February 25, 2005 10:12 am

Essay: Baghdad bound

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“You didn’t understand one of the questions,” Abu Haider told me. “You didn’t understand what he was asking you about the extremists in Falluja. He asked you three times.”

”No,” I said. “I was trying to avoid admitting I didn’t know any extremists from Falluja. I was dodging the question.”

It was August in Baghdad and Abu Haider, my driver, and I were in the patched-up Chevrolet in which we had spent many hours over the previous eight months. We were sitting in another traffic jam, conducting a post mortem on my first (and last) appearance on Iraqi television in a panel discussion.

Salmat al-Tai, a young Kurdish journalist, had asked me on to his programme to discuss living in Iraq as a foreigner. I appeared on the show as a kind of trussed chicken, albeit a trussed chicken speaking Arabic.

Al-Tai had asked how I went about covering the extremists in Falluja, the town west of Baghdad where most kidnap victimes were taken and where many were murdered. At first I demurred. I told al-Tai that the way the FT and other news organisations were covering the more dangerous places was to use young Iraqi journalists. In fact we had produced a good analysis of the three groups then holding sway in Falluja, I said. But he had a point. Relying on second-hand information to come to important judgments is less than desirable - as those who prepared the case for war might appreciate.

Reporting on Iraq has evolved into one of the most difficult tasks facing journalists since the invention of the telegraph. This is asymmetric warfare. There are no frontlines and journalists are targets. There is no glamour in Iraq - no Beirut Commodore hotel bar in which to recuperate or swap stories. Just a long, hot, dangerous slog crowded by men toting guns. The hazards and complexity of this traumatised, brutalised but infinitely proud country make writing about Iraq peculiarly difficult.

I had agreed to speak on Iraqi television because a few days previously my friends the French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot had been kidnapped on the road to Najaf. There was little that I could do. I made a few phone calls, went around to the French embassy where I was received politely by a junior attache - and then nothing. The kidnapping of Georges and Christian had demonstrated that nationality was no defence, as I think they had believed, though they were eventually released four months later.

Today, things are even worse. Now that the first round of elections is over, many news organisations are questioning the worth of maintaining full-time correspondents in Baghdad.

Yet when we arrived in Iraq on April 12 2003 - three days after the fall of Baghdad - we were to be covering the reconstruction period - “phase four” - writing about electricity and water, oil and debt forgiveness. The British soldiers in Basra were also waiting for phase four to be announced, so that they would be given their two cans of beer a day.

Eighteen months on, we were still in phase three - and had even back-tracked to some extent to the war fighting of phase two. Two of my best friends had been kidnapped; Ahmed Haidari, an Iraqi friend in Basra, had been shot twice through the neck and was lucky to be alive; Gailan Ramiz, an Iraqi analyst and good contact, had died when the building opposite his house blew up during a US raid (his three-year-old daughter had her legs blown off in the blast); and the brother of Zeinab al-Kaabi, the Iraqi translator used by FT colleagues, had been murdered - and tortured before he died. They joined Paul Moran, an Australian cameraman friend from Cyprus, who had been killed in the first week of the war.

My experience was by no means exceptional. Such real and present danger has the effect of limiting attention spans and any analysis by Iraqis or by outsiders.

Jon Lee Anderson’s The Fall of Baghdad and Rageh Omar’s Revolution Day are largely concerned with the build-up to, and the business of, the US-led invasion. Few journalists stayed in Baghdad for the war and many people believed that those who did would be used as human shields by the regime. As the Scottish head of Iraqna, the Iraqi mobile telephone company, put it to me once, “Anyone who comes to Iraq gets my 110 per cent support.” Anderson and Omar are brave men.

Anderson, a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, adopts the time-tested journalistic technique of focusing on chosen individuals to illuminate broader truths. In particular, he tracks the progress of Ala Bashir, one of Saddam Hussein’s doctors. He also provides the clearest attestation that I have heard for the presence of foreign jihadi militants in Iraq before and during the war. Anderson’s narrative is closely observed and his writing fluent - but the stories he tells in this book will be familiar to the millions around the world who were glued to their television screens and poring over the newspapers through the three weeks of war in 2003.

Omar, a television journalist who had covered Iraq for the BBC since 1997, focuses on the difficulties of reporting under the Ba’athist regime and during its final days. The bureaucracy with which the Ba’athist ministry of information smothered reporters, the worries over money and visas, the corruption and the effect of the sanctions regime on ordinary Iraqis are all colourfully told.

But Omar is on well-worn territory and his book lacks the substance and craft of Anderson’s story, largely, one suspects, because of the demands of daily and hourly news reporting.

And a lot has happened since April 2003. Though both of them returned to Iraq after Baghdad fell, Anderson and Omar both duck the challenge of writing in any depth about the occupation.

They are not alone. After a “glorious” war in which the images the broadcasters conveyed dominated the coverage, television has not had an easy or particularly distinguished time since, confined to Baghdad for protracted periods. Instead it has largely relied on the wire agencies - Reuters, AP and AFP - which are the backbone of the modern media. That Anderson and Omar chose to stop when they did - although both include cursory postwar epilogues - is not surprising. The occupation has not yet come to an end, arguably, and Iraq is a complex place.

We have yet to read any account of the various intrigues of the Coalition Provisional Authority, that hastily convened, humourless and incompetent body. We know that Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defence called the shots. We know that Paul Bremer, the US administrator, wanted more soldiers on the ground. But we know little of the conflict between the uniformed generals and the staff of Rumsfeld’s office, who appear to have dominated policy-making even in Baghdad. Experienced State Department Arabists, ambassadors with decades of experience in the Middle East, were viewed as untrustworthy and given tasks such as “Sunni outreach”. Never in the 10 months that I was in Iraq did I hear a US spokesman talk publicly in Arabic to the Iraqi media.

The other major challenge of analysing and writing about Iraq today is that it requires the examination of 18 provinces, each with its own political dynamic. The Ba’athist ministry of information largely confined journalists to Baghdad, including both Omar and Anderson. The distances between regional capitals, and strength of their identities, was one of the features that coalition planners underestimated in the postwar period. Despite more than a decade of enforcing a no-fly zone over much of the country, the Americans and British were on a steep learning curve when they arrived on Iraqi soil.

Nearly two years on, coverage still tends to concentrate on Baghdad and the central belt that includes Najaf and Karbala, the Shia holy cities to the south, and Falluja and Ramadi in the Sunni triangle. Only recently has Mosul, Iraq’s third city, appeared more clearly on the radar screen. Kirkuk is always referred to as “a powder keg” and talked about as being claimed by the “ever-restless Kurds” - but we know little more about it. Basra receives intermittent attention, but separatist sentiment in the far south is rarely reported. Big towns such as Amara, Nassiriya, Samarra and Hilla scarcely feature in anyone’s writing.

The reason is security. Until April last year it was possible to get around Iraq to do some original reporting. But the spring marked a turning point for US policy in Iraq. Following Saddam Hussein’s capture in December and the facing down of Moqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shia cleric, things were looking up.

Then four US security men were murdered and their bodies mutilated after their vehicles were attacked in Falluja. US generals responded with a full-scale attack on the rebel town. At the same time Paul Bremer ordered the closure of a newspaper run by Sadr. The US occupation suddenly found itself fighting a double-headed insurgency.

As the Falluja and Sadiri insurgencies rumbled on, the revelation on April 28 of the photographs depicting US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad exacerbated the sense and reality of insecurity. In early May, Nick Berg, a young US engineer, was beheaded by Islamist militants. The voiceover on the internet broadcast of his death claimed that the act was in revenge for the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. These events, coming within a matter of weeks of each other, marked a nadir for US policy in Iraq from which it has yet to recover.

Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth is apparently an examination of the events at Abu Ghraib and the subsequent investigations into what happened at the prison. The book contains 500 pages of documents on the subsequent investigations into what happened at the prison during the night shift overseen by Specialist Charles Graner. There are only 70-odd pages of reporting, containing a series of articles written for the New York Review of Books. Danner does glean some interesting insights. He cites a Red Cross report, for example, that quotes US officers admitting that between 70 and 90 per cent of those detained in Iraq were held by mistake. Danner argues convincingly that higher authorities inside the US establishment should take responsibility for what happened. We now know that Rumsfeld offered to resign as US defence secretary over the affair, but George W. Bush turned him down.

With this size of book, however, it is hard to imagine that any but the most studious will read the large body of documents that dissect the minutiae of policy.

Those inside and outside Iraq are still grasping for a way to understand and communicate the complexities of the country. In an ideal world, perhaps we would all read every document relating to Abu Ghraib. But an analysis of the continuing travails of a country where more than 150,000 coalition soldiers look like being stationed for the foreseeable future would be more compelling. Despite the millions of words that have been written about the country, we are still waiting for more illuminating insights into postwar Iraq.

James Drummond is a former Baghdad correspondent for the Financial Times.

Revolution Day: The Real Story of the Battle for Iraq
by Rageh Omar
Penguin £7.99, 304 pages

The Fall of Baghdad
by Jon Lee Anderson
Little, Brown £20, 400 pages

Torture and Truth: Abu Ghraib and America in Iraq
by Mark Danner
Granta £16.99, 650 pages

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