Baghdad: The besieged press

Holed up in fortified compounds, at constant risk of death when they venture out, reporters in Iraq are increasingly cut off from the hideous reality outside.

By Orville Schell
March 16, 2006 5:54PM (UTC)
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"Ladies and Gents," the South African pilot matter-of-factly announces over the intercom, "we'll be starting our spiral descent into Baghdad, where the temperature is 19 degrees Celsius." The vast and mesmerizing expanse of sandpapery desert that has been stretching out beneath the plane has ended at the Tigris River. To avoid a dangerous glide path over hostile territory and missiles and automatic weapons fire, the plane banks steeply and then, as if caught in a powerful whirlpool, it plunges, circling downward in a corkscrew pattern.

Upon arriving in Amman, Jordan, the main civilian gateway to Baghdad, one already has had the feeling of drawing ever nearer to an atomic reactor in meltdown. Even in Jordan, there is a palpable sense of being in the last concentric circle away from a radioactive ground zero emitting uncontrollable waves of contamination.


Almost nowhere in our homogenized world does crossing an international frontier deliver a traveler to a truly unique land. There is, however, noplace in the world like Iraq. Even at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, one finds hints of this mutant land to come. Affixed to the wall above a baggage carousel is an advertisement for "The AS Beck Company, Bonn, Germany: CERTIFIED ARMORED CARS." The company's logo is a sedan with the crosshairs of an assault rifle's telescopic scope trained on the windshield on the driver's side. "WHEN GOING TO IRAQ, MAKE SURE YOU DRIVE ARMORED!" the ad proclaims cheerfully. At the departure gate, a crimson placard warns against carrying FORBIDDEN ITEMS: "Gun Powder, Golf Clubs, Hand Grenades, Ice Axes, Cattle Prods, Hocket Sticks [sic], Meat Cleavers and Big Guns," making one wonder if "little guns" are OK.

The small Royal Jordanian Fokker F-28-4000, which makes daily trips to Baghdad, sits out on the tarmac away from the jetways as if some airport official feared it might prove to be an airborne IED (improvised explosive device, a U.S. military acronym). Those of us on this hajj to the global epicenter of anti-Western and Islamic sectarian strife are an odd assortment of private security guards, military contractors, U.S. officials, Iraqi businessmen, and journalists; a young man in a sweatshirt announces himself as part of the "Military Police K-9 Corps" (bomb-sniffing dogs).

The Baghdad International Airport terminal is full of armed guards and ringed by armored vehicles. I saw no buses or taxis awaiting arriving passengers. Almost everyone is "met." I am picked up by the New York Times' full-time British security chief, who has come in a miniature motorcade of "hardened," or bomb-proof, cars, escorted by several armed Iraqi guards in constant radio contact with each other.


As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But, of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural-urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere.

It starts on the way into Baghdad, the cluttered seven-mile gauntlet that has come to be known as Route Irish after the Fighting 69th "Irish" Brigade of the New York National Guard, which patrolled it after the invasion. Some also now call it Death Road, because so many attacks have occurred along its length. Now largely patrolled by Iraqi forces, it is not quite the firing range it used to be. But it is still the most nerve-racking trip from an airport that any traveler is likely to make.

Although prewar Iraq had a relatively modern highway system, with multilane roads and overpasses, an occasional clover leaf, and even international standard green and white signs in both Arabic and English, it has been eroded by neglect, fighting, bombings, and tank treads, which have ground up curbs and center dividers. Everywhere there is churned-up earth, trash and rubble, loops of razor wire draped with dirty plastic bags, decapitated palm trees, wrecked equipment, broken streetlights, and packs of roaming yellow dogs sniffing at piles of garbage, the perfect places for insurgents wishing to hide cellphonetriggered IEDs to greet the next passing convoy of patrolling American troops. Much of the roadside looks like a combat zone, even when it hasn't been under attack.


Many of Baghdad's main roads are a nightmare of traffic congestion. When American or Iraqi patrols of Humvees mounted with 50-caliber machine guns, M-1 Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pull onto a street, everything slows to a crawl. Signs tied on their tailgates warn in English and Arabic: "DANGER: Stay Back!" Every driver gets the message. Failure to maintain one's distance can draw fire. And so, like a herd of cold and hungry animals fearful of getting too close to a campfire, traffic cringes behind such patrols, while frustrated drivers are left to wait, breathe one another's exhaust, and curse the occupation.

It has not helped that when Saddam Hussein fell, almost all ordinary governmental activities -- such as registering cars and issuing drivers' licenses -- ceased, and thousands of vehicles flooded the market in Iraq from other countries. Traffic lights rarely work since electric power is still sporadic; the only control comes from a few street cops who have been recently posted at key intersections to direct the relentless crush of vehicles. To make matters worse, after several attacks or bombings, the U.S. military or the Iraqi government will often simply prop up a sign in the center of a main artery saying: "HAIFA STREET IS CODE RED! DON'T USE!" Moreover, as the city has become ever more violent and chaotic, people have begun blocking off streets on their own to create safety zones. Since there has been little law enforcement, there is no one to stop this private appropriation of public space.


At first people made themselves feel more secure after the invasion by piling sandbags along streets or in front of their houses and offices. But as suicide bombers began to proliferate and their explosive charges grew larger and more destructive, private defense efforts became more elaborate as well. The advent of the "blast wall" changed the Baghdad landscape.

Developed by the Israelis in order to put up a physical barrier between themselves and the Palestinians, the Iraq version of these segmented walls is constructed out of thousands of portable, 12-foot-high slabs of steel-reinforced concrete. When stood upright on their pedestals, these "T-walls" look something like giant tombstones, totems perhaps from some long-lost Easter Island culture gone minimalist. When placed together edge-to-edge as "blast walls," they form the gray undulations that have now become Baghdad's most distinguishing feature. And because they proliferated during the administration of L. Paul Bremer III, they became known to some as "Bremer walls."

For example, when one major news organization became alarmed at the deteriorating security situation in the city, it occupied part of Abu Nawas, a main road along the Tigris River that the U.S. military had already blocked in front of two adjacent hotels in order to erect a maze of protective blast walls, guard towers, and other fortifications. So, where there was once a major highway complete with a center divider shaded by trees, there is now a relatively quiet, garden-like parking lot, surrounded by 12-foot-high protective concrete walls.


As the quest for greater private security increases, a new and unexpected kind of public insecurity has grown alongside it. With vehicles rerouted through an ever-diminishing number of open streets, traffic jams have become more frequent, exposing foreigners, rich Baghdadis, and anyone else out of favor with one or another group of insurgents to a greater danger of being kidnapped, shot, or blown up. It is unnerving (to say the least) to be stuck in such traffic, wedged into a welter of dilapidated sedans, vans, and pickup trucks with heavily armed Iraqis staring sullenly through the window of your expensively reinforced car, as security guards sitting next to you cradle their automatic weapons. With no possibility of escape, you can't help wondering when your unlucky moment will come. And when traffic completely stops and frustrated drivers begin to break out of line, gun their vehicles up sidewalks, veer across center dividers, or just charge up the opposite lane against the flow of oncoming traffic, it is difficult to remain calm.

The worst offenders are private security guards who are committed to protecting their charges any way they can, and the Iraqi police, who now have brand-new fleets of green and white cruisers with whooping sirens, allowing them to plow their way through traffic-clogged streets as if they were kids on joy rides.

Adding to the overall racket and general sense of anxiety is the fact that it is hard to tell if the incessant sounds of sirens, the periodic bursts of automatic weapons fire, or the occasional explosions that are heard throughout the day mean anything or not. There are police firing ranges within the city, and sometimes a bored guard will just harmlessly fire off a few shots by way of a warning. As Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times explained, "Squeezing off a few rounds of automatic weapons fire here in Baghdad is the equivalent of honking your horn in America."


So unless an explosion is quite close, people hardly break step. At most, if there is a particularly loud report, a journalist might go up onto his bureau's rooftop to see where the smoke is coming from.

There is undeniably a "Blade Runner"-like feel to this city. The violence is so pervasive and unfathomable that you wonder what people think they are dying for. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the everyday violence is horrendous, it does not take too many days before the deadly noises and the devastation everywhere seem to become just part of the ordinary landscape. Soon, quite to your surprise, you find yourself paying hardly more attention to the sounds of gunshots than a New Yorker does to the car alarms that go off every night ... until, that is, someone you know, a neighbor, or just someone you have heard about, gets blown up, shot on patrol, or kidnapped by insurgents.

Just a few days after I left Baghdad, Iraqi newspapers carried a short notice that a well-to-do Iraqi banker, Ghalib Abdul Hussein, had been kidnapped from his fortified house by gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms. Five of his personal guards were shot execution-style in his yard. This is just one of thousands of such occurrences. But except for obeying the security guards responsible for you (if you have them), there isn't much else you can do.

Driving through the streets of Baghdad, one now sees members of the newly created, blue-uniformed Iraqi Police Service, extolled by the Bush administration as another hopeful sign of "Iraqization." But because police recruitment stations, training schools, and district precincts are favorite targets of the insurgents, many of these new police are afraid of being identified as collaborators with the Americans or the new Iraqi government. Their remedy is to wear black stocking caps with eye, nose, and mouth holes pulled down over their faces so they look like so many bank robbers. One sees these sinister-looking protectors of the peace at traffic circles and intersections, or brandishing automatic weapons in the back of American-bought pickup trucks, which makes them seem far more menacing than reassuring.


Visiting any of the news bureaus gives an immediate sense of how embattled foreign journalists now are and how difficult it has become for them to do their jobs. Everyone I spoke to complained that the deteriorating security situation has increasingly made them prisoners of their bureaus.

"We could go almost anywhere in Iraq in a regular car, unprotected," wrote the Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi this February, in a wistful front-page story for her paper about the situation she found when she first arrived in 2003. "I wore Western clothes -- pants and T-shirts, skirts, sandals -- walked freely around Baghdad chatting with shopkeepers and having lunch or dinner with people I met." By the spring of 2004, she writes, "the insurgency had been spreading and gaining strength faster than we had imagined possible. For the first time, I hired armed guards and began traveling in a fully armored car. Outings were measured and limited and road trips were few and far between ... As security deteriorated around the country, the areas in which we could safely operate shrank."

Foreign news bureaus are either in or near the few operating hotels such as the Al Hamra, the Rashid, or the Palestine. Like battleships that have been badly damaged but are still at sea, these hotels have survived repeated bomb attacks and yet have managed to stay open. A few hotels like the Rashid, where once there was a mosaic depicting George Bush Sr. on the floor of the lobby, are sheltered within the Green Zone. A few other bureaus have their own houses, usually somewhat shabby villas that have the advantage of being included inside some collective defense perimeter that makes the resulting neighborhood feel like a walled medieval town.

Wherever in the city the news bureaus are, they have become fortified installations with their own mini-armies of private guards on duty 24 hours a day at the gates, in watch towers, and around perimeters. To reach these bureaus, one has to run through a maze of checkpoints, armed guards, blast-wall fortifications, and concertina-wired no man's lands where all visitors and their cars are repeatedly searched.


The bitter truth is that doing any kind of work outside these American fortified zones has become so dangerous for foreigners as to be virtually suicidal. More and more journalists find themselves hunkered down inside whatever bubbles of refuge they have managed to create in order to insulate themselves from the lawlessness outside. (A January USAID "annex" to bid applications for government contracts warns how "the absence of state control and an effective police force" has allowed "criminal elements within Iraqi society [to] have almost free rein.")

Nearly every foreign group working in Iraq has felt it necessary to hire a PSD, or "personal security detail," from more than 60 "private military firms" (PMFs) -- Triple Canopy, Erinys International Ltd., and Blackwater USA -- now doing a brisk business in Iraq. In fact, there are now reported to be at least 25,000 armed men from such private firms on duty in the country today. Led mostly by Brits, South Africans, and Americans, these subterranean paramilitary PSDs form a parallel universe to America's occupation force. Indeed, they even have their own organization, the Private Security Company Association of Iraq.

It has not escaped the attention of U.S. National Guardsmen, reservists, regular Army soldiers, and Marines that their mercenary counterparts get paid four or five times more than they do, sometimes as much as $1,000 a day. Understandably, there is a good deal of resentment about this inequity, and not a few American soldiers now aspire to nothing more than getting out of their low-paying jobs working for the military so that they can sign on with one of these companies.

"I look at it this way," one young former Marine told me. "The Corps was an all-expenses-paid training ground to graduate me into the private sector."


But being in a PSD is a dangerous occupation, as four guards from Blackwater learned in 2004 when, while on a mission to pick up some kitchen equipment from an 82nd Airborne base in Falluja, their SUVs were attacked and set on fire, and they were killed and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. (As this issue went to press, 50 employees of a private Sunni Arabowned security company were abducted in Baghdad.)

The U.S. government has ended up hiring thousands of private guards to protect its contractors and even high-ranking officials such as Paul Bremer. In fact, a 2005 U.S. government audit reported that between 16 and 22 percent of reconstruction project budgets in Iraq now go for security, almost 10 percent more than had been anticipated. As one private security guard told PBS Frontline's Martin Smith, "We are a taxi service, and we're equipped to defend ourselves if we're attacked."

Security is a very costly business, which has meant that most stringers and freelance journalists who could never afford such protection have been driven out of Baghdad. Bureaus like that of the New York Times, which can afford it and are still in Iraq, now carry costly insurance policies and require that all coming and going -- indeed, all aspects of life outside the compound, including trips to the airport -- be under the control of a full-time security chief, who acts as an earthbound air-traffic controller for the bureau. His job is to carefully set times and routes for reporters' trips, and then maintain almost constant contact with their cars until they are safely back. If you want to have an interview outside the bureau, there is always a chance that it will be canceled or delayed for security reasons. Security chiefs are also in charge of the armed guard details that protect the bureau around the clock. No one goes anywhere without a plan worked out in advance, and then preferably in a "hardened," or reinforced, vehicle followed by a "chase" car with several trusted Iraqi guards ready to shoot if necessary.

Even if a reporter wants to conduct an interview in another secure zone, it has become increasingly foolhardy not to coordinate the meeting in advance. If a photographer is out covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing or a reporter is interviewing an Iraqi, for example, he or she is advised to stay no more than a very short time, because someone may be tempted to phone the sighting to a jihadi group, often for a payoff.

Some critics, like the London Independent's Robert Fisk, have written about how Western reporters have been reduced to "hotel journalism," or what the former Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran somewhat more charitably describes as "journalism by remote control." The Guardian war correspondent Maggie O'Kane was even more emphatic: "We no longer know what is going on, but we are pretending we do."

The Washington Post, which has been forced for security reasons to move several times, now occupies a large house next to the run-down Al Hamra Hotel. When I stop there for lunch with a group of other journalists, the Post's Jonathan Finer tells me that concern for reporters' lives has "completely changed the way people move around the city."

"In the summer of 2003, you could walk out of the Al Hamra and get a cab or even drive to Falluja for dinner, chill out, or go to a CD shop," I was told by the Los Angeles Times's Borzou Daragahi, whose bureau is in the Al Hamra. "Now, the AP won't even let its people leave the city."

"It's amazing now to think back to November 2003 when the insurgency was starting to gain momentum, and all we had were a few sandbags in front of our house and a few guards," Ed Wong, who is on his seventh rotation at the New York Times Baghdad bureau, later recalls. "Back then, you might have met a few angry people, but you didn't fear for your life. Then, things started to change. At first, a few civilians became targets, but not journalists. Then, in the spring of 2004, we started changing our security protocols, using two-car convoys and guards. It felt very weird. For the first time I confronted that barrier between me and the people I was supposed to be reporting on."

Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who was in Afghanistan before he went to Iraq, told me: "When I first got here in March of 2003, it was like any war zone I have covered: dangerous, but lines were clear. We went all around the Sunni Triangle at night. I went to Uday and Qusay's [Saddam Hussein's sons] funeral. Saddam's family stared at us, but I had no trepidation. Now, only a lunatic would do something like that! It all started to change in the fall of 2003 when all of us started to have a lot of close calls. I was shot at, attacked by a mob and had bricks thrown at my car. We had one car raked by gunfire. Then, everything totally changed after April 2004 and Falluja and the uprising of the Mahdi Army [the militia run by Moqtada al-Sadr]. John Burns was captured, blindfolded, and walked into a field. He thought he was a goner. Later in 2004 came the beheadings." According to Filkins, "the situation has just truncated the center of being a reporter. We can still talk to Iraqis and do journalism, but it's dangerous and unpredictable."

As Larry Kaplow of the Cox Newspapers said, it is "frustrating not being able to talk to the insurgents" and not to be able to find out what is happening in other parts of Baghdad.

The price of staying in Baghdad is to have Iraqi surrogates perform more and more tasks, from driving and shopping to getting exit visas and plane tickets -- and reporting. This situation deeply frustrates Western journalists, who pride themselves on their independence; but they know, as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, that some 61 reporters (many of them Iraqis) have been killed here, and many others wounded, since the 2003 invasion.

The New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, who had spent several years reporting from Russia and had been to Baghdad several times before her most recent rotation, said: "I sometimes think that all I know are tiny little pieces of the larger puzzle. If you can get into someone's house, you can tell that other side of the story. But the hurdles to doing that, just going to a hospital after a bombing, are now huge. During a recent Muslim holiday, I went to a park to talk to people and children. But, I had a translator, a photographer, three guards and two drivers." It was, she said, "intimidating."

This is the first of two parts.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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