In the Twilight Zone

In Part 2 of his report on the press in Baghdad, Orville Schell attends a pathetic "party" at Fox News and endures surreal Bush spin in the Green Zone.


Orville Schell
March 17, 2006 4:48PM (UTC)

In recent history, there have been few wars more difficult to report on than the war in Iraq today. When I was covering the war in Indochina, journalists went out into the field, even into combat, knowing that we would ultimately be able to return to Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Vientiane where we could meet with local friends or go out to a restaurant for dinner with colleagues. Although occasionally a Viet Cong might throw a hand grenade into a bar, the war essentially was happening outside the city.

I had arrived here in Baghdad naively expecting that as an antidote to their isolation from Iraqi society, journalists might have kept up something of a fraternity among themselves. What I discovered was that even the most basic social interactions have become difficult. It is true that some of the larger and better-appointed news bureaus (with kitchens and cooks) have tried to organize informal evening dinners with colleagues. But while guests were able to get to an early dinner, there was the problem of getting back again to their compounds or hotels by dark, when the odds of being attacked vastly increase. The only alternative was to stay the night, which posed many difficulties for everyone, especially Iraqi drivers and guards.

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The result is that reporters find themselves living in a strangely retro mode where their days end before sunset, and they are pulled back to their bureaus for dinner like an American family of the 1950s. Not a few have sought solace in cooking.

One evening while I was in Baghdad, a British security guard mentioned that Fox News was giving a "party" in the nearby Palestine Hotel, once the almost elegant, five-star Le Meridien Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River. I was curious both to see what had happened to this legendary hotel and also what now passed for a social gathering among foreign reporters here. So at dusk, accompanied by two armed guards, I walked over to the Palestine through the maze of blast walls.

The first thing I noticed was that the hotel, which had become something of a household name when U.S. tanks opened fire on it in April 2003, killing three journalists, was now largely dark. Of the major bureaus, only Fox News and APTN are still here. The Palestine and the equally fabled Ishtar Sheraton, known as "the Missile Magnet," are the two tallest buildings in Baghdad. They are situated adjacent to the roundabout in Firdos Square, made famous when a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by a U.S. tank in 2003. Although the Ishtar has long since been excommunicated by the Sheraton chain, the hotel continues to call itself a Sheraton, like some aging divorcie who cannot quite bear the thought of giving up her former husband's last name.

In October of 2005, both hotels were the target of attacks by three vehicles with explosives driven by suicide bombers. The last of them, a cement mixer loaded with explosives that drove through a hole just blasted in the wall by another suicide bomber, might have brought both hotels down if its axle had not got snarled in a razor-wire barricade. Snipers on the roof of the Palestine Hotel then opened fire on the truck, setting off an explosion that, among other things, blew out windows at Reuters, the New York Times, and the BBC several hundred yards away. The Sheraton Ishtar was so badly damaged that it never really reopened, while the Palestine, which had much of its lobby blown out, somehow manages to keep going in a state of suspended animation.

Inside its darkened lobby, a lone Iraqi sits dozing at a battered wooden desk under a caved-in ceiling that is hemorrhaging wires, electrical fixtures, and plumbing. A faded placard still marks the closed Orient Express Restaurant, once the meeting place of all the correspondents who used to live here.

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In our search for the alleged Fox News party, we ask the attendant in the lobby for directions. He tells me and my guards to go to the fifth floor, but adds that in order to get upstairs, we must first go downstairs, evidently a strategy to prevent suicide bombers from going directly to their targets. In the basement, amid a stack of discarded cardboard boxes and heaps of broken plate-glass windows, an Iraqi man is kneeling on a rug in front of a cement block wall, presumably facing toward Mecca, in prayer. When we finally arrive on the fifth floor, we have to leave our guards at a checkpoint fortified with a steel door. Inside, we are greeted by the stink of disinfectant and stale air filled with the smell of curry and cigarette smoke. Down a hallway with a greasy carpet I find a small sitting room with shabby furniture and a soccer game playing on a TV. The Fox News staffers who are smoking and drinking seem glad to see almost anyone. The scene makes me think of a group of elderly retired people clinging to a residential hotel slated for demolition.

"Where are all the other guests?" I ask, as one of them thrusts a bottle of beer into my hand. Zoran Kusovac, Fox's bulky, unshaven bureau chief, takes a long drag on his cigarette and explains in his Croatian accent, "Everybody's gone home." He laughs. "It's Saturday. We wanted to have some fun. We used to be able to have parties until late at night. But now our security people told us that if we wanted to have a party, it would have to end no later than 6:00 PM, so that everyone could get home before dark. We started at 3:00!"

"It's a little like being in third grade, where everybody has to be home before dark," someone else says. Everyone laughs.

"TV means you have to get close to the action," Kusovac complains when I ask how Fox's coverage has been going. "After all, we have to get pictures. It's absolutely essential. If you're a print reporter and out in a Humvee, you can look through the window. But as a TV reporter, you have to stand up and get tape." Everyone nods, thinking, no doubt, about ABC TV's Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, who had just been wounded while out on patrol. "All of us," Kusovac said, "depend on our Iraqis whom we have learned to trust ... Our 'bona fiders.' But still, they're filters."

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The BBC's Baghdad bureau is housed at an adjacent compound in a shabby old villa occupied in the 1930s by a Jewish school, which still has Star of David patterns on its floor tiles and its old rickety wrought-iron porch railings. "The challenge here is always getting there to get the story," the Canadian-born bureau chief, Owen Lloyd, tells me. "And then, when we do get there, we can only stay for 15 to 30 minutes. Finally, the focus has to be as much about safety as it is about the story." I ask Lloyd how the BBC deals with these problems. "We have a staff in the newsroom with four Iraqis who work as fixers," he tells me. "They are from different Muslim factions and give us a sense of what people in their neighborhoods think. We couldn't get by without them!"

The days when journalists could move around Iraq just by keeping a low profile -- traveling in beat-up old cars, growing an Iraqi-style mustache, and dyeing their hair black, or when women reporters could safely shroud themselves in a black abbaya and veil -- are gone. When Jill Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor tried such tactics this January, she was kidnapped while trying to get to an interview with a Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi.

What journalists have learned to do in this unprecedented situation is to give increasing responsibility to their Iraqi staff -- readers of the Arab press, drivers, fixers, researchers, translators, or stringers whom the larger bureaus have placed around the country or in key government offices.

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Farnaz Fassihi has written how at the Wall Street Journal she "began relying heavily on our staff for setting up interviews, conducting street reporting and being my eyes and ears in Baghdad."

Occasionally the Washington Post's local staff "managed to persuade Iraqis to come to our hotel for interviews, giving me a chance to interact personally with sources and subjects," Jackie Spinner, a former Post Baghdad bureau chief, acknowledges in her soon-to-be-published book, "Tell Them I Didn't Cry." She recounts how she "spent the nights writing stories pasted together from reports gathered by our Iraqi staff, my only access to the war outside my window..."

But while Western journalists are relying on surrogates, what I observed at the bureaus I visited in Baghdad was far from a dereliction of duty. If anything, it showed how the old overseas bureau model of independent reporters has been forced to evolve under very extreme pressure to survive. Much of the basic reporting now is done by Iraqis, while most of the writing and analysis is still done by Westerners. Some of the Iraqis I met are impressive in their knowledge and commitment to this new kind of team journalism. But one question being frequently asked is whether these local reporters were getting adequate credit. Omar Fekeiki, a young Iraqi at the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau, was quick to say, "Of course we want a byline! This is practically all we get."

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Iraqis who contribute to a story do get mentioned, although often at the end of the article and in somewhat smaller print than the Western correspondent -- an unfortunate inequity. This practice has started to change, especially at the Post. Still, the reality is that because of the dangers of being associated with a Western news bureau, many Iraqis do not want their names published. Out of fear of reprisal, many do not even tell their families and friends where they work.

Few reporters I talked to, whether Western or Iraqi, have any direct contact with the insurgents or with the sectarian militias: it is too difficult and dangerous, they say, to talk with Iraqis who do the fighting and set off the explosives. And thus, the various attacks, suicide bombings, and the pervasive anti-Western sentiment, as well as the sectarian hatred that has erupted during the occupation, continue to be largely unexplored and unexplained from the viewpoint of the Iraqis, whether they are Sunni insurgents, members of the Shia militias, or from the American-supplied Iraqi forces that are attacking them.

Sooner or later, anyone involved with the Americans must go to the so-called Green Zone. Since it is so dangerous and difficult for Westerners to circulate in the everyday world of Baghdad, the Green Zone is one of the very few places to which a journalist can go to actually "report" a story. The alternative is to become embedded in the U.S. military. That Western journalists now find being embedded a kind of liberation from imprisonment in their bureaus is something of an irony, especially in view of the debate three years ago whether embedded reporters were accepting conditions that restricted their freedom to describe the war. Now they readily accept these limitations, because working as a "unilateral" has become practically impossible. At least with the military they see the killing in the streets at first hand.

The Green Zone is a 4.5-square-mile compound in the middle of Baghdad surrounded by an eight-mile-long, Christo-like running fence of blast walls. Someone dubbed it "the largest gated community in the world." The easy way to enter it is to "chopper in" to the zone's helicopter pad -- code-name "Washington" -- from Baghdad International Airport or one of the many other U.S. military bases that now form a growing American archipelago throughout Iraq. Indeed, all day and night choppers carrying military brass, diplomats, security specialists, contractors, and VIP civilians rattle a few hundred feet over Baghdad.

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Reporters seeking access to the Green Zone must drive there and then negotiate passage through a heavily fortified access gate. Since these have been magnets for suicide bombers, they are ringed by armored vehicles, guard towers, and squads of heavily armed troops. If a visitor does not have the requisite U.S. military-issued special pass for his vehicle, he or she must get dropped off at a special place outside a gate in a maze of blast walls, rubble, razor wire, and armaments. But cars dare not linger for more than a brief moment, lest soldiers presume that your vehicle is that of a bomber and open fire.

Once disembarked, the visitor walks across a dangerous no man's land to the outermost checkpoint. As cars whiz by and as you thread your way through corridors of blast walls, razor wire, and chessboard-like configurations of metal mesh bins filled with dirt and sand as blast barriers, you feel utterly exposed. There have, in fact, been many attacks on these gates. In December 2004, for example, a car loaded with explosives blew up at Harithiya Gate, killing seven people and wounding 19. A Web-published message purporting to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi triumphantly proclaimed: "On this blessed day, one of the lions of the martyrdom-seeking brigade struck a gathering of apostates and Americans in the Green Zone."

At the gate itself, you are greeted by signs in English and Arabic: "Do Not Enter or You Will be Shot," "Stop Here and Wait," or "No Cell Phone Use at Check Point." (The fear, of course, is that an insurgent with a cellphone will detonate a bomb by remote control.)

And then, you must begin navigating numerous checkpoints manned by guards who check IDs again and again, pass you through metal detectors and scanning machines, introduce you to bomb-sniffing dogs, and give you pat-down searches. Their object is to make certain that no terrorist breaches these walls, as happened in October 2004 when suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the Green Zone Cafi, killing several contractors, and reminding everyone that even the seemingly secure barriers dividing the Green Zone from the rest of Baghdad could be breached.

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The first few checkpoints are now manned by teams of soldiers from the country of Georgia in full combat gear. The names on their identity badges all end in "-villi," and none of them seems to speak English. Next, one encounters phalanxes of Spanish-speaking guards who, in pidgin English, tell me they are from Peru, Colombia, Honduras, and Chile. Because U.S. troops are both overstretched and expensive, the Pentagon has for some time taken to outsourcing guard duty here at the Green Zone to foreign contract laborers -- in somewhat the same way the news bureaus are outsourcing their work to Iraqis. At first, the U.S. hired the U.K.-based firm Global Strategies Group Ltd., which imported British-trained Sri Lankans, Fijians, and Nepalese Gurkha mercenaries. But in November 2004, after the U.S. reopened bidding for the contract, Triple Canopy Inc., a Virginia-based outfit started in 2003 by a group of veterans from the U.S. Delta Force, won the job. In order to keep costs down, it brought in recruits from Latin America.

These guards joined an already vast force of foreign truck drivers and food and service workers in the Green Zone (and on other U.S. bases) who come from countries as varied as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, and India. The result is a globalized labor force that makes the Green Zone look something like one of the United Arab Emirates, where Asian contract workers often far outnumber actual citizens. These "private warriors" and service workers in Iraq are estimated to make up the equivalent of an extra 30 battalions of military troops.

Knowledge of English does not seem to have been a requirement for Triple Canopy workers in this new Tower of Babel. Since the Latins are cut off from any regular Spanish-language publications or broadcasts, it is hard to imagine what they make of the imbroglio in which they find themselves. When I ask a Peruvian who is standing at a checkpoint under a tent fly in front of a giant stele inscribed in Arabic with a quotation from Saddam Hussein what he thinks of Iraq, he frowns and points one thumb down.

Several people told me that the Green Zone's name was derived from military parlance: when a soldier clears the chamber of his M-16, he is said to have his weapon "on green," while "red" means that a rifle is "locked and loaded" and ready to fire. Hence, this relatively safe zone occupied by American "liberators" came to be known as the Green Zone, while everything else outside, where weapons were ubiquitous and gunfire was almost incessant, came to be known as the Red Zone.

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When one first lands "inside the wire," as the world inside the Green Zone is known, one has the feeling of having gained access to some large resort in which soldiers have been turned into staff. Walking among the trailers, modular offices, generators, shipping containers (filled with thousands of items of equipment), PXs, fast food outlets, swimming pools and other recreational facilities, and seemingly inexhaustible supplies of American soft drinks, even the sight of the former palaces and buildings of Saddam Hussein and rows of date palms is not enough to jolt one back into Iraq.

The Green Zone houses almost everything that matters in Iraq: the so-called U.S. embassy, which has taken up residence in Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace; other favored foreign legations (the British, but not the French, who remain across the river on their own); a remnant U.N. mission; the offices of big construction firms like Kellogg-Brown-Root and Bechtel; American military command centers; a Pizza Inn; a bar called the Bunker; and CNN and the Wall Street Journal. All have sought haven here in the Green Zone. There is also the Convention Center, future home for the new Iraqi parliament, as well as important offices of the new Iraqi government. Just as the foreign "concessions" in cities like Shanghai once allowed "Westernized" Chinese to live inside them, together with ex-pats enjoying extraterritorial rights, select Iraqis are protected in the Green Zone.

It is here also that the Combined Press Information Center, known as CPIC, is located and where it holds its Thursday press briefings, which remind some veterans of the surreal "Five o'clock Follies" held each day at 5:00 PM in the windowless JUSPAO (Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office) theater in Saigon. There, an earlier generation of "press information officers" gave journalists briefings, complete with four-color overlay charts tabulating "body counts," "targets hit," "structures destroyed," and "villages pacified" in a war that seemed to be getting statistically won, even as it was actually being lost.

It is to CPIC that arriving journalists must go to be photographed, finger-printed, and accredited. Indeed, without the official CPIC plastic badge, it is virtually impossible for a reporter to survive in the parallel universe of American installations that, with few exceptions, provide the country's only working systems of transport, food delivery, overnight quarters, communications, and emergency medical care.

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Inside the Green Zone, one encounters a world that is nowhere to be found outside. The zone has its own taxi service. There are women joggers; men in rakish safari hats; 30-year-olds in neckties who have vaguely described jobs "advising" the Iraqis on political and administrative matters; sweating women in halter tops, short skirts, and flip-flops. And almost everyone has an identity pouch hung around his or her neck with double transparent windows for all those important plastic ID cards. If most of the wearers weren't so tall, white, and overweight, they might be confused with those tagged refugees who are found in U.S. airports waiting in groups to be put on mercy flights to a new host city.

These oversized badges are prominently embossed with the words "International Zone," part of an ongoing, multipronged U.S. government public relations effort to "rebrand" the Green Zone. This January, following the legislative elections, nominal control over some 20 buildings in the zone was passed over to Iraqis in a ceremony that featured a brass band and a chocolate cake.

That the Bush administration keeps trying to change the Green Zone's name is only one of its many battles over language. Its tireless use of didactic labels -- "Coalition Forces," "Operation Iraqi Freedom," or "The 27 Nation Multi-National Force" -- only seems to end up creating an ever-widening gulf between official language and the reality of the actual situation in Baghdad. While official language is relentlessly upbeat, the already nightmarish reality has been getting worse with each passing day. As the Green Zone has become safer and ever more tightly controlled, and as the government's language continues to project a bright future for the U.S. effort in Iraq, much of the rest of the country has descended into an ever more violent maelstrom. Meanwhile, during their tours of duty here in Iraq, only a very few American missionaries of democracy learn Arabic or ever touch an Iraqi dinar, buy anything Iraqi except in the trinket shops within the Green Zone, or share a meal in the house of an Iraqi citizen.

"A critical mistake was made," observed the American security analyst Anthony Cordesman as early as September 2003. "By creating U.S. security zones around U.S. headquarters in Central Baghdad, it created a no-go zone for Iraqis and has allowed the attackers to push the U.S. into a fortress that tends to separate U.S. personnel from the Iraqis."

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Since then, the insurgent attacks on the U.S. forces and Iraqi government and the sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites have become destructive beyond what most journalists have been able to convey. Every morning, the residents of Baghdad find piles of bodies, hands manacled, skulls riddled with bullet holes, that have been dumped without identity cards beside some road. Insofar as there is any semblance of government control, it is all too often by the new Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which remains in Shia hands but is widely suspected of complicity in the sectarian killings. According to official announcements, the ministry is supposed to be carrying out a comprehensive new plan by U.S. Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey and Major General Joseph Peterson to construct a reformed national army and police force. In fact, as I was told by those few Iraqis I was able to meet, the Ministry of the Interior has a deserved reputation for lawless, Shia partisanship. Until Edward Wong's story on the ministry in the New York Times of March 7, no journalist I know of has been able to show in any detail just how the ministry works and what relations it may have with the Shia militias.

The unraveling of Iraq into incipient civil war took another ominous step forward when on Feb. 22, Sunni partisans dressed as members of the Iraqi military blew up al-Askariya, the sacred Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra. In retaliation, some 20 Sunni mosques were then attacked. The Washington Post of Feb. 28 was the only American newspaper I've seen which reported that "more than 1,300 Iraqis" were killed in the days that followed. The claims of President Bush to have calmed violence by talking with Iraqi religious leaders sounded ever more hollow as dozens more people were killed in the following days. Although it is difficult to imagine Baghdad in an even worse state, as such violence escalates, this strife could plunge Iraq into a widening conflict that may eventually overshadow both the daily violence against Americans and the already intense anti-American nationalism.

Adnan Pachachi, the much-respected politician in his mid-80s who has long been in exile but was recently elected to Parliament and so moved back to the well-to-do Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad where he lives sequestered in his own compound, with a private militia of bodyguards and a diesel generator, represents a saner but probably unrealizable vision of Iraq's future. Pachachi is a Shiite Muslim who deplores the rise of sectarian violence, and like some other well-known exiles, he did not anticipate it. "The Iraqis are known as the least religious people in the Middle East," he says. And so, he adds, "It was a great disappointment that 80 percent of Iraqis voting did so according to sectarian affiliations, not political beliefs."

What is needed, says Pachachi, is "a new federal allegiance ... some time for the country to stabilize." But he told me that "there is so much violence, fear and distrust, that my optimism is dwindling. We seem to be descending into a situation of civil strife between sects ... organized killings on each side. Three years ago when the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled, no one thought the situation would now be as bad as it is."

It may well be that the besieged American press in Iraq will find that the main story is not about Americans fighting Iraqi insurgents, but Americans standing powerlessly aside in their armed compounds, Green Zone, and military bases, watching as Iraqis kill other Iraqis and the country disintegrates. It would be all too ironic if this were the result of the invasion of March 2003, which was promoted as a critical step in bringing peace to the Middle East.


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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