Back to Iraq, In A Way

Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.

Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)

But he was also, by that time, deeply wounded. I didn’t realize how much, but he had gone from his native Australia to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. In three years of conflict, he had picked up an addiction to war that I would come to know as well. My friend Phil Zabriskie writes in TIME how damaged Ware would eventually become:

Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.

This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.

After he left Baghdad, he was a mess, Phil writes. “He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.” He was suffering from serious PTSD. For a while, I had mild symptoms and likewise did reckless things. But Ware saw worlds worse than anything I encountered. “For a long time, Ware wanted to die,” Phil writes.

But thankfully, he found help. And now he’s telling the story of the war as only can, using the (initially) haphazardly filmed conflict. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope that changes. If he can come back, there’s hope for everyone.

So I’m eager to see the film tonight (old addictions never really go away), but I’m also dreading the memories it will serve up. We had car bombsfriends kidnapped, and yes, killed. I almost took a bullet in Najaf. Iraq was unimaginably dangerous for reporters from 2004-2008 (and more so for Iraqis), a fact that our stateside audience just never seemed to grasp, no matter how many journalists were killed.

Anyway, Ware is right: Only the dead see the end of war. It never leaves you. And I don’t know if you can ever make peace with it. Maybe there are only cease-fires.

Crossposted to truly, nomadly, deeply

AP’s Anthony Mitchell on plane that crashed

me_and_anthony_out.jpg
Me and Anthony in a Djibouti bar in March — much better times.
It just not bloody fair.
Earlier tonight, I found out that Anthony Mitchell, a reporter for the AP based in Nairobi and one of the most interesting and funny guys I’ve met in a long time, was on a plane that crashed in Cameroon on Saturday. In all, the Kenyan Airways flight was carrying 114 people.
It doesn’t look good, and my heart is heavy tonight. As the report says:

Among the passengers of the Boeing 737-800 was a Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent, Anthony Mitchell, one of five Britons on a passenger list released by the airline. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region.

Most of the passengers were apparently en route to Nairobi to transfer to other flights.
I met Anthony, who is 39, in March in Djibouti, when we both were onboard the _FGS Bremen_, a German frigate, for a story on maritime security operations in the area. Anthony was full of funny, self-deprecating stories about himself and Africa, stories that contained no small amount of hard-won wisdom, too. He talked about the clans of Somalia, the US military’s actions in the Horn of Africa and constantly took the piss out of our military escort in the most good-natured way possible. (Anthony’s from London while LCDR “Grassy” Meadows of the Royal Navy is from the north of England.)
I didn’t know him long, but in the few days I knew him, he was a reporter’s reporter, working constantly, cell phone seemingly glued to his head as he chased down reports of the kidnapped Britons in Ethiopia and set up an interview with the president of Djibouti.
He was kicked out of Ethiopia last year, he said, because he upset the government there. Apparently, they didn’t like his reports on corruption and he was given just 24 hours to leave the country. While that was no doubt a huge inconvenience, I can’t help but have a soft spot for reporters who tweak the powers-that-be as much as he did.
He loved Africa, he said. He liked small towns and eschewed most of the “mod-cons,” as he called air conditioning and the like. He also carried around in his wallet a photo of his wife, Catherine, and his kids, Tom and Rose. They looked like a really nice family.
I wish the outlook looked better, but right now I’m left with hoping for the best for Anthony’s family — and for all the families of the people on that plane. For while this post is about Anthony — only because I know him — I know that he was just one person and that 114 families are anxiously awaiting word.
*UPDATE 5/7/07 12:38:20 PM +0200 GMT:* A grim update. Cameroon officials say there is “no chance” of survivors.

Death of a Scientist

A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic yesterday.

Some bad news of a personal nature out of Iraq today. A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic Monday:

BAGHDAD — A leading Iraqi academic and prominent hardline Sunni political activist was fatally shot by three gunmen Monday as he was leaving his Baghdad home, police said.
The killers escaped in a car after gunning down Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professor’s Union and a senior member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, according to police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The association is a Sunni organization believed to have links to the insurgency raging against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. The group has boycotted elections and stood aside from the political process.
An association official confirmed the killing of al-Rawi, a geologist, saying he was behind the wheel of his car and had just left his home for the drive to work at Baghdad University accompanied by two bodyguards.
The gunmen drove in front of al-Rawi’s car, forced it to stop, then sprayed it with automatic weapons fire, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal. One of al-Rawi’s bodyguards was killed and the other was wounded, the official said.

I wrote about Dr. Al-Rawi in June 2004 for Seed Magazine, shortly after I got back to Iraq. I don’t remember if the story ever ran or not as there was a payment dispute, but here’s the story I wrote:

The scientists among the shell casings
BAGHDAD — Dr. Isam al-Rawi, a geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand over a set of dog-eared journals. The arc of his gesture continues on to include a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples, a sagging chair and a dripping sink. The room is mean, long and narrow, with barely enough room for a colleague to squeeze past al-Rawi carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims with Sprite. Finally his hand returns to the journals and books, and he points an accusing finger at them.
“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”
Indeed, he needs a lot more than that, but few things sum up the current state of Iraq’s scientific crisis more than its lack of books and journals. Al-Rawi’s most recent acquisition is a photocopied version of the 1998 edition of the Atlas of Rock Forming Minerals, which he bought in Libya on his last trip outside Iraq. His most recent journal, a copy of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, dates to August 1985. To a one, his books and journals are old, out of date and falling apart, much like the country’s scientific community itself.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s scientists were some of the most respected in the region and they made a good living. The country’s universities churned out engineers, technicians and Ph.D.s. They often did post-graduate work in the West and had access to the world’s scientific literature. They traveled to scientific conferences all over the world.
But things started to get bad in the mid-1980s when the Iran-Iraq war was raging; Saddam Hussein began restricting access to scientific journals. After the disastrous 1991 war and the impositions of sanctions, things took an even graver turn. Salaries plummeted. Al-Rawi’s monthly income went from about $2,000 a month before the 1991 war to about $400 a month. New scientists and professors earned about $100 a month. They could not travel; they could not subscribe to periodicals, as they were forbidden by the sanctions regime. New books were too expensive. Much needed equipment, which was often marked as “dual use,” was prevented from entering the country. The Middle East’s most advanced scientific community was effectively sealed up in a time capsule.
But now, even with most of the restrictions gone, things are still hard 15 months after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. While scientists are no longer prevented from ordering new books and journals and are allowed to leave the country, they often can’t for the simple reason that they have no money to do so. And a sinister series of killings has terrified and decimated the scientific community. In mid-June, Sabri Al-Bayati, professor of telecommunications at the college of Science and Education at Baghdad University was shot dead near his home in the Bab Al-Athamiya area in central Baghdad.‏ A few days previously, a physician, Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Faleh al-Rawi (no relation), was killed while sitting in traffic. Their deaths are just two of about 250 university professors, medical doctors and engineers who have been killed since May 1, 2003.
“No one knows why, no one knows who,” al-Rawi says, and flicked his prayer beads back and forth.
In such an environment, there is no work on new research, says Dr. Nuhad Ali, a mechanical engineer at the university. The only money being spent is to keep up the salaries of the professors, and the only new equipment are some computers paid for with the now-defunct oil-for-food program. The universities aren’t even accepting new graduate students, Ali says. All current graduate students, who used to receive a monthly stipend, were enrolled before the war.
But not all is hopeless, two solid state physicists, Dr. Izzat al-Essa and Dr. Raed al-Haddend, says they had been able to attend the Saudi Solid State Physics conference in Riyadh in March. The praised the lifting of travel restrictions, but says it was still very expensive.
Baghdad University was also lucky. Almost every other university in the country was looted in the civil unrest following the fall of Baghdad. But American troops decided to bivouac on the campuses of Baghdad University and the nearby Al-Nahrain University neé Saddam Hussein University. Their presence prevented the wholesale looting of everything down to electrical fixtures that was going on just across town at al-Mustansiriya University.
So now the scientific community must rebuild with limited financial resources in a security vacuum. It’s no wonder there’s an abiding sense of hopelessness among the professors. Al-Essa and al-Haddend dream of X-ray machines, electron microscopes and FT-IR spectrometers. Al-Rawi wants to replace his 1974 X-ray fluorescence machine so he can analyze some rock sections he recently took near Perispike in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Dr. Emad T. Bakir, an industrial chemist with a specialty in polymers, hopes for research assistants, catalysts and solvents.
But the money is simply not there. The former administrator for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III was found of saying, “Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor.” The new government is inheriting many of Iraq’s old debts, including $29.8 billion for war reparations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the Transitional Administrative Law, which is the working constitution for the interim government, forbids deficit spending. All ministries, including the Ministry of Higher Education, headed by Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur al-Bakaa, are feeling the vice grip of national poverty. The minister doesn’t even have a bullet-proof vest; he can’t afford one.
But if Iraqis are good at anything, it’s hoping. The scientific community is no exception. Fueling this hope is a promise promise from Bremer. Before he left June 28, he said he would attempt to increase communications between American scientists at universities and their Iraqi counterparts. An Iraqi delegation recently returned from the University of Oklahoma whose president Bremer went to school with.
“We hope our friends in America and England will come to see what has happened to us,” says al-Rawi.

It should be noted that almost all of the murders of university professors have gone unsolved. Al-Rawi was working to change that when he became a victim himself.

You Only File FOIA Requests Twice

A while back, I filed a FOIA request on myself with the CIA. Yesterday, I got a letter. I’d tell you what’s in it, but then I’d have to kill you.

BAGHDAD — So. I filed a FOIA request on myself a while back with the CIA. Yesterday my brother received a letter that says that after an exhaustive search they found “one document that we have determined must be withheld in its entirety” based on exemptions to the FOIA and Privacy Act laws. The exemptions cover disclosure of CIA “intelligence sources and methods, as well as the organization functions, names” etc of personnel employed by “the Agency” and “material which is properly classified pursuant to an Executive order in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”
On the one hand, I think, “Hm. What the hell does the CIA have on me, anyway?” On the other, I think, “Bitchin’! The CIA has spook stuff on me! Who’s the spy in my circle of friends?” Looks like someone in Langley’s getting another FOIA-gram from me…
Seriously, how common is it for a journalist to have a document about him that can’t be released for “national security reasons”? Anyone from the CIA reading this site — and server logs don’t lie, yo — want to chime in and explain? And don’t worry about me blowing your cover. I don’t work for the Bush administration.
UPDATE 23 March 2006 at 1231 +0200 GMT: A copy of the two page letter is available here (page 1) and here (page 2). I wonder if this is part of President Bush’s wiretapping scheme or if the CIA has been “employing journalists again”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Mockingbird, which is supposed to be a no-no.

The Big Lie

I’m not talking about WMDs or anything like that. More in my quixotic feud with noted fiction writer Ralph Peters, who came here for a little while and declared All is Well, and “the media” are aiming to undermine the heroic mission here in Iraq with all that bad news. Why, he himself saw Iraqis cheering his patrol as he rumbled through Baghdad atop an up-armored humvee.

BAGHDAD — And no, I’m not talking about WMDs or anything like that. More in my quixotic feud with noted fiction writer Ralph Peters, who came here for a little while and declared All is Well, and “the media” are aiming to undermine the heroic mission here in Iraq with all that bad news. Why, he himself saw Iraqis cheering his patrol as he rumbled through Baghdad atop an up-armored humvee.
Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. “The media” here are fiercely competitive. Everyone of us is looking for any angle — any! — that will break news, make our stories stand out or otherwise distinguish ourselves. That’s what journalists do, and the corps here comes from the entire ideological spectrum, from the conservative to the socialist. But weirdly, this herd of cats — which is what we could be best be compared to — have all come to the same conclusion: Iraq is a mess.
I would argue that this prevailing view is the aggregate of a lot of professional reporting, mine but a small bit. If it gravitates toward a single viewpoint, well, that’s the way it is. Sorry, truth hurts. But a guy who writes exclusively for publications that supported the war before it went down comes here and says things are fine, and somehow I’m supposed to suddenly doubt my own observations and experience? Pardon me if I believe my lyin’ eyes instead of him.
But more unforgivably, Peters also “continues his libel”:http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2006/03/myths_of_iraq.html against Iraqi stringers/journalists by saying the “The Iraqi leg-men earn blood money for unbalanced, often-hysterical claims.” (emphasis added.)
Mr. Peters, you should be ashamed of yourself. Three Iraqi journalists have been killed this week alone trying to report the news, and the stringer who work for us are no less the journalists than the guys at the Iraqi networks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Muhsin Khudhair, editor of the news magazine Alef Ba, was killed by unidentified gunmen near his home in Baghdad Monday night, becoming the third journalist killed in Iraq in the last week, Reuters and Agence France-Presse reported. The shooting took place just hours after Khudair attended a meeting of the Iraqi Journalists Union, which discussed the targeting of local journalists in Iraq, Reuters said.
The killing punctuated a deadly week for the press. Amjad Hameed, head of programming for Iraq’s national television channel Al-Iraqiya, and driver Anwar Turki were killed on Saturday by gunmen apparently affiliated with al-Qaeda. Munsuf Abdallah al-Khaldi, a presenter for Baghdad TV, was killed by unidentified gunmen last Tuesday as he was driving from Baghdad to the northern city of Mosul.
At least 67 journalists and 24 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history. The killings continue two trends in Iraq: the vast majority of victims have been Iraqi citizens; and most cases have been targeted assassinations rather than crossfire. CPJ research shows that Iraqis constitute nearly 80 percent of journalists and support staffers killed for their work in Iraq. Overall, sixty percent of journalist deaths were murders.

Maybe Mr. Peters would like a nice chat with “Salih” from the _Washington Post_, who reported a story about the looting of Saddam’s palaces in Tikrit after the U.S. military turned it over to the Iraqi security forces. His reward? A $50,000 bounty put on his head by the head of security in Tikrit, Jassam Jabara.
Perhaps he’d like to talk to the family of Allan Enwiyah, the translator for the _Christian Science Monitor_’s Jill Carroll. He was killed when Jill was kidnapped Jan. 7, unprotected by American firepower. She is still captive, by the way.
Or perhaps he’d like to discuss “blood money” with the widow of Yasser Salihee, a careful and conscientious reporter for Knight-Ridder who was killed by American soldiers at a checkpoint when the car in front of him blocked his view of the troops, who opened fire and killed him. Did I know him? Yes, but not well. I found out about his death when Hannah Allam, then bureau chief for Knight-Ridder called me in hysterics.
You want to know what the Iraqis — who frankly do a better job that we do — feel and think? “Read this”:http://cjr.org/issues/2006/2/McLeary.asp. Highlight:

“To get a story you have to risk your life,” [said Salima] matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I wonder if the people in the U.S. really understand how much we go through in order to write the story.” To underscore that, she told of being pushed from behind by an Iraqi man while covering a story with a Western reporter, of being caught in a firefight in Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling and violent slum, and of being threatened by a group of insurgents while out reporting. Yet in a country with few opportunities, journalism is a way to make a living, and to stay involved. “We never know when something could happen to us,” she said. “But then at the same time, I cannot stop living.”

How dare you, Ralph. How dare you question these men and women’s intentions and honesty. I’ve worked with our staff in the TIME house for two years and I’ve never seen a more dedicated, careful group of journalists. They’re not in this for the money. We pay them well, yes, but they could make more money doing other work. Lord knows they’d be safer, and their families would be, too. But they come in to work every day and do their level best to get us every scrap of information and to get it right. Anyone of them is a better journalist than Ralph Peters, who feels his view from the back of humvee is the only valid one. It’s _a_ viewpoint, yes, but hardly the whole story. You come talk with _me_, Ralph, we’ll go walk the streets of Karradah, drive without armor, feel the copper in your mouth when the fear and adrenaline comes to you in wave after wave and you realize the L-T from the 320th hasn’t got your six for you, man. You come talk to me then.
Finally, I’ll let a former Army guy have the last word. This from a buddy of mine who was a Public Affairs Officer just a few short months ago:

Oh my god, dude. [Peters] is completely full of sh*t. That’s all I can say. Apparently that f**k hasn’t spent enough time down in the trenches here to understad the little bastards will run out and wave at any patrol for one reason — begging for choclate or soccer balls. They don’t care the Grunts are valiently coming to save the day. … He’s not aware of how f**king dangerous it is for gringos to roam the streets here.

On Deadline…

BAGHDAD — Sorry for the lack of posts. I’ve been on deadline working on a project and haven’t had time. There’s much going on here in Baghdad, both politically and in the streets (where the real politics take place.) I hope to have some more analysis and reporting up soon. My apologies.
In the meantime, more than 70 85 bodies have been found around Baghdad in the last 24 hours, most of them bearing signs of torture. One of the victims still had his identity papers on him, which identified him as a 22-year-old Sunni student. However, Iraqi authorities are refusing to identify the other victims found around the capital because they fear fueling (more) sectarian violence. Based on my experience here, it’s likely most of these bodies are of Sunni men, killed in reprisal for Sunday’s car bomb attacks in Sadr City that killed 58 and wounded more than 200. The culprits are probably members of the Shi’ite-led security forces or members of the Mahdi Militia, based in Sadr City.
Or, heck, there’s no reason the killers couldn’t be both, considering how deeply the Iraqi security forces have been integrated into the Shi’ite militias.
“No civil war here”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/03/no_civil_war.php, though. Nope. Just a slaughter.
Elsewhere, in Palestine, militants rioted across Gaza after the Israelis stormed a prison holding Ahmad Saadat, one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In Lebanon, today is the first anniversary of the massive March 14 demonstrations that many hoped would establish a new Lebanese politics.

Radio appearance

I will be appearing on WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston for the show, “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook at 10 a.m. EST today if anyone wants to listen in. The topic will be Iraq, civil war, etc. It will be syndicated in New York and in many other markets.

BAGHDAD — I will be appearing on WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston for the show, “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook at 10 a.m. EST today if anyone wants to listen in. The topic will be Iraq, civil war, etc. It will be syndicated in New York and in many other markets.
In an hour, the daytime curfew will be over, and already I can hear the chants from Shi’ite mosque down the streets. The faint rat-a-tat of automatic weapon fire is clearly audible. This could be a bad night. Let’s hope not.
UPDATE 4:24 p.m. +0300 GMT: There’s a report, unconfirmed, that a crowd of 100-700 Iraqis have gathered and are marching toward the Ministry of Interior. Approximately 50 of the crowd are armed, but so far the march has been peaceful.
UPDATE 6:10 p.m. +0300 GMT: Well, damn. Cancelled radio spot.