Journalism in Iraq an increasingly dangerous job
BAGHDAD, Iraq — In the 19 months since U.S. troops first rolled across the border here, Iraq has been many things to many people: necessary war, project for democracy, quagmire without end.
Yet for the dozens of newspaper and television reporters trying to make sense of the place, Iraq above all is a shrinking country. Village by village, block by block, the vast and challenging land that we entered in March 2003 has shriveled into a medieval city-state, a grim and edgy place where the only question is how much more territory we will lose tomorrow. On some days, it seems, we are all crowded into a single room together, clutching our notebooks and watching the walls.
What I mean, of course, is that the business of reporting in Iraq has become a terribly truncated affair, an enterprise clipped and limited by the violence all around. If the U.S. military has its "no-go" zones, places where it no longer sends its troops, we in the press have ours: not just Fallujah and Ramadi, but Tikrit, Mosul, Mahmudiyah and large parts of Baghdad. Even in areas of the capital still thought to be relatively safe, very few reporters are still brazen enough to get out of a car, walk around and stop people at random. It can be done, but you better move fast.
To state the preceding to anyone who has worked in Iraq in recent weeks would be a waste of time. Most of us have our own store of close calls to remind us of how dangerous the streets here have become. For the newcomer, there is the video of the two French reporters, kidnapped and pleading for their lives, and the list, updated regularly, of the 46 reporters killed here while doing their jobs.
It was no small surprise, then, to witness the reaction to an e-mail message written by Farnaz Fassihi, a reporter in Iraq for The Wall Street Journal, that was intended to be a private letter to friends but made its way to the Internet and a mass audience. Any number of Fassihi's newspaper stories have described in detail the chaotic and uncertain state into which this country has fallen. Yet her description of her own working conditions, of the shrunken and dangerous world in which she now operates, shocked many people.
Part of the fascination with Fassihi's e-mail message may lie in its personal nature; it's one thing for a reporter to describe a country in anarchy, but quite another thing — far more immediate and tactile — for the same person to say she can't leave her hotel room for fear of being killed.
Part of the surprise may also lie in the presumption, now quaint, that reporters are regarded as neutrals in armed conflicts, that they are there to record the event for history. In Iraq, this has not been true for many months. For many insurgents here, and for a fevered class of Islamic zealots, Western reporters are fair game, targets in their war.
At The New York Times, where we have spared no expense to protect ourselves, the catalogue of hits and near-misses is long enough to chill the hardiest war correspondent: We have been shot at, kidnapped, blindfolded, held at knifepoint, held at gunpoint, detained, threatened, beaten and chased. One of our correspondents was driven blindfolded to the outskirts of a town in the dead of night by armed men who told him to get out of the car. Another time, a crowd began throwing bricks, and one of our photographers, who was standing next to me, was struck in the head and required stitches.
And that's just the intentional acts. On any given day here, car bombs explode, gun battles break out and mortar shells fall short, none of them exactly aimed at us, if they are aimed at anyone at all. In the writing of this essay, a three-hour affair, two rockets and three mortar shells have landed close enough to shake the walls of our house. The door to my balcony opens onto an Iraqi social club, and the roar from the blasts set the Iraqis into a panic, their screams audible above the Arabic music wafting from the speakers.
In my time here, I have marked significant political events, like the drafting of a new Iraqi Constitution and the formal end of the U.S. occupation. I have marked a number of personal ones, too.
Oct. 27, 2003: Attacked by a mob.
Dec. 19, 2003: Shot at.
May 8, 2004: Followed by a car of armed men.
Aug. 28, 2004: Detained by the Mahdi Army.
The last case was instructive, at least regarding how difficult it has become to work here. I was grabbed by a midlevel leader of the Mahdi Army in Najaf outside the Imam Ali Shrine, as Muqtada al-Sadr's guerrillas were still streaming out. The fight was supposed to be over.
"You are the second American spy I have captured today," the insurgent leader boasted, leading me away.
I found out later that the "first" American spy the Mahdi Army had captured that day was my own colleague, nabbed a couple of hours earlier. He had already been released by the time I was detained; I was let go following my assurances to another Mahdi commander that I was just a journalist and that I would be on my way.
"Get out of here," he said.
With the Mahdi Army, at least I had the chance to talk. Stepping out of my car at the scene of a suicide bombing last fall, I stepped into what appeared to be a placid crowd, only to find that it was seething and angry, blaming the Americans, as Iraqis often do, for the death and destruction all around them. The crowd surged before I and my colleagues could get back into the car.
"Kill them!" an old man shouted. "Kill them!"
We barely got away. Back at the office, we counted 17 bricks inside the car, whose every window was smashed. One of the bricks is now on my bookshelf.
In most foreign countries where I have worked, being an American was a kind of armor; the fear of messing with an American forced even the angriest zealots to take a moment to think.
Here, that fear has vanished, and indeed, it has become its opposite. To be an American reporter in Iraq, any kind of American, is not just to be a target yourself, but it is to make a target of others, too. As a result, some Iraqis now shy away from meeting. Just the other day, for instance, an Iraqi man I had met with several times before asked me not to speak English in the hallway leading to his office. He also asked me to stop wearing my sunglasses and polo shirt and jeans when I came to see him. I came back again, in the same attire.
"Why didn't you take my advice?" he asked.
In another case, a senior Iraqi government official whom I have met several times often asks that I meet his armed guards in front of a local mosque, who then drive me to his house. Better not to have an American reporter's car parked in front of his house.
The real consequence of the mayhem here is that we reporters can no longer do our jobs in the way we hope to. Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners, and if we can't leave the house, the picture from Iraq, even with the help of fearless Iraqi stringers, almost inevitably will be blurry and incomplete.
Some of my colleagues have given up. Most of the European reporters, like the French and Italians and Germans, are gone. And there are far fewer American reporters here than was the case just a few months ago. This is usually not clear until someone important holds a press conference, and you look around the auditorium, as I did the other day, and realize that there are far fewer Western reporters here than there used to be.
In my many months here, I have often reminded myself that however bad it gets here, at least I can still work, and I have a passport in case I can't. My Iraqi friends are not so fortunate. Most are trying to get on with their lives amid the daily chaos.
In the social club outside my window, the Iraqis, after a pause from the bombing, have gotten going again, the Arabic music and their laughter rising to my balcony.
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