Six days to go!

Six days to Handover Day!

BAGHDAD — Hello all. It’s six days out from the big Sovereignty Day in Iraq, and people are nervous. Yesterday I finally managed to get a better feel for the pulse of Baghdad while working on a _NY Daily News_ story (I think it will be out Sunday) and the mood is a complicated stew of fear, anticipation, anxiousness for the new government and an equal anxiousness for the Americans to leave. Many, many Iraqis are ready to support PM Ayad Allawi, even if he institutes emergency laws that restrict freedom. (However, they think he’ll just crack down on Fallujah, Beiji and other troublespots, not Baghdad.)
I’ll be traveling tomorrow and Friday, and I may be on an emergency assignment for TIME Magazine today, so I probably will be out of contact until Sunday. But I’ll be back then. If the _Daily News_ story is online, I’ll link to it and expand on it; I have so many more notes than could fit into a 500-600 word piece. I’m looking forward to getting out of Baghdad.
Also, thanks to everyone for writing in their thoughts on why the media are not doing their job. I’ve been remiss in responding, but I will, as I’ve read all the comments. Great stuff and I’m honored and humbled to have so many well-spoken readers. Thank you.

The Looming Credibility Crisis of the IIG

The Iraqi Interim Government faces a looming credibility crisis, but it’s not what you think.

BAGHDAD — Stumbled on an interesting story yesterday. It’s no secret that there are a lot of squatters in Baghdad who have taken over formerly government buildings. But what’s interesting is that after June 30, the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) is looking to take its property back under a Governing Council decision made back in January to reclaim all government property. This applies to all squatters, from poor families who live in the old Air Force building to the INC, which has taken over some of Baghdad’s prime real estate outside the Green Zone.
This goes to the heart of sovereignty and, more important, legitimacy. It’s one thing to challenge the power of a government with car bombs and suicide attacks. That’s a challenge that’s easily comprehended — and easily solved, frankly. Fight back, and you gain legitimacy. But what happens when a legal court issues an opinion that a family has no right to a room in a former ministry it has occupied since April 2003 because the original workers abandoned it? Now, enlarge the problem to include political party leaders who are members of the committee to choose the interim national assembly. What happens if they just, say, ignore the order? Who is going to enforce it? Who is going to force them out? The ICDC? The U.S. Army? In short, who will enforce the rule of law when the majority doesn’t respect it?
Last night I visited with Sayyid Ayud Jumaliddin, who took over Iraqi VP Izzat Al-Douri’s house shortly after the war. Jumaliddin was an advisor to L. Paul Bremer in the early days of his term, but quickly fell out with the Americans. Now, he’s on the committee to choose the interim national assembly — which means he will be in the new parliament when it’s seated — and bivouacked in a phat pad on the Tigris, complete with a garden, a Marsh Arab reed house and a mini-militia. Who is going to kick him out? Next door is the Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who also won’t take kindly to an eviction notice. And these guys are going to be part of the new ruling aristocracy! What is the general populace to take away when they’re forced from formerly Ba’athist apartments on Abu Niwass street on the Tigris while their neighbors — who have a lot of guns and can get audiences with the British ambassador — sit around smoking excellent Cuban cigars (in the case of Jumaliddin) and thumbing their noses at the law? And that’s not even mentioning the number of Saddam-era generals who have decamped to swank apartments formerly held by government officials. Their location? Scattered throughout the Green Zone overlooking the trailer parks that currently house a large number of CPA workers.
Of course, the American presence in the Green Zone and at the Republican Palace is kind of the ultimate squatter outside the law. No one knows when that property will be returned to the Iraqi government — if ever. And if not, what kind of rent will be paid? The new government desperately needs to establish itself by reclaiming what is rightfully its property. But it doesn’t have the muscle to force people out and if it calls on foreign militaries to help it out, it looks weak to the people, further undermining its own legitimacy. What to do?
A big part of the problem is the relationship of Iraqis to the idea of government. They’re kind of like Texans taken to an extreme in their anti-governmental feelings. For 1,400 years, with only one recent exception in the form of Abdul Kareem Qasim (1958-1963), Iraqis have felt like their governments are an enemy, according to Jumaliddin, and fiercely resisted them.
“People hate the government and anything that belongs to the government,” he said as peacocks wandered among the date palms and the Tigris bubbled behind us. “Therefore, we have a long history of hating the government or the leaders.”
This is reflected in my driver’s attitude toward the new government. He hates it. He thinks they’re all thieves. How does he know this?
“I don’t know,” said S., “but I don’t like them.” (Here he shrugs.) “They are bad men.”
The land that produced the first code of laws has come to ridicule the idea that laws can govern a populace. It is the leaders who are the source of power, not the law. And to many in Iraq, the leaders now are outsiders and thieves, regardless of whether they’ve actually done anything to reinforce that opinion. (This is not to disparage S.’s judgment; he may be right in his opinion. My point is that he has no evidence to back up his claims other than his gut feeling.)
Is this the legacy of Saddam? Or was Saddam the product of the mindset?
This is a huge challenge in the New Iraq®, potentially more serious than any posed by Zarqawi or any other _bogeyman du jour_. The Iraqis I’ve become somewhat friendly with, including A. in the computer store where I buy my printer cartridges, all want someone to take control.
“We need strength,” said A. “We need the force to make people do what’s right.”
He’s referring to rumors that PM Allawi will institute emergency measures come July 1 in order to stabilize the country. That includes press restrictions, curfews, aggressive policing, etc. In effect, much of the same restrictions on civil liberties seen during the Saddam-era. I get the idea that most people wouldn’t mind it so much. At least it would be familiar.
But A.’s comment about using force really saddens me. And his mindset is part of the problem for establishing legitimacy for any new government here. In established democracies, the Law is more or less respected — not because people are particularly afraid of police thuggery or harsh punishment, but because the majority of people think it’s the just right thing to do in order to live their lives. Force isn’t required to _make_ everyone do what’s right (obey traffic laws, not shoot people, etc.); it’s required to _deal_ with those who have upset the public order. (Hm. Sounds a bit like preemptive war and defensive war, actually.)
In the middle of all this is the idea that justice is something to be administered personally, not by the hands of the judicial branch. For example, last week, six day drivers hired by the CPA to drive some trucks to Fallujah were murdered in that little Taliban-enclave. (This is legitimate resistance?) Anyway, today, their families turned up at the main Baghdad bus terminal and set every car from Fallujah on fire. Luckily no one was killed, but the families called for the head of the Fallujah imam who issued the fatwa used to justify the killings. The rule of law administered by a court system is meant to prevent this kind of thing. If Iraqis reject the Iraqi Interim Government as illegitimate, they will reject any court orders or verdicts that are handed down. And that way lies chaos.
I hope to have more on this later. But for now, the TIME Magazine project I spent the last week and a half researching is available “here”:,9171,1101040628-655426-1,00.html.

Car bombings and other musings

Where does the mistrust of THE MEDIA reporting from Iraq come from?

Tuesday’s car bomb rattled the windows here in our little campus around the Hamra, but that was about it. Obviously, there were a lot of people who were not so lucky.
But I don’t really want to talk too much about the car bomb, at least not as an event. Over the last week, as I’ve been running around for TIME, I’ve been wondering just where the distrust of the mainstream media regarding Iraq comes from.
For instance, this story from the _Washington Post_ is excellent. The scene is vivid, the reporting is fair, the anger of the Iraqis and the reactions of the Americans are all there. Edward Cody, who is NOT Arab as far as I know, reported this story at a pretty significant risk to himself (there’s no shirttail indicating that stringers contributed to the piece.) It even has historical context that I’ve seen nowhere else:

Although no bloodier, Monday’s blast in the capital carried significantly more political meaning than its predecessors. It erupted from the point where Saadoun Street flows into Liberation Square, a central Baghdad traffic circle laden with the history of modern Iraq, from heroic sculptures commissioned by the country’s former dictator, Gen. Abdul Karim Qassem, after he overthrew the British-imposed monarchy in 1958 to the spot where, one decade and several coups later, Saddam Hussein had 14 Iraqi Jews hanged on espionage charges.
U.S. soldiers, backed by Bradley Fighting Vehicles, had returned and closed off the area by midday, while forensics specialists combed through the charred wreckage. The cordon caused a giant traffic jam as cars spilled off Jumhuriyah Bridge into the square. And it presented passing Iraqis with the spectacle of four U.S. soldiers — kneeling in the unforgiving sun, their M-16s ready, concertina wire coiled in front of them — just under the looming panel of carvings that Qassem ordered up to depict Iraq’s emergence from foreign domination.

That’s some good stuff! And kudos to Edward and the _Post_ for running it.
So I guess my question is, why is there such a widespread feeling that _the media_, as it’s all lumped together sometimes, is worthless? Two recent comments brought this question to the fore for me:

“Good to read an impartial view of what’s afoot over there, as I don’t believe a word of the news most of the time. Thanks.” — kat
“Its good to see what is actually going on in iraq and not follow the spoon fed media of western sociaty.” — Solaris.M.K.A.

After reading stories like the _Post’s_, I have to ask these two commenters — who are just being used as examples only — well, why not?
I’m not trying to pick a fight, but this is a question that has puzzled me since the beginning. I mean, _I’m_ not impartial; I’ve revealed my anti-war feelings from the get-go. So why is B2I considered more credible than others? Other journalists are on the ground here, too, so it’s not just authority by way of location.
My suspicions are that the problem — as usual — is television news. I’m an unabashed print snob, the medium for this site notwithstanding, so I think the coverage from most television networks is inferior to the prose from the scribblers. (To be fair, the TV guys here are working under a lot of restrictions. Their home offices don’t want them going out and doing much, especially at night. They have to travel in large, conspicuous groups with expensive equipment, which makes them prime targets for bandits and other nasties. Also, the medium itself doesn’t lend itself naturally to in-depth stories in a 30-minuted newscast.)
I think maybe television’s omnipresence is somehow making people think _all_ media are somehow complicit in some truth-hiding conspiracy. But I don’t know how this dynamic works. That’s what I’m trying to find out.
I should also say at this point that the people who support the war and accuse me and other journalists of never reporting the good news are not really the target audience on this post. They seem convinced that _the media_ are all left-wing stooges there to make “our boys” look bad. Well, trust me, there isn’t that much good news to report, and our reporting of the violence that kills people and threatens the U.S. global standing is a bit more important than feel-good pieces based on dubious statistics put out on anonymous emails lists. Also, “our boys” can make themselves “look bad”: without our Commie help. No, my questions are mostly aimed at the people on the _left_ who feel they’re not getting the “real picture” somehow.
So here’s my honest question: Why do you think _the media_ are not telling you the truth out of Iraq? What do you think the truth is? Why do you believe that the truth is what you think it is? And who is _the media_ to you?
Feel free to either email me your responses or — better — leave them in the comments. I’m genuinely interested in knowing all y’all’s thoughts on this. (And yes, right-wingers and pro-war folks are more than welcome to take part!)
UPDATE 10:09 AM +0400 June 16 Hell, the questions are asked of pro-war and right-wing folks as well. The more the merrier.

Quick note

By the way, if you register with TypeKey for the comments, I only have to approve you once. After that, your comments will show up automatically and immediately. If you don’t register, you’ll have to wait to see your comments show up as I have to approve them manually. And there’s a big time difference between Baghdad and the United States so the delay could be some hours.
Still getting slammed by spammers. Bastards.

Heart of Darkness

Three weeks isn’t much time in most places. In that time, in no particular order I witnessed a car bombing next to my hotel, started work for TIME Magazine, watched an interim government unveiled, interviewed a vice president, been mortared more times than I can count, missed two other car bombs by a few minutes, pined for New York and tentatively fell in love with Baghdad.

Three weeks isn’t much time in most places. Just a couple weekends of meeting with friends, maybe having a beer or seeing a movie. Three weeks of working at a job that maybe you like, maybe you don’t. In my case, I’ve been in Baghdad Since May 19, so let’s call it three weeks. It’s a nice round number.
In that time, in no particular order I witnessed “a car bombing next to my hotel”:, started work for TIME Magazine, watched an interim government unveiled, interviewed a vice president, been mortared more times than I can count, missed two other car bombs by a few minutes, pined for New York and tentatively fell in love with Baghdad.
She’s a city that has seen better days, frankly. As mentioned, the electricity is bad. The gas lines are long — up to 5 km in some places — and U.S. soldiers still break up black market petrol rings even though that’s often the only way for Iraqis to get petrol.
Baghdad is also an incredibly stressful place to live and work, especially as a westerner, as “I’ve mentioned”: We’re targets, and when you look very western, like I do, you’re constantly aware of eyes on you and the hostility. At restaurants, the waiters sullenly clear your table, sometimes being none too careful about keeping _chai_ or food from spilling on you. The kindness I encountered last year is absent; a western face brings a sullen welcome, calibrated to the bare minimum.
Violence, too, is never distant. A few days, there was an IED attack against an American humvee near the Interior Ministry. It killed one American soldier and wounded three others. We were on our way to the Oil Ministry and we detoured to the site of the attack. As I rushed up to the cordon, I yelled out to the soldiers that I was press. They responded by waving me away. I tried to ask one soldier a few questions about what had happened. Traffic streamed around us and cars horns beat out a cacophonic concert.
“Can’t talk to you, sir, go away,” he said.
“Well, where was the attack?” I pressed.
“I said go away,” he growled.
“Can I speak to your commanding officer? Who is he?”
“He said get the fuck out of here!” a second soldier screamed and both soldiers pointed their weapons at me. There are few things more threatening than seeing scared and pissed-off American soldiers pointing weapons at you. The Iraqis know this feeling well. I quickly retreated and returned to the car, shaken at the Americans’ hostility.
This feeling of trusting no one has gotten to me; it’s palpable and the constant vigilance is exhausting. My mood is black and I can feel a depression that is never far away. Not writing for the blog is a source of guilt, too, but TIME has kept me so busy with stories that don’t bring me in touch with average Iraqis much. I’ve been moving between the CPA and the former members of the Governing Council.
I also can’t seem to get excited over stories of abused Iraqis. There are so many and they have a numbing quality. Also, the hostility I encounter from Iraqis makes me — shamefully — less empathetic to their complaints. But nor do I feel much sympathy for Americans who point guns at me. The tragic part of this is that there is no way to blame anyone in this situation. The Iraqis will naturally hate an occupying army. And soldiers will naturally grow to hate a people they think they came to liberate but who continue trying to kill them.
I wish I could see more of the goodness in Iraqis that I know is there. And likewise, I wish they could see the goodness in Americans. But people here — the Iraqis, the CPA, the military and even some journalists — have become blinded to each other’s concerns and qualities. Those of us here, all of us, we’re not all bad people, I don’t believe. And I say “we” because no matter our nationality, this place hammers us into a collective body. The Iraqi selling me delicious juice concoctions, the American soldiers at the checkpoints missing his wife, the CPA employee who truly believed the Bush rhetoric, we are all in this together now.
But this environment is killing our ability to give a damn about anything other than staying alive. It’s burying our better angels. The lack of empathy is a bad quality for a journalist, and it’s a worse one for a human being. How can I do my job like this? It is for these reasons I’m in awe of the Baghdad artists who still manage to create beauty here. After a year of all this, they still see something worth seeing. “They are magnificent.”:
But it’s thoughts like this that make me thinkthat the Americans should pull out sooner rather than later even if disaster strikes. The Iraqis overwhelmingly don’t want the Americans here anymore (I’m not counting Kurds in this sentence,) but Iraqis know they’ll need help. They’re not ready to run their own country yet, and the new leaders — Allawi, Yawer, et al. — know it. The way the announcement of the interim government was handled is prime example.
The part handled solely by the CPA — the initial accreditation — went sorta smoothly, despite some mortar fire and a car bomb, but after we arrived at the clocktower that was Saddam’s former Museum of Gifts Other World Leaders Gave Him, it turned into a disaster. The television reporters got their interviews, but after the ceremony, in a chaotic scramble, the Iraqis declared the day over, leaving print reporters with little to do except recap what the television cameras had captured. Ebrahim Jafari, the leader of the Dawa Party and now one of two vice presidents, came back out to wade into a journalistic mosh pit. Some officials screamed at him to get back into the other chamber with the rest of the government. He ignored them for as long as he could before someone — I’m not sure who — literally grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the other room.
No one knew who was in charge. The Iraqis, inexperienced at managing the logistics of the day, were overwhelmed. The CPA people just wanted to get the hell out of there. There were attacks throughout the day. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps troops were merely window dressing, with the real security provided by beefy South Africans private contractors. U.S. troops hung around getting in everyone’s way.
It was an almost perfect metaphor for the New Iraq.
I write this not as a plea for pity or understanding. I don’t understand this country myself, so that may be impossible. And I know I have written things that will anger people: I am ashamed of many of the emotions I feel these days. But I care about the truth as best as I can see and tell it. I once believed that telling the truth — or a small part of it — could help the world. It could help people understand things better and thus make the world better. But this war defies comprehension. It’s so stupid and there seems to be no point to anything that happens here. People die on a daily basis in random, terrifying attacks. And for what? Freedom? Stability? Peace? There is none of that here and it’s likely there won’t be after the Americans leave. Iraq has spiraled into a dark place, much worse than where it was a year ago during the war. There is no freedom from the fear that is stoked by mutual hatred, cynicism and an apprehension about the future. So what if one side has superior firepower? Every bullet fired helps kill souls on both sides of this war, whether it hits flesh or lands harmlessly.
We — Iraqis and the Americans here — are caged by fear, and we are all conquered people now.