Get out claws

February 27, 2006

It’s been a little lonely in the hotel of late. For the last three weeks I have been the only guest. Not the only ‘foreign’ guest – the ‘only’ guest. Over the weekend a citywide 24-hour curfew exacerbated the sense of solitude by preventing my four Iraqi staff from reaching me even during daylight hours. During this period the only company has been that of the receptionist, Sammad, a similarily stranded man. Only last night he offered to share another beheading video with me, this one showing members of the Shia Mehdi army decapitating an alleged Sunni terrorist (well – a Sunni man anyway) on his mobile phone. “You know what Sammad?

Not right now…” I replied primly, and got him to dig out the last bottle of revolting 11% French red from his basement as an alternative pastime – giving a ghastly hangover for no temporal escape, it doesn’t give enough flash for the bang, but then these are thin times. War snuff flicks are big in Baghdad. Suicide attacks, missile strikes, assassinations, executions, firefights: you can catch them all plus soundtrack on American and Islamic websites, street DVDs and Iraqi mobile phones. Denied the normal access reporters have in war, I have watched them often in order to try and understand the realities of what is happening in Iraq. I don’t watch the head-sawing ones as I find the gurgling too much.

They can be illuminating, sometimes compulsive, and there’s nothing like getting my two drivers and interpreters in on the act to cut to the quick of where people’s responses lie. We see an American marine standing by his Humvee in a dusty street. Iraqi children are loitering around him. Suddenly a single tracer round flies out from a flank and whacks him slap in the head. He goes down with a thump and his legs give a parade ground ‘one-two’ kick in terminal spasm.

“Wow. What a shot!” the Iraqi staff murmer admiringly. “So check this out,” I retort, and with a quick tap of the keyboard another image grows.

We see an empty Fallujah street in grainy black and white, filmed from the camera of an airborne weapon system. A group of about thirty figures steps into the street.

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‘I got numerous individuals on the road. You want me to take those out?,’ a disembodied American voice asks.

‘Take ’em out,’ the immediate reply comes back from ground control.

‘Ten seconds.’ ‘Roger.’

‘Impact!’ The ant-like figures disappear, obliterated in a huge explosion, driven from the screen edge like tumbling leaves caught be a violent squall. ‘Ohhhhh dude!,’ the operator signs out. The video ends and my staff step back from the computer screen, open-mouthed and appalled.

“Now that, guys, is what I call smart technology,” I tell them, hoping they get my irony. And so another black brain bending Baghdad day continues.

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An icy swim in a sea of tears, there is zero appeal in doing an Iraq assignment at present. I completely accept the arguments of reporters who point out the inverted risk/ reward ratio produced by an atmosphere in which journalists here are seen as legitimate targets. I cannot operate with the remotest degree of personal freedom and I deeply resent the constraints. To do something as basic as a street voxpop becomes a sweaty, rushed affair with negligible gain. I am doing this assignment for the simple reason that I agreed to sometime ago.

However, as the last weeks have passed more than the loneliness, the frustrations, the strangling claustrophobia and the twisted nature of a virtual war experience, what I have grown to resent most about the Iraq story is the glib assumption of journalists in the UK who suggest that the western reporters who do continue to exist here contribute nothing to the story. Only yesterday I watched a bunch of suited cappuccino-class hacks on BBC World agree from their London studio that all reporters in Iraq were based in the heavily fortified Green Zone and were unable to report. The asinine assumption was advanced further a couple of months ago in The Guardian by a colleague who concluded a braying and nonsensical opinion piece claiming remaining foreign journalists in Baghdad were doing a “disservice to truth”.

Beyond the natural smarting of ego, I know these criticisms to be deeply misleading for a number of reasons. Geographically they are plaintively untrue. Like most of the few journalists here, for what it is worth, The Times bureau exists very much in the ‘Red Zone’. More significantly though, western reporters in Iraq have a vital role in the management of the story. Management is not a natural or agreeable task in a competitive profession that exhalts the endeavour of the individual. But in Iraq it is crucial.

To our chagrin we cannot get out and write incisive first-hand stories, a product of our engagement with the Iraqi people. As foreigners, the risk to ourselves, and indeed those Iraqis we speak to, seldom justifies the effort. However, our Iraqi staff can get out. Intelligent, courageous, resourceful and motivated, they get to the face of events; the killings, passions, and facts so neccessary to report the story. They risk their lives in our place. And thus their management, by knowledgeable western journalists in place in Iraq, is an essential fulcrum between their inexperience and vulnerability, and the hungry naivety of editors in London.

Take the 24 hours that followed the bombing of Samarra’s Shia shrine as an example. The desk in London immediately requested me to send our local staff to Samarra, as much of Europe’s media announced civil war while the coalition and Iraqi Interior Ministry tried to downplay the immediate reaction. Rather than indulge in knee-jerk response to these differing pressures, the presence of a foreign manager in Baghdad allowed instant debate and assessment with the Iraqi staff. We agreed that the Samarra scene was already of secondary importance beside the coming knock-on effects in Baghdad, and anyway too dangerous for them to reach. Al Arabiya were to have three dead on the town’s outskirts by nightfall – I rest our case. Within hours the guys were reporting back to the bureau by phone from the streets of Baghdad, telling me of the first revenge attacks on Sunni mosques, reporting – as eyewitnesses – details of hit squads being allowed free passage through Iraqi army checkpoints.

A day later, as Baghdad’s casualty count became contentious, I sent them off to the city morgue.

“Get the statistician,” I told Ali, my interpreter, after he arrived there. Minutes later he came back with a count: 127 Sunnis dead in a 12-hour period, a truck with another 47 bodies waiting outside the morgue. “I was with a guy who identified his dead son,” Ali informed me, obviously distressed. “He had been shot in the head, been tortured and had one eye and his teeth pulled out.” “What was his expression when he saw the body?” I asked. “Did he cry or slumpor get pissed off or what?” I would write about it if I was at the scene. I am not, but I am going to write about it anyway so I need to know: if the story is to breathe then this death needs some life.

My legitimacy in asking this type of question is born from similar first hand experiences in many wars, and the fact I sit in front of Ali as the day closes, can look him in the eyes and can filter and contextualise what he tells me. I know him. I know his ethnic background, his experience and capabilities. If I were sitting in London as a stranger on a telephone would I have the same justification in asking Ali the same questions?

Probably, but not with the same effectiveness: by being here I am one less degree removed, and it is a big degree. Not ideal, certainly not nice, but significant in that it produces the ability for a smoother, more fluid line of reportage.

Two days later, and while London-based reporters still appear not to know whether Iraq is experiencing civil war, is at the brink of it, or stepping back, by debriefing the staff here direct we are getting a clearer picture. The violence is not a grassroots swell involving mobs in a cycle of tit-for-tat killing. It is organised, disciplined even, conducted by well-ordered Shia militia teams who are rolling up and executing Sunnis in specific areas.

In general terms the killings are beginning to slow, as the story begins to change shape. Moqtada Al Sadr, the radical Shia cleric whose sudden support gained Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari his narrow win for a second term at the post earlier this month, and whose Mehdi militia conducted most of the revenge killings in Baghdad last week, is emerging as a very powerful if unlikely peacemaker. Publicly he is urging restraint. Privately he is brokering deals with other Shia leaders and Sunni clergy. Their shared sentiment? Antipathy towards the coalition. Their shared aim? To counter the coalition strategy which intended to produce a democratised government of national unity in Iraq.

So the country is not yet experiencing civil war. It could do. But what has happened instead in the space of a few short days, a bomb explosion and nearly 200 dead, is of weighty significance: the west’s game plan here has been left in tatters, its hope for a quick military exit broken and its political gambit sundered.

Believe me, I would prefer to be anywhere else in the world than here. I cannot wait to leave the country and I will be happy not to return for a long time. But when I get home, if you fancy yourself as an experienced foreign correspondent, then please tell me you no longer operate in Iraq because you don’t like the working environment, the style, the place, the risk, the people, even the story. Tell me any of these things and I’ll respect your opinion and accept your decision.

But don’t try to tell me you are not there because the journalists who remain in Iraq cannot report or are doing a disservice to truth, because the allegation is bankrupt both in its moral and practical argument. If accurate reporting, and the lives and industry of our Iraqi stringers mean anything to us, then we should give both deserved respect. And that means keeping the Baghdad bureaus manned by expatriates. Don’t make it worse by walking away.