Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days

"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days
is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about
the reasons that lured me to this job, a chance to see
the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far
away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that
could make a difference."

Fassihi traveled to Afghanistan to cover the war
against the Taliban.

"Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has
defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave
when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled
interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never
walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any
more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a
conversation with strangers, can't look for stories,
can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't
go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck
in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a
road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at
checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are
saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has
been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so
near our house that it blew out all the windows. So
now my most pressing concern every day is not to write
a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our
Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security
personnel first, a reporter second.

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly
began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the
grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish
Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when
Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population,
became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was
it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated
pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq?
Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq
remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a
'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been
transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign
policy failure bound to haunt the United States for
decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When
asked 'how are thing?' they reply: 'the situation is
very bad."

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi
government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there
are several car bombs going off each day around the
country killing and injuring scores of innocent
people, the country's roads are becoming impassable
and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive
devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are
assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The
situation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla
war. In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got
injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking
that the ministry of health -- which was attempting an
exercise of public transparency by releasing the
numbers -- has now stopped disclosing them.

Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City
yesterday. He said young men were openly placing
improvised explosive devices into the ground. They
melt a shallow hole into the asphalt, dig the
explosive, cover it with dirt and put an old tire or
plastic can over it to signal to the locals this is
booby-trapped. He said on the main roads of Sadr City,
there were a dozen landmines per every ten yards. His
car snaked and swirled to avoid driving over them.
Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi ready to detonate
them as soon as an American convoy gets near. This is
in Shiite land, the population that was supposed to
love America for liberating Iraq.

For journalists the significant turning point came
with the wave of abduction and kidnappings. Only two
weeks ago we felt safe around Baghdad because
foreigners were being abducted on the roads and
highways between towns. Then came a frantic phone call
from a journalist female friend at 11 p.m. telling me
two Italian women had been abducted from their homes
in broad daylight. Then the two Americans, who got
beheaded this week and the Brit, were abducted from
their homes in a residential neighborhood. They were
supplying the entire block with round the clock
electricity from their generator to win friends. The
abductors grabbed one of them at 6 a.m. when he came
out to switch on the generator; his beheaded body was
thrown back near the neighborhoods.

The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with no signs
of calming down. If any thing, it is growing stronger,
organized and more sophisticated every day. The
various elements within it-baathists, criminals,
nationalists and Al Qaeda-are cooperating and

I went to an emergency meeting for foreign
correspondents with the military and embassy to
discuss the kidnappings. We were somberly told our
fate would largely depend on where we were in the
kidnapping chain once it was determined we were
missing. Here is how it goes: criminal gangs grab you
and sell you up to Baathists in Fallujah, who will in
turn sell you to Al Qaeda. In turn, cash and weapons
flow the other way from Al Qaeda to the Baathisst to
the criminals. My friend Georges, the French
journalist snatched on the road to Najaf, has been
missing for a month with no word on release or whether
he is still alive.

America's last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi police
and National Guard units we are spending billions of
dollars to train. The cops are being murdered by the
dozens every day-over 700 to date -- and the
insurgents are infiltrating their ranks. The problem
is so serious that the U.S. military has allocated $6
million dollars to buy out 30,000 cops they just
trained to get rid of them quietly.

As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe for
foreigners to operate that almost all projects have
come to a halt. After two years, of the $18 billion
Congress appropriated for Iraq reconstruction only
about $1 billion or so has been spent and a chuck has
now been reallocated for improving security, a sign of
just how bad things are going here.

Oil dreams? Insurgents disrupt oil flow routinely as a
result of sabotage and oil prices have hit record high
of $49 a barrel. Who did this war exactly benefit? Was
it worth it? Are we safer because Saddam is holed up
and Al Qaeda is running around in Iraq?

Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in
exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd
take security over freedom any day, even if it means
having a dictator ruler.

I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam
Hussein were allowed to run for elections he would get
the majority of the vote. This is truly sad.

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk
to him about elections here. He has been trying to
educate the public on the importance of voting. He
said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a
democracy that would be an example for the Middle
East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a
model for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before
all is lost."

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond
salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to
imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its
violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos
and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a
result of American mistakes and it can't be put back
into a bottle.

The Iraqi government is talking about having elections
in three months while half of the country remains a
'no go zone'-out of the hands of the government and
the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the
other half, the disenchanted population is too
terrified to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis
have already said they'd boycott elections, leaving
the stage open for polarized government of Kurds and
Shiites that will not be deemed as legitimate and will
most certainly lead to civil war.

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family
would participate in the Iraqi elections since it was
the first time Iraqis could to some degree elect a
leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote
and risk being blown into pieces or followed by the
insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the
Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you

From Baghdad A Wall Street Journal Reporter's E-Mail
to Friends by Farnaz Fassihi.
For more information go to:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be nice and informative when you post or comment.
Thank you to visit Asian Gazette Blog of Joel Legendre-Koizumi.