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A U.S. General Walks Baghdad Streets For The First Time In Years


There are some 5,000 American troops in Iraq. For the most part, the Iraqi public never sees them. But this past week, for the first time in years, an American general went walking around downtown Baghdad. NPR's Jane Arraf has this exclusive look at how that went over.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's the start of the Iraqi weekend. Downtown, the streets have been closed to traffic. And people have set up sidewalk stalls, selling everything from discount clothing to exotic birds. There are religious pilgrims and a man wearing a monkey mask, selling balloons. And then there's U.S. Gen. Austin Renforth.

AUSTIN RENFORTH: It's incredible - pretty eclectic group of people, wouldn't you say?

ARRAF: Renforth is a Marine brigadier general. He's deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He works closely with Iraqi Lieutenant General Jalil Jabbar al-Rubaie, who's in charge of Baghdad security. It's been more than three years - before ISIS - since a U.S. commander has stepped foot in downtown Baghdad. Al-Rubaie suggested the tour to show him around.

JALIL JABBAR AL-RUBAIE: I hope one day, you'll bring your family here in Baghdad.

RENFORTH: I would love to bring my family here.

ARRAF: There are armed security people with body armor on the outskirts of the group. But the generals and their staff aren't wearing any. The two men sit on plastic chairs in a little, traffic island, surrounded by thousands of Iraqis just going about their day. Renforth has been deployed here four times before - in the bad times, including the battle for Fallujah in 2004. But this vibrancy is a side of Iraq he's never seen.

RENFORTH: If they see this, you know, maybe the economy gets better. Maybe some outside companies come in. Maybe other things happen. I think this is the future. I mean, we have to really focus on the future of Iraq.

ARRAF: ISIS isn't completely in the past yet. Three years of very tough fighting pushed the group out of the cities. But Renforth and Rubaie agree that ISIS is still a potential threat. Rubaie says politicians can say what they want. But the military, he says, deals in facts. He says, the fact is Iraq still needs U.S. forces here. There are quite a lot of reasons why some Iraqis would be angry to see U.S. troops - the legacy of the 2003 invasion and occupation, the rise of Iranian-backed armed groups. But the Iraqis in the streets generally either ignore Renforth or want to take selfies with him, even if they're not quite sure who he is. General Rubaie is treated as a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: This 9-year-old girl reads a poem praising the Iraqi military. We make our way through the book market to the historic Shabander (ph) Teahouse. And there, something remarkable happens.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Haj Mohammad Khashali is the owner. He lost four sons and a grandson in a car bombing of this street in 2007. For years, he blamed the United States for the lack of security. And he wouldn't let Americans into the cafe. I wait to see what happens. But Khashali sits down on a bench next to the Marine general, and he offers him lemon tea.


ARRAF: When I ask Khashali about it, he says he still holds the U.S. responsible for Iraq's descent into violence. But he says that was a different era. Out in the crowded square, an Iraqi musician comes up to Renforth and plays him a song.



ARRAF: It's inspired by Mesopotamian civilization, which sprang up 3,000 years ago in what is now Iraq. The musician's welcome to the U.S. general is inspired by Iraqi hospitality. Sixteen years later, U.S. forces aren't occupiers anymore. They're invited, if still controversial, guests. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.