summer.

First, three Iraqis from Kurdistan tell us about the day-to-day problems they face when buying and selling food. Sonny Sidhu and Elizabeth Hipple prepared this report.

Next, members of the US military talk about the value of the Awakening movement as a strategy for a safer and self-protecting Iraq. Kristin Caspar and Alex Imas has this report.

Next, we talk to experts about whether Iraq’s security gains will be enough without corresponding political gains. Elizabeth Hipple reports.

Finally, the mother of a young Iraq veteran tells us about how the war has affected his return home. Listen now to Elise Garrity’s report.

These stories, this week on War News Radio.


VARIOUS: “From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.”

ASHER SERED: I’m Asher Sered.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: And I’m Elizabeth Hipple

ASHER SERED: This week, War News Radio proudly presents the best of our summer programs. We dip into the archives for a few of our favorite pieces from this summer.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: First, rising food prices are affecting people around the world. We talk to three Iraqis about how the global food crisis is affecting their day-to-day lives.

ASHER SERED: Next, we hear from residents of Anbar province about how the emergence of Awakening Councils in Iraq has affected them.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Then, experts weigh in on the issue of the Awakening Movement and whether the improvement in Iraq’s security over the past year is sustainable without political changes.

ASHER SERED: Finally, we speak with the mother of a young veteran of the war in Iraq about his challenges readjusting to life in the United States.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: These stories, this week on War News Radio.


ASHER SERED: This summer, the rise in food prices around the world has been front page news. Sonny Sidhu and Elizabeth Hipple spoke to Iraqis about the difficulty of not only being consumers, but the sellers of food in this unforgiving market.

SONNY SIDHU: Shorish Ali is a twenty one-year old food seller in the Kurdish town of Halabja. Shorish and his father have been running a grocery store for almost twenty years. In his store, Shorish sells necessities ranging from rice and tea to detergent and tomato paste. As food prices surge worldwide, Shorish has had to raise his own prices to stay in business.

SHORISH ALI: The price of food has risen in general. In a matter of two days many prices have gone up thousands of dinars. One sack of hudhud rice is ten kilos. We used to sell it for 20 thousand but we sell it now for 33 thousand. Tea has also become expensive. Between now and a few months ago, a box of tea that was $55 is now $78.

SONNY SIDHU: Iraq imports most of its food from neighboring countries. According to Faisal Ali, head of the Iraqi Union of Economists, that’s one reason for the rising price of food of food in Iraq.

FAISAL ALI: Turkey, Syria, and Iran are three major sources of food for Iraq. These countries themselves suffer from high inflation, so by economic logic buying food from those countries means you’ll bring their inflation into your own country. Also, the cost of transporting the food into the country will add to the already high price of food in the country.

SONNY SIDHU: And according to a report released this week, the cost of importing food has driven Iraq’s rate of inflation to a record high of sixteen percent in April of this year alone. This affects people with fixed salaries, like government employees, the most. But even households with an adjustable income are feeling the squeeze. Thirty-year old Hisham and his wife Munira, aged twenty-nine, are newlyweds, now straining to make ends meet in the city of Suleimanay.

HISHAM: I am lucky that I am not a government employee, otherwise my money wouldn’t have been enough for food. My wife works for the government and her salary is 150 dollars. And that is just not enough to buy food. The price of food altogether has its impact on my life. Although I make good money, at the same time I am a tenant and I have to pay rent. We are only two people at home, so we allocated $150 for food every month and it was enough, but now we spend $250 on food.

SONNY SIDHU: But many don’t have extra money to allocate for grocery shopping like Hisham and Munira, so they resort to simply buying less food at the market. Shorish has noticed a downturn in his business since prices started to spiral this spring.

SHORISH ALI: The amount of food my customers buy has decreased. If someone used to buy a sack of rice he now buys only half a sack. If they used to buy two kilos of tea they buy one kilo. If they keep buying food as before, their salary will not be enough. There were times that I used to sell about two tons of food every day, but now I do not sell the same amount in even one week. My customers are still here in town, but they cannot afford shopping for food as they used to.

SONNY SIDHU: Hisham’s wife Munira say that she has to carefully consider how to spend her salary in the face of rising food prices.

MUNIRA: Recently I went to the market to buy a suit and the price was $150. It was more than the salary of one month, so I could not buy it. For some time now I have wanted to buy a dining table, but Hisham says we should wait till he makes some more money.

SONNY SIDHU: Because food remains their top priority, Hisham and Munira say they’ve learned to stretch their dinars at the grocer’s.

HISHAM: We are now cheating ourselves, saving our money and our food by reducing the size of our meals. My wife and I said that if we used to eat a whole chicken in four meals, we should do it now in six meals.

MUNIRA: Now we buy Brazilian chicken, only because it is cheap, although it is not a good quality. Local chicken is now 4500 dinars a kilo. Beef is 10000 a kilo.

HISHAM: Today we had fish at home. We had not had fish for about 3 months, so I bought one today. To be honest it was a splurge because I paid 15 thousand dinars on one fish, but at least we won’t have to buy fish for another few months.

MUNIRA: I sometimes sit with my husband and I wonder, how do people who have a small salary and have to pay rent manage to survive? We make good money together and still feel we can’t catch up, let alone people who have a small salary, several children, and a rent to pay.

SONNY SIDHU: Back at his store, Shorish says his customers are frustrated, and blame him for the high prices.

SHORISH: I have customers who used to buy two sacks of rice and cans of cooking oil for their own home, but now they ask me why the prices are so high. I tell them that it beyond my power. I tell them that it has become expensive from the source. But the customers in the end refuse to buy the food! Some of them even become angry with me as if I have made things so expensive!

SONNY SIDHU: Hisham says he doesn’t know who to blame for the high price of food. All he knows is that he’s not eating the way he used to.

HISHAM: The most basic right of a human being is to have access to food and eat his fill. But I am telling you frankly that I cannot eat what I like because I can’t afford it!

SONNY SIDHU: For War News Radio, with Elizabeth Hipple, I’m Sonny Sidhu.

[Music Break: “Maria” by The Dining Rooms]

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: This is War News Radio. The Awakening movement began in early 2007, when citizens of Iraq’s Anbar Province rejected the tactics and ideology of Al Qaeda in their areas. The US military took advantage of this by recruiting these people into armed groups to expel Al Qaeda from their neighborhoods. Kristin Caspar and Alex Imas spoke with members of the US military about how the Awakening Councils have helped the troops achieve their goals.

KRISTIN CASPAR: With violence in Iraq raging in the early years of the occupation, coalition forces were under siege from all sides. A main threat came from insurgents in Sunni areas of Iraq. Al-Qaeda was one of the groups that attacked the American army on a daily basis. Admiral Patrick Driscoll, Chief of Communications for the Multi-National Forces, says that as the presence of these groups grew, their ideology began to clash with the local culture.

PATRICK DRISCOLL: Started with Sunnis out in Anbar province who had worked with al Qaeda because they were against US forces in Iraq to begin with. As time went on, they realized that Wahhabist Takfirist were enforcing a lifestyle they didn’t believe in. Were cutting off smokers’ fingers, were marrying off wives and daughters and were violating the tribal code.

KRISTIN CASPAR: As the US military noticed the split between local leaders and Al-Qaeda, they moved forward to help the people push Al-Qaeda out of their villages. Admiral Driscoll says he saw the people come together with the US military to take ownership of their community.

PATRICK DRISCOLL: I was walking down Main St. with this young Marine Captain and he had provided some money to the city to repair the storefronts that had been broken, and walking alongside us were the Sons of Iraq, their Awakening Group. They had a little safety belt and their own weapons. They had old Russian machine guns and squirrel rifles and were very proud to be taking charge of their area against Al Qaeda, and I’m sure there were some a week before who had been shooting at the Marines, but when the local Sheikhs said we’re going with the Coalition, they got in line and followed.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Once these local people, better known as the Awakening Councils, began working with Coalition forces, they did more than just man checkpoints and protect important infrastructure. Their knowledge of the local area is extremely valuable to Coalition efforts, says Lt. Col. Michael Brandt, a sectional Chief of Reconciliation at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

MICHAEL BRANDT: They’re very proficient at identifying and finding IEDs and helping coalition forces find weapons caches, and weapons that could eventually be used against coalition forces. That’s probably the biggest advantage that we’ve had is using people from the area that know family members and are able to provide the type of information that we would find very difficult to find otherwise.

KRISTIN CASPAR: In addition to intelligence, the Awakening councils have provided a large number of fighters to work alongside the US and Iraqi militaries. This participation has taken its toll on their members according to Admiral Driscoll.

PATRICK DRISCOLL: These Sons of Iraq have been taking casualties at a rate three times greater than Coalition and Iraqi security forces have been taking. So these are brave people that are out there fighting for the local neighborhoods, and it’s been a very powerful tool.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Despite their close relationship, Lieutenant Col. Brandt says there are still some in the Awakening Councils who continue to resist Coalition forces.

MICHAEL BRANDT: We recognize that there’s always going to be a small percentage of irreconcilables these are the individuals who will always look backwards, that will lash out against the coalition or the Iraqi governmnet and try and impede the progress. There is a small percentage of these extremists, and we try to identify and weed them out.

KRISTIN CASPAR: The Awakening Councils began in Sunni areas, but have since spread to some Shia communities. Lieut. Colonel Brandt, says the Awakening Councils have promoted dialogue between different religious sects.

MICHAEL BRANDT: The farther east it spreads south of Baghdad, the more Shi’a populations you’ll have, which means you’ll have a high number of SOIs that are Shi’a working with SOIs and SOI leaders that are Sunni. The two will talk to each other and that could be the SOI level or SOI leaders, and tribal sheiks coming to the table to work with the coalition. We meet with them on a regular basis and just getting them to talk together is a huge step towards national reconciliation.

KRISTIN CASPAR: But while these local groups help provide security in Iraq, Admiral Driscoll says it is a temporary solution. He says they are already looking for a way to transition members of these groups for when the security situation improves. Job training is one way to achieve this goal, says Lieut. Col. Brandt.

MICHAEL BRANDT: We’re working to provide them alternative means of employment, could be working for the gov of Iraq at the provincial level or even the ministerial level. Doing a lot of what they’re doing now, protecting infrastructure. We’ve also set up training programs at selected sites in and around Baghdad in our sector where they can go and learn a skill and they also earn a stipend while they’re learning a trade. Could be as a carpenter, machinist, plumber, and armed with these skills, we want to get them out into the work force so they can contribute to society.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Admiral Driscoll says that some of the awakening council fighters have already joined the Iraqi army.

PATRICK DRISCOLL: About 17 thousand have transitioned to security forces, 20 thousand want to, some of those 20 thousand can’t pass a literacy test, so we’ve set up schools to train them to a level that is sufficient to get them to join the army or police.

KRISTIN CASPAR: The military initially had concerns about insurgents serving in areas populated by a rival sect. But Admiral Driscoll believes incorporating former Awakening Council members in the Iraqi Army is already working to create a united force.

PATRICK DRISCOLL: What we’ve seen with the sweeping operations that have been conducted here in Basra, in Sadr City and in Amarah, the Army has moved many units from certain areas to other areas, so you’ve got Sunni units going out of Anbar to go down to Basrah, and that shows that this is a national army, it’s not a sectarian army only to be used in certain places.

KRISTIN CASPAR: But until the Iraqi Army is able to provide security on its own, a close relationship between the Awakening councils with the US military is essential. From War News Radio, I’m Kristin Caspar.

[Music Break: “Thatched Neon” by Fila Brazillia ]

ASHER SERED: This is War News Radio. The emergence of Awakening Councils in Iraq has changed the Sunnis’ military role in that country, but has done little to change their political position within the government. Elizabeth Hipple spoke with three experts, including Lee Hamilton, the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, about what security without political improvements could mean for the future stability of Iraq.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: While Iraq’s Awakening Councils have managed to provide security, the fact that their members receive paychecks from the United States for doing so raises concerns that relative calm will last only as long as the money does. Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks such worries are unfounded because the former insurgents have stopped fighting the United States for reasons other than money.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: If mass warfare returns to Iraq, Sunnis will lose and they know it – that’s why they stood down in such enormous numbers with such blinding speed. This is not a situation where a bunch of Sunnis with their fingers on the trigger, waiting for the first opportunity so they can reignite the war.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: While Sunnis may have left the insurgency, that does not mean that they are satisfied with the political status quo. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study group, worries that security gains are not enough without corresponding political gains.

LEE HAMILTON: The Sunnis are increasingly frustrated with the United States and the Iraqi government over what they see as a lack of recognition of their role, of their importance. Sunni Awakening Councils have a deep distrust, as your question suggests, of the Shias who basically run the government. The promise of the Maliki government to integrate the Sunnis has not yet been fulfilled.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers Univeristy, echoes Hamilton’s concerns that the formation of Awakening Councils and their cooperation with the United States does not mean that recent decreases of violence are signs of permanent improvement. Strides forward in reducing violence will last only when Sunnis and Shias have reached an agreement over how to divide and share political power.

TOBY JONES: I suppose the biggest problem is, are Sunnis and Shias in Iraq at this point going to tolerate the authority of the other or the presence of the other? Are the Sunnis going to tolerate the Shias having the preponderance of political power in Iraq, are the Shias going to tolerate the existence of Sunnis who might have formerly supported both the anti-American and the anti-Shia insurgency inside the government? It’s a matter of political will.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Stephen Biddle agrees that the mere existence of Awakening Councils is not a sign of Iraq’s stability. There are over two hundred contracted Councils in Iraq and the decentralized nature of these groups leaves plenty of room for a return to violence.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Somebody’s going to miscalculate, somebody’s going to make a mistake, somebody’s going to engage in mistaken identity and retaliate against somebody they shouldn’t retaliate against. The danger is that when that happens, as it already has and inevitably will, it can create an escalatory spiral as their rivals take revenge on them, they take revenge on the vengeance takers, and off you go, and the next thing you know, neighboring groups get sucked in and then you’re right back to 2006 again.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: To prevent such a spiral of violence from reigniting, Stephen Biddle thinks that the continued presence of about 100,000 American soldiers is needed to act as peacekeeping forces through 2009, when Iraq’s next national election is scheduled to take place. However, Prof. Jones believes that far from helping prevent a return to violence, American military presence in Iraq might actually be making the situation worse.

TOBY JONES: If the US is actually, if its presence there is actually a problem in preventing either the Shi’as making important concessions or realizing that they have to make important concessions or for the Sunnis to act as reasonable actors in the absence of patronage, then we’re not really making any progress. The American presence there it is far from certain, it seems to me, that the American presence is actually helping satisfy requirements for a long term peace in Iraq or whether or not it’s simply putting off the inevitable.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Hamilton is neither as optimistic nor as pessimistic as others about the future stability of Iraq. A permanent reduction in violence will not be achieved only by military initiatives but by ones of a political nature.

LEE HAMILTON: I just think that we’re going to have to lower our expectations as to what can be achieved in Iraq and think more in terms of trying to promote a complex political process not so much pursuing military victory, not leading, I hope, to a indefinite occupation of Iraq but focusing more on stability and modest achievements of what we can achieve in a very, very difficult environment.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: The organization of former Sunni insurgents into Awakening Councils has improved security in Iraq in the short term but that might change if they decide to pursue political power. For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

[Music Break: “Speak into the Microphone” by The Dining Rooms ]

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: This is War News Radio. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an invisible war wound, which can surface in unexpected and frightening ways. Some veterans are pushed to the brink before they decide to seek help. Elise Garrity spoke to the mother of a 24-year old Iraq veteran, about how the dangers her son has faced have extended beyond the battlefield.

ELISE GARRITY: In September of 2001, Heidi’s older son David was eighteen years old. After 9/11 happened and an army recruited visited his high school, he and some of his friends decided to sign up for the National Guard. Four years later, as a sophomore in college, David was deployed to Iraq. After a year overseas, his mother says, back to school wasn’t back to normal.

HEIDI: You can imagine sitting in a library and hearing rocket propelled grenades, and feeling like you don’t fit in because you’re so different from the other kids. He couldn’t relate at all…

ELISE GARRITY: David did manage to complete his junior year, but all the while had difficulty settling into civilian life.

HEIDI: You know he did a lot of things that a lot of these guys do – drink hard, drive fast, get in fights, trying to get the adrenaline back, because he just didn’t feel like he was really alive and so I think that was a big thing for going back because that’s where he really felt alive. He felt like he had a purpose, you know all of those kind of things.

ELISE GARRITY: In June of 2007, David was called to Iraq for a second tour, this time with a different sense of purpose.

HEIDI: Well the first time he believed in the mission, you know, freedom and democracy, I don’t know that he bought into that whole weapons of mass destruction – I doubt, I doubt that very much. This time he’s, now he’s saying oil.

ELISE GARRITY: Heidi and her son kept in touch online, and she says that David kept it light.

HEIDI: Just very casual, “how’s it going, everything here is fine, just really busy,” very very casual, because he knew I would have had a fit, I would have been so worried if I knew he was getting blown up on a regular basis. He told me that in the midst of his pain, that’s when he opened up after he came back.

ELISE GARRITY: In May of 2008, David completed his second tour. Upon seeing him for the first time, Heidi was shocked to find her son so devastated.

HEIDI: I picked him up at the airport when he came back from his training. So I picked him up, and actually the people on the plane: “Oh thank you, you’re heroes,” and they put him in first class and they gave him a whole bunch of liquor. So they were just drunk coming off the plane and his head just kept spinning, he just kept talking and talking, which you know, you just let him talk, not say it’s going to be okay or “you were brave and you did what you had to do”. I just patted him and every now and then I would say I just love you, because they don’t want to hear it’s okay. Because they don’t feel it’s okay, they’re not at peace with what they did.

ELISE GARRITY: What bothered David most was guilt. He mourned for the Iraqi civilians who had become victims of combat.

HEIDI: That’s the horrible thing for him, and he called himself a killer and a murderer. I mean that – he’s like these are innocent people, we’re killing so many innocent people, and we’re not, you know, it’s not all terrorists and insurgents. That’s what’s eating him up. Women and children, fathers that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. And he just can’t, he just can’t let that go.

ELISE GARRITY: Despite all of his shame, David wanted to keep fighting. He had been planning to make a career for himself in the military, and his second tour had pushed thoughts of college far from his mind.

HEIDI: At first when he came back he just wanted to turn around and go back. He hasn’t been thinking straight, he had some brain damage, a little bit of brain trauma because their humvee hit an IED and exploded. So he was having a hard time concentrating and reading, he had ringing in his ear and he was like how am I going to do school like that? So he was talking really crazy when he first came back.

ELISE GARRITY: At first, Heidi says that David was resistant to the idea of getting help. But then he took a trip to Thailand with some friends. What happened on the way changed not only his mind, but the course of his life.

HEIDI: He was going to Thailand with his buddies, his army buddies, and he got in trouble in Japan. Legal trouble. Someone put his hands on him and his immediate reaction is to lash out, and you can’t do that. He had to pay some fines, all that kind of stuff, but the army busted him down a rank, which really hurt him a lot. This is clear-cut, you can see what’s happening. Just so much of this PTSD stuff.

ELISE GARRITY: David was diagnosed with PTSD at an army base in Japan. Back at home, Heidi contacted a local vet center, where he could get counseling. David was finally ready to ask for help.

HEIDI: So when he came home he had that on his mind. This is what I’m going to do, I’m committed to getting the help I need. And on his drive back from the airport the army called and said we’re not releasing you from active duty, we’re going to take you down where we want you to go, and he’s like “no I need to be with my family, I got counseling here.” So he kind of flipped out. That’s what propelled him, that was a couple days of drinking before the incident with the police. He was in an alley shooting stuff, thinking the military was after him, it was just crazy. It’s only a miracle he didn’t get shot. In fact when the police called me, they brought him to the VA hospital, but when they called me I thought for sure, that was what they were going to tell me. So he ended up at the VA hospital, sobbing in my arms, just broken. So broken and I’m just hugging him and rocking him, it broke my heart. Broke my heart and it just really made me angry that you’re going to use someone up, and not take care of him. So the military did come and get him, jerked him out of there and took him down almost 20 hours away from where I live and put him in their counseling program. So we can’t visit, it’s too far to go visit.

ELISE GARRITY: Heidi sees a silver lining in the fact that her son will no longer make a career for himself in the military. She says that he eventually plans to finish college as a business major. But that’s a long ways off.

Heidi is a single mother of two, and David is not all on her mind. As her older son returns home, broken from the war, her younger son is preparing to leave. He signed up for the National Guard while David was on his second tour in Iraq.

HEIDI: I just hate it that I have a 19 year old that has to go over at the end of this year. My youngest joined the Guard. They have huge signing bonuses, like 20 thousand dollar sign-up bonuses. When you’re dealing with an 18-year old, that’s all he’s thinking about is that money. So he signed up, he went to boot camp last summer and now he has to go, either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

ELISE GARRITY: The past few months have been emotionally grueling for Heidi.

HEIDI: I’m very, very angry. I’m like, now I’m at the point I’m fighting mad, where I want to get involved politically, and I’m ready to join Women against Military Madness, people need to hear what’s going on. Especially after being online and reading all these stories and these families suffering, these vets who are lost and falling through the cracks, I’m furious. For what? All these lives being ruined and for what?

ELISE GARRITY: Purpose is a big question for all involved in the war today. After seeing David’s disillusionment about his purpose fighting for the war, Heidi has found her own – a fight against it. A fight for David’s life. For War News Radio, I’m Elise Garrity.

ASHER SERED: That’s our show for this week.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

ASHER SERED: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: On our site, you can also comment on this show or on our past programs.

ASHER SERED: Our behind the scenes crew for this week includes: Marge Murphy and Ayub Nuri. I’m Asher Sered.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: And I’m Elizabeth Hipple. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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