- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

U.S. troops in Iraq are continuing their efforts at nation-building even as they draw down there, said Tamara Banks, a special correspondent for the high-definition television network HDNet, who recently returned from an embed with American and Iraqi forces.

Miss Banks said she was surprised by the level of collaboration between American and Iraqi military personnel and civilians. She told The Washington Times she found the camaraderie “very uplifting, very positive.”

Miss Banks was embedded with the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces from July 23 to Aug. 13. She interviewed top U.S. commanders, American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Her report was featured on “HDNet World Report” on Tuesday.

Dennis O’Brien, executive producer of “World Report,” said his crew “put themselves at significant amount of risk” preparing the story and even went on patrols with Iraqi forces. As a result, the report gave Americans a window into Iraq on a “microlevel,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien noted that there are “extraordinary challenges” in Iraq since the [U.S.] troops are tasked with two mammoth chores at once: help to rebuild the nation while withdrawing the troops.

“The logistical challenge [of withdrawal] is huge while we are still trying to build infrastructure,” he said.

Mr. O’Brien said that while Americans at home might be weary of the Iraq conflict, troops on the ground are still doing important work and operating on “an incredibly compressed timeline.” Ironically, he said, because of security improvements in recent years, the situation in Iraq is more conducive to nation-building than before.

Miss Banks said she found Iraqis appreciative of the American military presence. Of the civilians she interviewed, she said “most were grateful and wanted [American troops] to stay longer.”

There is such ease between American forces and Iraqis that troops can venture into some quarters and “leave their bulletproof vests behind” as they hand out toys and supplies, she said. She observed that for some U.S. military personnel, it is as though they have “become part of the community.”

Many of the American warriors are tired of laboring under intense heat far from home; some are on on their second or third deployments. Nonetheless, she said, they are buoyed by the fact that they are not seen as enemies and are able to help in reconstruction.

“Every week, if not daily, there is some sort of progress,” Miss Banks said.

Although the level of security has improved in recent years, there still are incidents of violence, including in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi ministries are located. Miss Banks recalled multiple bombings near the zone on Aug. 19 that killed more than 100 people. The atmosphere is more secure but “could still change at a moment’s notice,” she said.

Mr. O’Brien said that one of the primary themes of the HDNet report is that there is a “big, big emphasis on a continuing relationship” between America and Iraq even after the bulk of the troops are withdrawn. It is not just that some level of forces will remain, but more importantly that there is a strong desire to “continue the partnership on both sides and to remain friends,” he said.

One of the many challenges Iraqis still must overcome is pervasive corruption, Miss Banks said. She described an incident when she was trying to shoot a video in the Green Zone and was approached by a police officer. He soon called members of the Iraqi army. After about two hours of wrangling, Miss Banks and her crew left and were able to keep the footage they had shot. She was told later by an Iraqi soldier, “If you had just paid some money [to the police officer] you could have avoided this [wrangling].”

Mr. O’Brien said one of the most important contributions American forces make is that they lead by example. “They are role models,” he said. He and Miss Banks said Iraqis viewed both male and female U.S. military personnel with great respect.

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