CommonDreams.org, September 30, 2004
From Baghdad: a Wall Street
Journal Reporter's E-Mail to Friends
by Farnaz Fassihi
Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these
days is like being under virtual house arrest.
Forget about the reasons that lured me to this
job: a chance to see the world, explore the
exotic, meet new people in far away lands,
discover their ways and tell stories that could
make a difference.
Little by little, day-by-day, being based in
Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house
bound. I leave when I have a very good reason
to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going
to people's homes and never walk in the streets.
I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't
eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation
with strangers, can't look for stories, can't
drive in any thing but a full armored car,
can't go to scenes of breaking news stories,
can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English
outside, can't take a road trip, can't say
I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints,
can't be curious about what people are saying,
doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There
has been one too many close calls, including
a car bomb so near our house that it blew out
all the windows. So now my most pressing concern
every day is not to write a kick-ass story
but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees
stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel
first, a reporter second.
It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point'
exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah
fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was
it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war
on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City,
home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became
a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or
was it when the insurgency began spreading
from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle
to include most of Iraq? Despite President
Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster.
If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat,
under the Americans it has been transformed
to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign
policy failure bound to haunt the United States
for decades to come.
Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.'
When asked 'how are thing?' they reply: 'the
situation is very bad."
What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi
government doesn't control most Iraqi cities,
there are several car bombs going off each
day around the country killing and injuring
scores of innocent people, the country's roads
are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds
of landmines and explosive devices aimed to
kill American soldiers, there are assassinations,
kidnappings and beheadings. The situation,
basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla
war. In four days, 110 people died and over
300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers
are so shocking that the ministry of health
-- which was attempting an exercise of public
transparency by releasing the numbers -- has
now stopped disclosing them.
Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.
A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City
yesterday. He said young men were openly placing
improvised explosive devices into the ground.
They melt a shallow hole into the asphalt,
dig the explosive, cover it with dirt and put
an old tire or plastic can over it to signal
to the locals this is booby-trapped. He said
on the main roads of Sadr City, there were
a dozen landmines per every ten yards. His
car snaked and swirled to avoid driving over
them. Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi
ready to detonate them as soon as an American
convoy gets near. This is in Shiite land, the
population that was supposed to love America
for liberating Iraq.
For journalists the significant turning point
came with the wave of abduction and kidnappings.
Only two weeks ago we felt safe around Baghdad
because foreigners were being abducted on the
roads and highways between towns. Then came
a frantic phone call from a journalist female
friend at 11 p.m. telling me two Italian women
had been abducted from their homes in broad
daylight. Then the two Americans, who got beheaded
this week and the Brit, were abducted from
their homes in a residential neighborhood.
They were supplying the entire block with round
the clock electricity from their generator
to win friends. The abductors grabbed one of
them at 6 a.m. when he came out to switch on
the generator; his beheaded body was thrown
back near the neighborhoods.
The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with
no signs of calming down. If any thing, it
is growing stronger, organized and more sophisticated
every day. The various elements within it-baathists,
criminals, nationalists and Al Qaeda-are cooperating
I went to an emergency meeting for foreign correspondents
with the military and embassy to discuss the
kidnappings. We were somberly told our fate
would largely depend on where we were in the
kidnapping chain once it was determined we
were missing. Here is how it goes: criminal
gangs grab you and sell you up to Baathists
in Fallujah, who will in turn sell you to Al
Qaeda. In turn, cash and weapons flow the other
way from Al Qaeda to the Baathisst to the criminals.
My friend Georges, the French journalist snatched
on the road to Najaf, has been missing for
a month with no word on release or whether
he is still alive.
America's last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi
police and National Guard units we are spending
billions of dollars to train. The cops are
being murdered by the dozens every day-over
700 to date -- and the insurgents are infiltrating
their ranks. The problem is so serious that
the U.S. military has allocated $6 million
dollars to buy out 30,000 cops they just trained
to get rid of them quietly.
As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe
for foreigners to operate that almost all projects
have come to a halt. After two years, of the
$18 billion Congress appropriated for Iraq
reconstruction only about $1 billion or so
has been spent and a chuck has now been reallocated
for improving security, a sign of just how
bad things are going here.
Oil dreams? Insurgents disrupt oil flow routinely
as a result of sabotage and oil prices have
hit record high of $49 a barrel. Who did this
war exactly benefit? Was it worth it? Are we
safer because Saddam is holed up and Al Qaeda
is running around in Iraq?
Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom
in exchange for insecurity. Guess what? They
say they'd take security over freedom any day,
even if it means having a dictator ruler.
I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam
Hussein were allowed to run for elections he
would get the majority of the vote. This is
Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week
to talk to him about elections here. He has
been trying to educate the public on the importance
of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted
to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be
an example for the Middle East. Forget about
democracy, forget about being a model for the
region, we have to salvage Iraq before all
One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond
salvation. For those of us on the ground it's
hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage
it from its violent downward spiral. The genie
of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed
onto this country as a result of American mistakes
and it can't be put back into a bottle.
The Iraqi government is talking about having
elections in three months while half of the
country remains a 'no go zone'-out of the hands
of the government and the Americans and out
of reach of journalists. In the other half,
the disenchanted population is too terrified
to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis
have already said they'd boycott elections,
leaving the stage open for polarized government
of Kurds and Shiites that will not be deemed
as legitimate and will most certainly lead
to civil war.
I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his
family would participate in the Iraqi elections
since it was the first time Iraqis could to
some degree elect a leadership. His response
summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being
blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents
and murdered for cooperating with the Americans?
For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"
Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter
sent this report as an e-mail to friends.
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