Covering Iraq

I always have a sense of dread when I drive through Baghdad. I don’t really want it to go away because it keeps me worried and alert. I see everything in terms of potential threat.

Who is manning the next checkpoint? Is it the army or police? Or are the men in uniform I see standing in the middle of the road with their Kalashnikovs, militiamen looking for somebody to kidnap or kill.

Every morning brings its harvest of corpses, tortured bodies left in garbage dumps or sewage farms. Many of the dead are thrown into the Tigris river and are only found when they are caught in the weirs south of Baghdad.

The sister of a friend of mine with a house on the river in north Baghdad tries to keep her children from playing in the water because they keep finding beheaded bodies.

The death toll in Iraq is now running at about 3,000 a month according to the UN, more than were killed in 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland where I first worked as a journalist in 1972.

I used to think that my drivers, both Sunni Arabs, were not cautious enough. Not anymore. The last time I drove from the airport to the Hamra hotel where I normally stay, it took three times longer than usual.

This was because the drivers were taking a serpentine route, unexpectedly dodging down alleyways to avoid police or police commando checkpoints which could be Shia death squads.  There are two drivers. I sit in the back of one car with shaded windows and pretend to read an Arabic newspaper so I will not be recognized as a foreigner.

About 100 yards behind there is a driver in the second car watching to see if we are being followed. If he is suspicious of any vehicle he phones us on the mobile and we start taking evasive action.

At one time we would drive through a police checkpoint where we knew  the police who would wave us through, but stop any car behind us.

When Baghdad began to get dangerous for foreigners three years ago I sometimes wore a red and white Kefiyeh (head dress) on my head to conceal my light brown hair.

Then one day I was talking to a man close to the insurgents. I asked him who they stopped on the roads. “We always stop people with Kefiyehs,” he told me, “because they are obviously trying    to hide something.” I put the kefiyeh back in the cupboard.  Of course it is not as if being a journalist in Baghdad is more dangerous than being an ordinary Iraqi civilian. The city is full of terrible stories of violence and cruelty.

A friend told me of a doctor he knows. A month ago a distraught man came to the doctor’s home and said that his father was lying too sick to move in the back of a car outside in the street.

When the doctor left his house to treat him he felt the muzzle of a gun pushed into his back. His kidnappers tortured him so badly that the right side of his body was covered in burns and only released him when his family paid them $30,000.

Sometimes I wonder if it is worth working as a journalist in Baghdad if I have to live with the constant niggling fear of the same thing happening to me.

But then, almost immediately, I remember that the war in Iraq is the great crisis of our era. It is shaping our world as surely as World War Two shaped that of our parents. 

I feel that if it is not worth the risk of being a foreign correspondent in Iraq today then why do the job in the first place. 

I remember the bureau chief of one large media organisation telling me: “We have 48 staff foreign correspondents of whom just three are willing to come to Baghdad.” 

Of course this is not entirely bad news for the newspaper reader or television viewer. When veterans refuse to turn up, younger journalists, languishing in some tedious backwater of their organisation, can jump-start their careers by volunteering to work in Baghdad and speedily make their names by showing a more robust attitude to danger.  

I have been coming to Iraq since 1978 and it has never been as dangerous as it is today for journalists – and everybody else. Baghdad is breaking up into a dozen different cities, Shia and Sunni. Each is protected by militiamen from their own sect. 

In several parts of the city neighbouring districts fire mortars at each other every night as Christians and Muslims used to do in Beirut during the civil war. People are routinely killed because they have the wrong identity card in their pocket or the wrong number plate on their car. 

Bad though it is, it has never been more necessary for journalists to visit Iraq. More and more of the country is disappearing into an information black hole. President George Bush and Tony Blair used to periodically protest that the good news from Iraq was being ignored by the media. 

Of course it was not true. And even the most stalwart supporters of the war never volunteered to visit those supposedly peaceful provinces which they claimed existed. I used to find it frustrating that I could not disprove the lies told by Bush and Blair without being killed in the attempt.

But despite the danger it is possible to find out much of what is happening in Iraq. In northern Iraq I try to move south with Kurdish units of the Iraqi army, where I know the commanders, into Arab provinces like Nineveh and Diyala.

In Baghdad I used to go to truck depots where the truck drivers took their lives in their hands on Iraqi roads every day and had a detailed knowledge of the state of security – or lack of it – everywhere in Iraq.

Is it true that journalists who work in Baghdad live in such confined quarters that they might as well not be there?

The most convincing argument against this is that if it were true then so many journalists would not have been killed, wounded or kidnapped over the last three years.

Even those embedded with the US army – a much derided way of finding  out what is happening – are not safe since US troops are losing about 800 dead and wounded every month. It is difficult to identify the dividing line between prudence and paranoia. The western security companies employed by so many western media organisations encourage the latter.

It is understandably their business to stress the threat facing their clients. Often they themselves are unclear what is truly dangerous. I remember Robert Fisk and myself once waiting for a television journalist to join us for lunch.

Eventually there was a ping on my mobile phone and I saw an apologetic text message from him saying that he could not come to our hotel because the head of security in his organisation had decided that our lunch was ‘not an operational necessity’ and had unilaterally cancelled it.

The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by  Patrick Cockburn was  published by Verso in October.