[This piece appears in the April 6, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books. It also appears, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.]
“Ladies and Gents,” the South African pilot matter-of-factly announces over the intercom, “we’ll be starting our spiral descent into Baghdad, where the temperature is 19 degrees Celsius.” The vast and mesmerizing expanse of sandpapery desert that has been stretching out beneath the plane has ended at the Tigris River. To avoid a dangerous glide path over hostile territory and missiles and automatic weapons fire, the plane banks steeply and then, as if caught in a powerful whirlpool, it plunges, circling downward in a corkscrew pattern.
Upon arriving in Amman, the main civilian gateway to Baghdad, one already has had the feeling of drawing ever nearer to an atomic reactor in meltdown. Even in Jordan, there is a palpable sense of being in the last concentric circle away from a radioactive ground zero emitting uncontrollable waves of contamination.
Almost nowhere in our homogenized world does crossing an international frontier deliver a traveler to a truly unique land. There is, however, no place in the world like Iraq. Even at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, one finds hints of this mutant land to come. Affixed to the wall above a baggage carousel is an advertisement for “The AS Beck Company, Bonn, Germany: CERTIFIED ARMORED CARS.” The company’s logo is a sedan with the crosshairs of an assault rifle’s telescopic scope trained on the windshield on the driver’s side. “WHEN GOING TO IRAQ, MAKE SURE YOU DRIVE ARMORED!” the ad proclaims cheerfully. At the departure gate, a crimson placard warns against carrying FORBIDDEN ITEMS: “Gun Powder, Golf Clubs, Hand Grenades, Ice Axes, Cattle Prods, Hocket Sticks [sic], Meat Cleavers and Big Guns,”
making one wonder if “little guns” are OK.
The small Royal Jordanian Fokker F-28-4000, which makes daily trips to Baghdad, sits out on the tarmac away from the jetways as if some airport official feared it might prove to be an airborne IED (improvised explosive device, a US military acronym). Those of us on this hajj to the global epicenter of anti-Western and Islamic sectarian strife are an odd assortment of private security guards, military contractors, U.S. officials, Iraqi businessmen, and journalists; a young man in a sweatshirt announces himself as part of the “Military Police K-9 Corps” (bomb-sniffing dogs).
The Baghdad International Airport terminal is full of armed guards and ringed by armored vehicles. I saw no buses or taxis awaiting arriving passengers. Almost everyone is “met.” I am picked up by the New York Times’s full-time British security chief, who has come in a miniature motorcade of “hardened,” or bomb-proof, cars, escorted by several armed Iraqi guards in constant radio contact with each other.
As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural-urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere.
It starts on the way into Baghdad, the cluttered seven-mile gauntlet which has come to be known as Route Irish after the Fighting 69th “Irish” Brigade of the New York National Guard, which patrolled it after the invasion. Some also now call it Death Road, because so many attacks have occurred along its length. Now largely patrolled by Iraqi forces, it is not quite the firing range it used to be. But it is still the most nerve-racking trip from an airport that any traveler is likely to make.
Although pre-war Iraq had a relatively modern highway system, with multilane roads and overpasses, an occasional clover leaf, and even international standard green and white signs in both Arabic and English, it has been eroded by neglect, fighting, bombings, and tank treads which have ground up curbs and center dividers. Everywhere there is churned-up earth, trash and rubble, loops of razor wire draped with dirty plastic bags, decapitated palm trees, wrecked equipment, broken streetlights, and packs of roaming yellow dogs sniffing at piles of garbage, the perfect places for insurgents wishing to hide cell phone–triggered IEDs to greet the next passing convoy of patrolling American troops. Much of the roadside looks like a combat zone, even when it hasn’t been under attack.
Many of Baghdad’s main roads are a nightmare of traffic congestion. When American or Iraqi patrols of Humvees mounted with 50-caliber machine guns, M-1 Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pull onto a street, everything slows to a crawl. Signs tied on their tailgates warn in English and Arabic: “DANGER: Stay Back!” Every driver gets the message. Failure to maintain one’s distance can draw fire. And so, like a herd of cold and hungry animals fearful of getting too close to a campfire, traffic cringes behind such patrols, while frustrated drivers are left to wait, breathe one another’s exhaust, and curse the occupation.
It has not helped that when Saddam Hussein fell, almost all ordinary governmental activities — such as registering cars and issuing drivers’ licenses — ceased, and thousands of vehicles flooded the market in Iraq from other countries. Traffic lights rarely work since electric power is still sporadic; the only control comes from a few street cops who have been recently posted at key intersections to direct the relentless crush of vehicles. To make matters worse, after several attacks or bombings, the U.S. military or the Iraqi government will often simply prop up a sign in the center of a main artery saying: “HAIFA STREET IS CODE RED! DON’T USE!” Moreover, as the city has become ever more violent and chaotic, people have begun blocking off streets on their own to create safety zones. Since there has been little law enforcement, there is no one to stop this private appropriation of public space.
At first people made themselves feel more secure after the invasion by piling sandbags along streets or in front of their houses and offices. But as suicide bombers began to proliferate and their explosive charges grew larger and more destructive, private defense efforts became more elaborate as well. The advent of the “blast wall” changed the Baghdad landscape.
Developed by the Israelis in order to put up a physical barrier between themselves and the Palestinians, the Iraq version of these segmented walls is constructed out of thousands of portable, twelve-foot-high slabs of steel-reinforced concrete. When stood upright on their pedestals, these “T-walls” look something like giant tombstones, totems perhaps from some long-lost Easter Island culture gone minimalist. When placed together edge-to-edge as “blast walls,” they form the gray undulations that have now become Baghdad’s most distinguishing feature. And because they proliferated during the administration of L. Paul Bremer III, they became known to some as “Bremer walls.”
For example, when one major news organization became alarmed at the deteriorating security situation in the city, it occupied part of Abu Nawas, a main road along the Tigris River that the U.S. military had already blocked in front of two adjacent hotels in order to erect a maze of protective blast walls, guard towers, and other fortifications. So, where there was once a major highway complete with a center divider shaded by trees, there is now a relatively quiet, garden-like parking lot, surrounded by twelve-foot-high protective concrete walls.
As the quest for greater private security increases, a new and unexpected kind of public insecurity has grown alongside it. With vehicles rerouted through an ever-diminishing number of open streets, traffic jams have become more frequent, exposing foreigners, rich Baghdadis, and anyone else out of favor with one or another group of insurgents to a greater danger of being kidnapped, shot, or blown up. It is unnerving (to say the least) to be stuck in such traffic, wedged into a welter of dilapidated sedans, vans, and pickup trucks with heavily armed Iraqis staring sullenly through the window of your expensively reinforced car, as security guards sitting next to you cradle their automatic weapons. With no possibility of escape, you can’t help wondering when your unlucky moment will come. And when traffic completely stops and frustrated drivers begin to break out of line, gun their vehicles up sidewalks, veer across center dividers, or just charge up the opposite lane against the flow of oncoming traffic, it is difficult to remain calm.
The worst offenders are private security guards who are committed to protecting their charges any way they can, and the Iraqi police, who now have brand-new fleets of green and white cruisers with whooping sirens, allowing them to plow their way through traffic-clogged streets as if they were kids on joy rides.
Adding to the overall racket and general sense of anxiety is the fact that it is hard to tell if the incessant sounds of sirens, the periodic bursts of automatic weapons fire, or the occasional explosions that are heard throughout the day mean anything or not. There are police firing ranges within the city, and sometimes a bored guard will just harmlessly fire off a few shots by way of a warning. As Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times explained, “Squeezing off a few rounds of automatic weapons fire here in Baghdad is the equivalent of honking your horn in America.”
So unless an explosion is quite close, people hardly break step. At most, if there is a particularly loud report, a journalist might go up onto his bureau’s rooftop to see where the smoke is coming from.
There is undeniably a Blade Runner-like feel to this city. The violence is so pervasive and unfathomable that you wonder what people think they are dying for. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the everyday violence is horrendous, it does not take too many days before the deadly noises and the devastation everywhere seem to become just part of the ordinary landscape. Soon, quite to your surprise, you find yourself paying hardly more attention to the sounds of gunshots than a New Yorker does to the car alarms that go off every night… until, that is, someone you know, a neighbor, or just someone you have heard about, gets blown up, shot on patrol, or kidnapped by insurgents.
Just a few days after I left Baghdad, Iraqi newspapers carried a short notice that a well-to-do Iraqi banker, Ghalib Abdul Hussein, had been kidnapped from his fortified house by gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms. Five of his personal guards were shot execution-style in his yard. This is just one of thousands of such occurrences. But except for obeying the security guards responsible for you (if you have them), there isn’t much else you can do.
Driving through the streets of Baghdad, one now sees members of the newly created, blue-uniformed Iraqi Police Service, extolled by the Bush administration as another hopeful sign of “Iraqization.” But because police recruitment stations, training schools, and district precincts are favorite targets of the insurgents, many of these new police are afraid of being identified as collaborators with the Americans or the new Iraqi government. Their remedy is to wear black stocking caps with eye, nose, and mouth holes pulled down over their faces so they look like so many bank robbers. One sees these sinister-looking protectors of the peace at traffic circles and intersections, or brandishing automatic weapons in the back of American-bought pickup trucks, which makes them seem far more menacing than reassuring.
The News Bureaus
Visiting any of the news bureaus gives an immediate sense of how embattled foreign journalists now are and how difficult it has become for them to do their jobs. Everyone I spoke to complained that the deteriorating security situation has increasingly made them prisoners of their bureaus.
“We could go almost anywhere in Iraq in a regular car, unprotected,” wrote the Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi this February, in a wistful front-page story for her paper about the situation she found when she first arrived in 2003. “I wore Western clothes — pants and T-shirts, skirts, sandals — walked freely around Baghdad chatting with shopkeepers and having lunch or dinner with people I met.” By the spring of 2004, she writes, “the insurgency had been spreading and gaining strength faster than we had imagined possible. For the first time, I hired armed guards and began traveling in a fully armored car. Outings were measured and limited and road trips were few and far between… As security deteriorated around the country, the areas in which we could safely operate shrank.”
Foreign news bureaus are either in or near the few operating hotels such as the Al Hamra, the Rashid, or the Palestine. Like battleships that have been badly damaged but are still at sea, these hotels have survived repeated bomb attacks and yet have managed to stay open. A few hotels like the Rashid, where once there was a mosaic depicting George Bush Sr. on the floor of the lobby, are sheltered within the Green Zone. A few other bureaus have their own houses, usually somewhat shabby villas that have the advantage of being included inside some collective defense perimeter that makes the resulting neighborhood feel like a walled medieval town.
Wherever in the city the news bureaus are, they have become fortified installations with their own mini-armies of private guards on duty twenty-four hours a day at the gates, in watch towers, and around perimeters. To reach these bureaus, one has to run through a maze of checkpoints, armed guards, blast-wall fortifications, and concertina-wired no man’s lands where all visitors and their cars are repeatedly searched.
The bitter truth is that doing any kind of work outside these American fortified zones has become so dangerous for foreigners as to be virtually suicidal. More and more journalists find themselves hunkered down inside whatever bubbles of refuge they have managed to create in order to insulate themselves from the lawlessness outside. (A January USAID “annex” to bid applications for government contracts warns how “the absence of state control and an effective police force” has allowed “criminal elements within Iraqi society [to] have almost free rein.”)
Nearly every foreign group working in Iraq has felt it necessary to hire a PSD, or “personal security detail,” from more than sixty “private military firms” (PMFs) — Triple Canopy, Erinys International Ltd., and Blackwater USA — now doing a brisk business in Iraq. In fact, there are now reported to be at least 25,000 armed men from such private firms on duty in the country today. Led mostly by Brits, South Africans, and Americans, these subterranean paramilitary PSDs form a parallel universe to America’s occupation force. Indeed, they even have their own organization, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq.
It has not escaped the attention of U.S. National Guardsmen, reservists, regular army soldiers, and Marines that their mercenary counterparts get paid four or five times more than they do, sometimes as much as $1,000 a day. Understandably, there is a good deal of resentment about this inequity, and not a few American soldiers now aspire to nothing more than getting out of their low-paying jobs working for the military so that they can sign on with one of these companies.
“I look at it this way,” one young former Marine told me. “The Corps was an all-expenses-paid training ground to graduate me into the private sector.”
But being in a PSD is a dangerous occupation, as four guards from Blackwater learned in 2004 when, while on a mission to pick up some kitchen equipment from an 82nd Airborne base in Falluja, their SUVs were attacked and set on fire, and they were killed and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. (As this issue went to press, fifty employees of a private Sunni Arab– owned security company were abducted in Baghdad.)
The U.S. government has ended up hiring thousands of private guards to protect its contractors and even high-ranking officials such as Paul Bremer. In fact, a 2005 U.S. government audit reported that between 16 and 22 percent of reconstruction project budgets in Iraq now go for security, almost 10 percent more than had been anticipated. As one private security guard told PBS Frontline’s Martin Smith, “We are a taxi service, and we’re equipped to defend ourselves if we’re attacked.”
Security is a very costly business, which has meant that most stringers and freelance journalists who could never afford such protection have been driven out of Baghdad. Bureaus like that of the New York Times which can afford it and are still in Iraq now carry costly insurance policies and require that all coming and going — indeed, all aspects of life outside the compound, including trips to the airport — be under the control of a full-time security chief, who acts as an earthbound air-traffic controller for the bureau. His job is to carefully set times and routes for reporters’ trips, and then maintain almost constant contact with their cars until they are safely back. If you want to have an interview outside the bureau, there is always a chance that it will be canceled or delayed for security reasons. Security chiefs are also in charge of the armed guard details that protect the bureau around the clock. No one goes anywhere without a plan worked out in advance, and then preferably in a “hardened,” or reinforced, vehicle followed by a “chase” car with several trusted Iraqi guards ready to shoot if necessary.
Even if a reporter wants to conduct an interview in another secure zone, it has become increasingly foolhardy not to coordinate the meeting in advance. If a photographer is out covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing or a reporter is interviewing an Iraqi, for example, he or she is advised to stay no more than a very short time, because someone may be tempted to phone the sighting to a jihadi group, often for a payoff.
Some critics, like the London Independent’s Robert Fisk, have written about how Western reporters have been reduced to “hotel journalism,” or what the former Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran somewhat more charitably describes as “journalism by remote control.” The Guardian war correspondent Maggie O’Kane was even more emphatic:
“We no longer know what is going on, but we are pretending we do.”
The Washington Post, which has been forced for security reasons to move several times, now occupies a large house next to the run-down Al Hamra Hotel. When I stop there for lunch with a group of other journalists, the Post’s Jonathan Finer tells me that concern for reporters’ lives has “completely changed the way people move around the city.”
“In the summer of 2003, you could walk out of the Al Hamra and get a cab or even drive to Falluja for dinner, chill out, or go to a CD shop,” I was told by the Los Angeles Times’s Borzou Daragahi, whose bureau is in the Al Hamra. “Now, the AP won’t even let its people leave
“It’s amazing now to think back to November 2003 when the insurgency was starting to gain momentum, and all we had were a few sandbags in front of our house and a few guards,” Ed Wong, who is on his seventh rotation at the New York Times Baghdad bureau, later recalls. “Back then, you might have met a few angry people, but you didn’t fear for your life. Then, things started to change. At first, a few civilians became targets, but not journalists. Then, in the spring of 2004, we started changing our security protocols, using two-car convoys and guards. It felt very weird. For the first time I confronted that barrier between me and the people I was supposed to be reporting on.”
Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who was in Afghanistan before he went to Iraq, told me: “When I first got here in March of 2003, it was like any war zone I have covered: dangerous, but lines were clear. We went all around the Sunni Triangle at night. I went to Uday and Qusay’s
[Saddam Hussein’s sons] funeral. Saddam’s family stared at us, but I had no trepidation. Now, only a lunatic would do something like that! It all started to change in the fall of 2003 when all of us started to have a lot of close calls. I was shot at, attacked by a mob and had bricks thrown at my car. We had one car raked by gunfire. Then, everything totally changed after April 2004 and Falluja and the uprising of the Mahdi Army [the militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr]. John Burns was captured, blindfolded, and walked into a field. He thought he was a goner. Later in 2004 came the beheadings.” According to Filkins, “the situation has just truncated the center of being a reporter. We can still talk to Iraqis and do journalism, but it’s dangerous and unpredictable.”
As Larry Kaplow of the Cox Newspapers said, it is “frustrating not being able to talk to the insurgents” and not to be able to find out what is happening in other parts of Baghdad.
The price of staying in Baghdad is to have Iraqi surrogates perform more and more tasks, from driving and shopping to getting exit visas and plane tickets — and reporting. This situation deeply frustrates Western journalists, who pride themselves on their independence; but they know, as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, that some sixty-one reporters (many of them Iraqis) have been killed here, and many others wounded, since the 2003 invasion.
The New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, who had spent several years reporting from Russia and had been to Baghdad several times before her most recent rotation, said: “I sometimes think that all I know are tiny little pieces of the larger puzzle. If you can get into someone’s house, you can tell that other side of the story. But the hurdles to doing that, just going
to a hospital after a bombing, are now huge. During a recent Muslim holiday, I went to a park to talk to people and children. But, I had a translator, a photographer, three guards and two drivers.” It was, she said, “intimidating.”
In recent history, there have been few wars more difficult to report on than the war in Iraq today. When I was covering the war in Indochina, journalists went out into the field, even into combat, knowing that we would ultimately be able to return to Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Vientiane where we could meet with local friends or go out to a restaurant for dinner with colleagues. Although occasionally a Viet Cong might throw a hand grenade into a bar, the war essentially was happening outside the city.
I had arrived here in Baghdad naively expecting that as an antidote to their isolation from Iraqi society, journalists might have kept up something of a fraternity among themselves. What I discovered was that even the most basic social interactions have become difficult. It is true that some of the larger and better-appointed news bureaus (with kitchens and cooks) have tried to organize informal evening dinners with colleagues. But while guests were able to get to an early dinner, there was the problem of getting back again to their compounds or hotels by dark, when the odds of being attacked vastly increase. The only alternative was to stay the night, which posed many difficulties for everyone, especially Iraqi drivers and guards.
The result is that reporters find themselves living in a strangely retro mode where their days end before sunset, and they are pulled back to their bureaus for dinner like an American family of the 1950s. Not a few have sought solace in cooking.
One evening while I was in Baghdad, a British security guard mentioned that Fox News was giving a “party” in the nearby Palestine Hotel, once the almost elegant, five-star Le Meridien Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River. I was curious both to see what had happened to this legendary hotel and also what now passed for a social gathering among foreign reporters here. So at dusk, accompanied by two armed guards, I walked over to the Palestine through the maze of blast walls.
The first thing I noticed was that the hotel, which had become something of a household name when US tanks opened fire on it in April 2003, killing three journalists, was now largely dark. Of the major bureaus, only Fox News and APTN are still here. The Palestine and the equally fabled Ishtar Sheraton, known as “the Missile Magnet,” are the two tallest buildings in Baghdad. They are situated adjacent to the roundabout in Firdos Square, made famous when a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by a US tank in 2003. Although the Ishtar has long since been excommunicated by the Sheraton chain, the hotel continues to call itself a Sheraton, like some aging divorcée who cannot quite bear the thought of giving up her former husband’s last name.
In October of 2005, both hotels were the target of attacks by three vehicles with explosives driven by suicide bombers. The last of them, a cement mixer loaded with explosives that drove through a hole just blasted in the wall by another suicide bomber, might have brought both hotels down if its axle had not got snarled in a razor-wire barricade. Snipers on the roof of the Palestine Hotel then opened fire on the truck, setting off an explosion that, among other things, blew out windows at Reuters, the New York Times, and the BBC several hundred yards away. The Sheraton Ishtar was so badly damaged that it never really reopened, while the Palestine, which had much of its lobby blown out, somehow manages to keep going in a state of suspended animation.
Inside its darkened lobby, a lone Iraqi sits dozing at a battered wooden desk under a caved-in ceiling that is hemorrhaging wires, electrical fixtures, and plumbing. A faded placard still marks the closed Orient Express Restaurant, once the meeting place of all the correspondents who used to live here.
In our search for the alleged Fox News party, we ask the attendant in the lobby for directions. He tells me and my guards to go to the fifth floor, but adds that in order to get upstairs, we must first go downstairs, evidently a strategy to prevent suicide bombers from going directly to their targets. In the basement, amid a stack of discarded cardboard boxes and heaps of broken plate-glass windows, an Iraqi man is kneeling on a rug in front of a cement block wall, presumably facing toward Mecca, in prayer. When we finally arrive on the fifth floor, we have to leave our guards at a checkpoint fortified with a steel door. Inside, we are greeted by the stink of disinfectant and stale air filled with the smell of curry and cigarette smoke. Down a hallway with a greasy carpet I find a small sitting room with shabby furniture and a soccer game playing on a TV. The Fox News staffers who are smoking and drinking seem glad to see almost anyone. The scene makes me think of a group of elderly retired people clinging to a residential hotel slated for demolition.
“Where are all the other guests?” I ask, as one of them thrusts a bottle of beer into my hand. Zoran Kusovac, Fox’s bulky, unshaven bureau chief, takes a long drag on his cigarette and explains in his Croatian accent, “Everybody’s gone home.” He laughs. “It’s Saturday. We wanted to have some fun. We used to be able to have parties until late at night. But now our security people told us that if we wanted to have a party, it would have to end no later than 6:00 PM, so that everyone could get home before dark. We started at 3:00!”
“It’s a little like being in third grade, where everybody has to be home before dark,” someone else says. Everyone laughs.
“TV means you have to get close to the action,” Kusovac complains when I ask how Fox’s coverage has been going. “After all, we have to get pictures. It’s absolutely essential. If you’re a print reporter and out in a Humvee, you can look through the window. But as a TV reporter, you have to stand up and get tape.” Everyone nods, thinking, no doubt, about ABC TV’s Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, who had just been wounded while out on patrol. “All of us,” Kusovac said, “depend on our Iraqis whom we have learned to trust…. Our ‘bona fiders.’ But
still, they’re filters.”
The BBC’s Baghdad bureau is housed at an adjacent compound in a shabby old villa occupied in the 1930s by a Jewish school, which still has Star of David patterns on its floor tiles and its old rickety wrought-iron porch railings. “The challenge here is always getting there to get the story,” the Canadian-born bureau chief, Owen Lloyd, tells me. “And then, when we do get there, we can only stay for fifteen to thirty minutes. Finally, the focus has to be as much about safety as it is about the story.”
I ask Lloyd how the BBC deals with these problems. “We have a staff in the newsroom with four Iraqis who work as fixers,” he tells me. “They are from different Muslim factions and give us a sense of what people in their neighborhoods think. We couldn’t get by without them!”
“The New Journalism”
The days when journalists could move around Iraq just by keeping a low profile — traveling in beat-up old cars, growing an Iraqi-style mustache, and dyeing their hair black, or when women reporters could safely shroud themselves in a black abbaya and veil — are gone. When Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor tried such tactics this January, she was kidnapped while trying to get to an interview with a Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi.
What journalists have learned to do in this unprecedented situation is to give increasing responsibility to their Iraqi staff — readers of the Arab press, drivers, fixers, researchers, translators, or stringers whom the larger bureaus have placed around the country or in key government offices.
Farnaz Fassihi has written how at the Wall Street Journal she “began relying heavily on our staff for setting up interviews, conducting street reporting and being my eyes and ears in Baghdad.”
Occasionally the Washington Post’s local staff “managed to persuade Iraqis to come to our hotel for interviews, giving me a chance to interact personally with sources and subjects,” Jackie Spinner, a former Post Baghdad bureau chief, acknowledges in her soon-to-be-published book, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry. She recounts how she “spent the nights writing stories pasted together from reports gathered by our Iraqi staff, my only access to the war outside my window….”
But while Western journalists are relying on surrogates, what I observed at the bureaus I visited in Baghdad was far from a dereliction of duty. If anything, it showed how the old overseas bureau model of independent reporters has been forced to evolve under very extreme pressure to survive. Much of the basic reporting now is done by Iraqis, while most of the writing and analysis is still done by Westerners. Some of the Iraqis I met are impressive in their knowledge and commitment to this new kind of team journalism. But one question being frequently asked is whether these local reporters were getting adequate credit. Omar Fekeiki, a young Iraqi at the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau, was quick to say, “Of course we want a byline! This is practically all we get.”
Iraqis who contribute to a story do get mentioned, although often at the end of the article and in somewhat smaller print than the Western correspondent — an unfortunate inequity. This practice has started to change, especially at the Post. Still, the reality is that because of the dangers of being associated with a Western news bureau, many Iraqis do not want their names published. Out of fear of reprisal, many do not even tell their families and friends where they work.
Few reporters I talked to, whether Western or Iraqi, have any direct contact with the insurgents or with the sectarian militias: it is too difficult and dangerous, they say, to talk with Iraqis who do the fighting and set off the explosives. And thus, the various attacks, suicide bombings, and the pervasive anti-Western sentiment, as well as the sectarian hatred that has erupted during the occupation, continue to be largely unexplored and unexplained from the viewpoint of the Iraqis, whether they are Sunni insurgents, members of the Shia militias, or from the American-supplied Iraqi forces that are attacking them.
The Green Zone
Sooner or later, anyone involved with the Americans must go to the so-called “Green Zone.” Since it is so dangerous and difficult for Westerners to circulate in the everyday world of Baghdad, the Green Zone is one of the very few places to which a journalist can go to actually “report” a story. The alternative is to become embedded in the U.S. military. That Western journalists now find being embedded a kind of liberation from imprisonment in their bureaus is something of an irony, especially in view of the debate three years ago whether embedded reporters were accepting conditions that restricted their freedom to describe the war. Now they readily accept these limitations, because working as a “unilateral” has become practically impossible. At least with the military they see the killing in the streets at first hand.
The Green Zone is a 4.5-square-mile compound in the middle of Baghdad surrounded by an eight-mile-long, Christo-like running fence of blast walls. Someone dubbed it “the largest gated community in the world.” The easy way to enter it is to “chopper in” to the zone’s helicopter pad — code-name “Washington” — from Baghdad International Airport or one of the many other U.S. military bases that now form a growing American archipelago throughout Iraq. Indeed, all day and night choppers carrying military brass, diplomats, security specialists, contractors,
and VIP civilians rattle a few hundred feet over Baghdad.
Reporters seeking access to the Green Zone must drive there and then negotiate passage through a heavily fortified access gate. Since these have been magnets for suicide bombers, they are ringed by armored vehicles, guard towers, and squads of heavily armed troops. If a visitor does not have the requisite US military- issued special pass for his vehicle, he or she must get dropped off at a special place outside a gate in a maze of blast walls, rubble, razor wire, and armaments. But cars dare not linger for more than a brief moment, lest soldiers presume that your vehicle is that of a bomber and open fire.
Once disembarked, the visitor walks across a dangerous no man’s land to the outermost checkpoint. As cars whiz by and as you thread your way through corridors of blast walls, razor wire, and chessboard-like configurations of metal mesh bins filled with dirt and sand as blast barriers, you feel utterly exposed. There have, in fact, been many attacks on these gates. In December 2004, for example, a car loaded with explosives blew up at Harithiya Gate, killing seven people and wounding nineteen. A Web-published message purporting to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi triumphantly proclaimed: “On this blessed day, one of the lions of the martyrdom-seeking brigade struck a gathering of apostates and Americans in the Green Zone.”
At the gate itself, you are greeted by signs in English and Arabic: “Do Not Enter or You Will be Shot,” “Stop Here and Wait,” or “No Cell Phone Use at Check Point.” (The fear, of course, is that an insurgent with a cell phone will detonate a bomb by remote control.)
And then, you must begin navigating numerous checkpoints manned by guards who check IDs again and again, pass you through metal detectors and scanning machines, introduce you to bomb-sniffing dogs, and give you pat-down searches. Their object is to make certain that no terrorist breaches these walls, as happened in October 2004 when suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the Green Zone Café, killing several contractors, and reminding everyone that even the seemingly secure barriers dividing the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad could be breached.
The first few checkpoints are now manned by teams of soldiers from the country of Georgia in full combat gear. The names on their identity badges all end in “-villi,” and none of them seems to speak English. Next, one encounters phalanxes of Spanish-speaking guards who, in pidgin English, tell me they are from Peru, Colombia, Honduras, and Chile. Because U.S. troops are both overstretched and expensive, the Pentagon has for some time taken to outsourcing guard duty here at the Green Zone to foreign contract laborers — in somewhat the same way the news bureaus are outsourcing their work to Iraqis. At first, the U.S. hired the UK-based firm, Global Strategies Group Ltd., which imported British-trained Sri Lankans, Fijians, and Nepalese Gurkha mercenaries. But in November 2004, after the U.S. reopened bidding for the contract, Triple Canopy Inc., a Virginia-based outfit started in 2003 by a group of veterans from the U.S. Delta Force, won the job. In order to keep costs down, it brought in recruits from Latin America.
These guards joined an already vast force of foreign truck drivers and food and service workers in the Green Zone (and on other US bases) who come from countries as varied as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, and India. The result is a globalized labor force that makes the Green Zone look something like one of the United Arab Emirates, where Asian contract workers often far outnumber actual citizens. These “private warriors” and service workers in Iraq are estimated to make up the equivalent of an extra thirty battalions of military troops.
Knowledge of English does not seem to have been a requirement for Triple Canopy workers in this new Tower of Babel. Since the Latins are cut off from any regular Spanish-language publications or broadcasts, it is hard to imagine what they make of the imbroglio in which they find themselves. When I ask a Peruvian who is standing at a checkpoint under a tent fly in front of a giant stele inscribed in Arabic with a quotation from Saddam Hussein what he thinks of Iraq, he frowns and points one thumb down.
A Foreign Concession
Several people told me that the Green Zone’s name was derived from military parlance: when a soldier clears the chamber of his M-16, he is said to have his weapon “on green,” while “red” means that a rifle is “locked and loaded” and ready to fire. Hence, this relatively safe zone occupied by American “liberators” came to be known as the Green Zone, while everything else outside, where weapons were ubiquitous and gunfire was almost incessant, came to be known as the Red Zone.
When one first lands “inside the wire,” as the world inside the Green Zone is known, one has the feeling of having gained access to some large resort in which soldiers have been turned into staff. Walking among the trailers, modular offices, generators, shipping containers (filled with thousands of items of equipment), PXs, fast food outlets, swimming pools and other recreational facilities, and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of American soft drinks, even the sight of the former palaces and buildings of Saddam Hussein and rows of date palms is not enough to jolt one back into Iraq.
The Green Zone houses almost everything that matters in Iraq: the so-called “U.S. embassy,” which has taken up residence in Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace; other favored foreign legations (the British, but not the French, who remain across the river on their own); a remnant UN mission; the offices of big construction firms like Kellogg-Brown-Root and Bechtel; American military command centers; a Pizza Inn; a bar called the Bunker; and CNN and the Wall Street Journal. All have sought haven here in the Green Zone. There is also the Convention Center, future home for the new Iraqi parliament, as well as important offices of the new Iraqi government. Just as the foreign “concessions” in cities like Shanghai once allowed “Westernized” Chinese to live inside them, together with ex-pats enjoying extraterritorial rights, select Iraqis are protected in the Green Zone.
It is here also that the Combined Press Information Center, known as CPIC, is located and where it holds its Thursday press briefings, which remind some veterans of the surreal “Five o’clock Follies” held each day at 5:00 PM in the windowless JUSPAO (Joint US Public Affairs Office) theater in Saigon. There, an earlier generation of “press information officers” gave journalists briefings, complete with four-color overlay charts tabulating “body counts” “targets hit,” “structures destroyed,” and “villages pacified” in a war that seemed to be getting statistically won, even as it was actually being lost.
It is to CPIC that arriving journalists must go to be photographed, finger-printed, and accredited. Indeed, without the official CPIC plastic badge, it is virtually impossible for a reporter to survive in the parallel universe of American installations that, with few exceptions, provide the country’s only working systems of transport, food delivery, overnight quarters, communications, and emergency medical care.
Inside the Green Zone, one encounters a world that is nowhere to be found outside. The zone has its own taxi service. There are women joggers; men in rakish safari hats; thirty-year-olds in neckties who have vaguely described jobs “advising” the Iraqis on political and administrative matters; sweating women in halter tops, short skirts, and flip-flops. And almost everyone has an identity pouch hung around his or her neck with double transparent windows for all those important plastic ID cards. If most of the wearers weren’t so tall, white, and overweight, they might be confused with those tagged refugees who are found in U.S. airports waiting in groups to be put on mercy flights to a new host city.
These oversized badges are prominently embossed with the words “International Zone,” part of an ongoing, multipronged U.S. government public relations effort to “rebrand” the Green Zone. This January, following the legislative elections, nominal control over some twenty buildings in the zone was passed over to Iraqis in a ceremony that featured a brass band and a chocolate cake.
That the Bush administration keeps trying to change the Green Zone’s name is only one of its many battles over language. Its tireless use of didactic labels — “Coalition Forces,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” or “The 27 Nation Multi-National Force” — only seems to end up creating an ever-widening gulf between official language and the reality of the actual situation in Baghdad. While official language is relentlessly upbeat, the already nightmarish reality has been getting worse with each passing day. As the Green Zone has become safer and ever more tightly controlled, and as the government’s language continues to project a bright future for the U.S. effort in Iraq, much of the rest of the country has descended into an ever more violent maelstrom.
Meanwhile, during their tours of duty here in Iraq, only a very few American missionaries of democracy learn Arabic or ever touch an Iraqi dinar, buy anything Iraqi except in the trinket shops within the Green Zone, or share a meal in the house of an Iraqi citizen.
“A critical mistake was made,” observed the American security analyst Anthony Cordesman as early as September 2003. “By creating US security zones around US headquarters in Central Baghdad, it created a no-go zone for Iraqis and has allowed the attackers to push the US into a fortress that tends to separate US personnel from the Iraqis.”
Since then, the insurgent attacks on the US forces and Iraqi government and the sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites have become destructive beyond what most journalists have been able to convey. Every morning, the residents of Baghdad find piles of bodies, hands manacled, skulls riddled with bullet holes, that have been dumped without identity cards beside some road. Insofar as there is any semblance of government control, it is all too often by the new Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which remains in Shia hands but is widely suspected of complicity in the sectarian killings. According to official announcements, the ministry is supposed to be carrying out a comprehensive new plan by U.S. Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey and Major General Joseph Peterson to construct a reformed national army and police force. In fact, as I was told by those few Iraqis I was able to meet, the Ministry of the Interior has a deserved reputation for lawless, Shia partisanship. Until Edward Wong’s story on the ministry in the New York Times of March 7, no journalist I know of has been able to show in any detail just how the ministry works and what relations it may have with the Shia militias.
The unraveling of Iraq into incipient civil war took another ominous step forward when on February 22, Sunni partisans dressed as members of the Iraqi military blew up al-Askariya, the sacred Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra. In retaliation, some twenty Sunni mosques were then attacked. The Washington Post of February 28 was the only American newspaper I’ve seen which reported that “more than 1,300 Iraqis” were killed in the days that followed. The claims of President Bush to have calmed violence by talking with Iraqi religious leaders sounded ever more hollow as dozens more people were killed in the following days. Although it is difficult to imagine Baghdad in an even worse state, as such violence escalates, this strife could plunge Iraq into a widening conflict that may eventually overshadow both the daily violence against Americans and the already intense anti-American nationalism.
Adnan Pachachi, the much-respected politician in his mid-eighties who has long been in exile but was recently elected to Parliament and so moved back to the well-to-do Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad where he lives sequestered in his own compound, with a private militia of bodyguards and a diesel generator, represents a saner but probably unrealizable vision of Iraq’s future. Pachachi is a Shiite Muslim who deplores the rise of sectarian violence, and like some other well-known exiles, he did not anticipate it. “The Iraqis are known as the least religious people in the Middle East,” he says. And so, he adds, “It was a great disappointment that 80 percent of Iraqis voting did so according to sectarian affiliations, not political beliefs.”
What is needed, says Pachachi, is “a new federal allegiance…some time for the country to stabilize.” But he told me that “there is so much violence, fear and distrust, that my optimism is dwindling. We seem to be descending into a situation of civil strife between sects…organized killings on each side. Three years ago when the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled, no one thought the situation would now be as bad as it is.”
It may well be that the besieged American press in Iraq will find that the main story is not about Americans fighting Iraqi insurgents, but Americans standing powerlessly aside in their armed compounds, Green Zone, and military bases, watching as Iraqis kill other Iraqis and the country disintegrates. It would be all too ironic if this were the result of the invasion of March 2003, which was promoted as a critical step in bringing peace to the Middle East.