Monday, December 29, 2003

Ahmed Ibrahim, the senior undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for the Iraqi Police.

Not less than 43 photographs of Ibrahim and other senior police officials decorate his office walls and desk, including at least three identical photos of Ibrahim shaking hands with L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq.

Like many Iraqis working closely with the Americans, he is officially an optimist.

Asked if attacks would increase or die down now that Saddam is behind bars, Ibrahim referred to a brief window of time just before death when Muslims believe there is clarity and forgiveness and then it's all over.

“These operations are just like the awareness before death for those who are behind these attacks. The violence will come to an end soon. We have intelligence and we have every indication things will be over soon.”


Iman Khider, 46, is another optimist. It's refreshing to hear the hope in her voice and the confidence she has in a new Iraq. But she is an exile. Her reaction to Saddam's capture is wholly unlike the feelings of many, many Iraqis here who regardless of their oppression are still grieving for their country after watching Saddam give himself up without a fight.

Iman is more than thrilled to be back in Iraq after an extended vacation and an attempt to study abroad turned into more than two decades away from her family.

"Twenty five years I spent outside Iraq, moving from place to place, UK, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the US. All of these years, Iraq was in my eyes. I don't remember a day that I did not think of Iraq. All of my family is here except me."

In addition to her mother and father, who are still alive, Iman has 7 sisters and a brother.

She is married to another Iraqi exile who has a contract with the Defense Department to help rebuild Iraq. Both Iman and her husband worked most recently in a opposition radio station in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They've also lived in New Jersey.

Iman left Iraq when she was 19. She had wanted to study art but was rejected by the College of Art because she was not a Ba'athist. She decided to study outside of Iraq instead, and was on vacation in Lebanon when the Iran-Iraq war started and she could not return.

At the same time, Iman had worked in a government ministry. While in Lebanon, she applied to the Iraq embassy to continue her studies outside of Iraq but was rejected because she was a government employee.

"I was told I will face the death penalty if I did not return to Iraq," she said. She finished college in Lebanon anyway.

"In Iraq, the government was always asking my family about me. I stopped giving information to my family for 17 years. I tried to send verbal messages to them because it was too dangerous for them for me to send letters."

Iman managed to see her mother once, when her mother visited Amman shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. It was their first meeting in 17 years.

Three months ago, Iman finally made it back to Baghdad, driving in from Kuwait. She says she will never leave Iraq again.

She found new generations of her family she had never met. Even the younger members of her family had gray hair. But it took several steps before she could bring herself to their doorstep.

"I was supposed to go directly to my family, but I could not get out of the car because of my emotions. I went directly to the Sheraton instead," she said.

"I stayed in the hotel and called them by phone after two hours. I told them I will call you tomorrow, it's difficult for me to see you today. Then one by one I saw them. I was afraid I would not be able to withstand my feelings."

Mostly Iman is confused about why the old regime viewed her as such a threat.

She's returned to find a country broken by sanctions and brainwashed by Saddam. When his statue fell on April 9th, she knew it was a historic moment. But it didn't move her as much as the video of his capture.

"I shouted when I saw him. I called him a dog. Twenty five years I'm waiting for this moment. I said, 'I paid 25 years of my life, I lost my family because of you.' I left the house, I walked for a long time, from al Jadida Street to Haifa Street. I felt that my rights were returned to me, finally, just then."

As for rebuilding Iraq, she is confident that capitalism will bring in a new era.

Iman is angry about the coalition's mistakes and their inability to provide basic services such as electricity and gasoline. She faults the coalition for not securing Iraq's borders, and for not keeping their promise to improve and add to the rice, milk, tea and sugar that Iraqis get from the food rationing program.

But she's confident in the long term.

"We've opened a new page. People want to work, they want to eat and Saddam was an obstacle to that. The Iraqi people can't be patient. They want to catch something in their hands and the Americans are very slow to act. Iraqis have suffered a lot so they are in a hurry now."

"I'm optimistic. I know the Americans are telling the truth about the old regime. They are very slowly improving their way of doing things. They depend on trial and error and this takes time."

Thursday, December 25, 2003

It's a relatively quiet Christmas Eve in Baghdad, apart from an RPG (or something) that narrowly missed or slightly damaged the Sheraton Hotel, next to the Palestine.

A store in Karada called Golden Toys has a fake tree, Christmas ornaments and a Santa in the window. But the owner was inundated with last minute shoppers and too busy to talk. Customers eyed radio-controlled toy cars, electronic keyboards and Barbie doll lookalikes named Julia, Susan and Inul.

Across the street at Flowers Supermarket, people stood four deep at the cashier and said, unsurprisingly, that they viewed Christmas through the lens of a postwar lack of security.

"Before we used to have our mass from 10 pm to midnight because there were no security issues," said Sister Elham Hanna, 30, of the Mary Immaculate Congregation, as she stood in the styling gel and moisturizer aisle. "Now we have to make mass at 4 p.m. The war, the occupation, Saddam's capture, these things don't make Christmas any different this year, except for the timing of mass."

Meanwhile, my colleagues David Gilkey and Chip Somodevilla (Detroit Free Press photographers) describe their run-ins with the US military in an article in The Nation.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

I am just back from a trip to North Iraq where the electricity is 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Which means that there is often no hot water. When there is also no oil for heating, it’s a disaster.

I can hear the thump and boom from my balcony again tonight after several days of quiet. Sounds like they are pounding al-Dawra and Southwest Baghdad. I’m told the whirring is a gatling gun and that the military is calling this operation Iron Justice.

On the road back from the North, Iraqi police were burning gasoline confiscated from Turkish truckers. The trucks were supposed to be coming back empty after dumping their loads at gas stations in the south, but they were obviously setting aside gasoline to sell to black marketers. Incredulous Iraqi drivers can’t believe the authorities are wasting such precious fuel.

But if the police (or US soldiers who occasionally monitor them) were to simply impound the gasoline, they would surely be accused of reselling it themselves.

In Erbil province, I saw part of the Iraqi flag reproduced on the sleeves of some border guards and former Peshmerga soldiers. But the part that says God is Great in Arabic (in Saddam’s handwriting) was missing. Were the words removed in the fervor to erase all things Saddam? Or because Arabic words are not so valued in the Kurdish north? It was just a shirtsleeve, but if it was the Iraqi flag, it would upset a lot of people in the south and in Baghdad.

Got my first Blackhawk ride, with the 101st Airborne. Noisy but effective way for generals to get to ceremonial handovers of power from the coalition to Iraqis, quickly. Spectacular scenery of deep ravines, green hillsides and snow-capped mountains. When you're in the garbage-strewn flatlands south of Mosul or near industrial centers such as the refinery town of Baiji, it's difficult to imagine the resources Iraq is supposed to have. But Erbil and Sulaymania look gorgeous.

I’m confused about tomorrow being Christmas Eve. It doesn’t feel like it and I have no idea what I’m going to do, apart from the story I’m working on. One soldier said he brought his Christmas gifts in with him eight or nine months ago in anticipation of having to send something home to the States now. He added a few Christian trinkets he bought in Iraq – a keychain cross, a small dangling Bible that I initially mistook for a Quran.

There is a potluck dinner party on Thursday but looking at the Rice Krispies and Lapsang Suchong tea in my cupboard and my semi operational two-range stove, I can’t imagine what I would cook. My more determined colleagues tracked down a Turkey over Thanksgiving but mostly the supermarkets here stock canned foods and wonderful surprises like cheap freshly popped popcorn.

It’s freezing here now, about 37 degrees Farenheit. I might celebrate by doing a little shopping with the outgoing photographers who have become experts at ferreting out stopwatches the former dictator gave out to friends and supporters as well as slightly tacky lighters that burn a multi-colored flame and show the faces of Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

It's 2 a.m. here. More next time.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

I am not sure, but whether Saddam is tried by an all-Iraqi war crimes tribunal may be yet another divide among the many issues that seem to split the Sunni and Shia in Iraq.

While many of the Shia I’ve interviewed want Saddam to be tried and executed, Ala Hussein, 41, a Sunni who runs a small grocery store from his garage now makes a distinction because Saddam was captured by the Americans.

“If the Iraqis capture him, the situation is different. We can consider him a criminal and punish him,” Hussein said, as neighbors stopped by for candy, milk and chips during yet another blackout and counted out their dinars in the darkness.

“He deserves the death penalty if the Iraqis defeated him in a revolution.”

But now Saddam is a prisoner of war, captured by the bully in a mismatched fight between a great nation and a third world country, Hussein said.

“The trial should be done in an international court in the Hague because he is a prisoner of war and he was the leader of an Army.”

Hussein thinks a trial by an all-Iraqi war crimes tribunal would be less fair.

He says he wanted the Americans to invade because Saddam was a despotic ruler and the conditions in Iraq were terrible. He was expecting real democracy, quickly.

“But what happened next was there is a problem of sectarianism in Iraqi society and the Americans began dividing Iraq according to ideology,” Hussein said.

These differences are hundreds of years old, but according to Hussein, they have been exaggerated by the coalition forces, who have set up a Governing Council dominated by Shia. The Sunnis on the handpicked council have no real following.

The council set up a war crimes tribunal this month and Shia members of the council have said Saddam could face the death penalty.

“There is a great deal of Sunni and Shia differences in Iraq,” said Dr. Mohammed al Dahri, 33, a urologist from Haditha in al-Anbar province, a moderate Sunni. “Sunni don’t necessarily like Saddam but they prefer him to a Shia leader. They don’t say it frankly.”

People from al Anbar province, which includes Falluja and Ramadi and the largely anti-American Sunni Triangle, did not benefit under Saddam as much as the Tikritis, al Dahri said.

“I don’t know why people from Adhimiya and al Anbar go out into the street and shout his name. Except they don’t like the Americans and they don’t want a Shia leader.”

Optimists here say the Americans are finally beginning to pay more attention to the Sunnis.

Pessimists would argue it’s too late.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I've been in Baghdad since Oct. 10. Originally I was to go home this Saturday but the editors in Washington asked me to stay on through mid January.

I said yes in part because this continues to be an important story and because I can't be sure whether I'll get another chance to come back here soon. And because of my husband's patient support. But at this very moment, I suppose I am feeling a wee bit tired.

There is the reporting of the last 36 hours, the capture of Saddam Hussein. But that's not what I mean.

It's also not just the physical running around and the interminable waits and security checks (it can take 4 hours door to door to cover a 45 minute briefing by the top military or civilian commander here).

Instead, it's the feeling you get when all arguments are circular.

When you hear and sympathize with frustrated voices on both sides, day after day.

When you want to believe there is reason for hope but then report on the aftermath of an explosion at a mosque where leaders publicly appeal for calm but privately stir things up.

When you listen not so patiently as people blame the Americans for dividing the Sunni and the Shia, who were all just brothers in Islam before the war.

It's not as simple as saying the US administrators here are screwing it up.

They have made a ton of mistakes, from disbanding the 400,000-strong old Iraqi Army to a tough de-Ba'athification policy that's uprooted low- and mid-level Ba'athists and all of the effective technocrats who ran the country. This alienated and marginalized even moderate Sunnis, who are increasingly looking the other way when their extremist cousins fire off RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and plant IED's (improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs).

It's also the Iraqis turning in their neighbors because of a grudge and then complaining about the military's detainee policy.

Families can't find detained relatives and the backlogs are terrible. But when a tip comes in that Abu Mohammed has a bunch of weapons, the military is going to respond with force. Soldiers are taking deadly sprays of shrapnel and losing arms, feet and worse to daily attacks that rise and fall in cycles.

Selfishly, I admit, things were brought home quite clearly when a Time magazine writer and photographer were badly injured by a grenade while embedded with US troops in Baghdad.

Iraqis have this wonderful optimism about being able to fix the country themselves, without any help from Iraqi exiles, who have a bad name because they haven't suffered under Saddam. But they need both the expertise and the management skills from abroad. There's no way they can modernize without foreign investment and all the pros and cons that that brings.

Meanwhile, the violence continues.

Two suicide car bombs went off in Baghdad and north of Baghdad today, killing at least 9 people in the third and fourth attack on Iraqi police in two days.

"The capture of Saddam Hussein has no impact relationship with the resistance," said Mohsen Abdul Hameed, a Baghdad University professor and one of the Iraqi Governing Council's five Sunni members.

"Most of the Iraqi people are happy about his capture. But a ruler for 35 years? Definitely, some of the people will be sad for him. Possibly it's an issue about his dignity, the way he was found," Hameed said.

Intelligence tips were supposedly up before Saturday’s capture. But they’re also up as a result of Saddam's arrest, the military says. Apart from finding valuable documents in his underground bunker, I'm not sure how they're able to quantify or connect this one-day spike to the capture, as a practical matter.

It's hard to see how this is going to soften the anger and frustration people feel about everything from a lack of political representation to aggressive raids to gasoline shortages to the oppressive look of concrete and barbed wire all over town to the lack of electricity (still).

The resistance is not just a bunch of Saddam sympathizers.

"Nationality Iraqis," as they are called here, strongly oppose any foreign occupier of their land and territory. It’s nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Many of them are Sunni, but some are just "good muslims" or Islamists. A Baghdad University Professor who is Sunni says it's just part of the basic religious education for most Muslims but especially for the Sunni.

Sunni Triangle residents (Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra, Dialla) are angry about the way they've been treated, especially during military raids and the recent get-tough campaigns.

They insist they’re not all planting roadside bombs and firing off rocket propelled grenades. Many of them are of course. A lot of them benefited financially under Saddam or were in the Army but are now jobless. Tribal sheikhs feel disrespected by coalition officials. Tribal leaders who could calm some of these insurgents down are not likely to do so after being disrespected.

And moderate, educated, political types in Baghdad are angry that the Americans are dictating who their legislators are going to be. They’re also annoyed that the coalition put Sunnis on the Governing Council who have little clout and no followers.

Finally, there’s a real sadness, even on the part of Iraqis who hate Saddam and believe he destroyed their country. They still feel for him as a once powerful Iraqi man, and they talk of dignity and humiliation even as they acknowledge the horrible crimes he's accused of - from mass graves to gassing the Kurds.

The idea that he was living in a hole, and didn't fight back (even though he had two AK-47s and a pistol) is too much to bear for some. They’re asking today whether the Americans anesthetized Saddam first before capturing him. It would have better if he killed himself, or was killed by the Iraqis, rather than be captured by the Americans, they say.

If the coalition is accounting for this degree of national pride or Islamic pride, it's not obvious.

Monday, December 15, 2003

This morning the Coalition Press Information Center press desk announced a 3 pm press conference. Because we had to be seated by 1:30 pm, we knew it had to be the top military or civilian commander in Iraq, or a Governing Council member (they have been targeted for assassination and have similar security procedures).

It was unusual that the press desk wouldn't say who the speaker would be; they added cryptically that it was a "very substantial announcement."

By 1:20, as I was arriving at the convention center after nearly an hour in traffic, reports that Saddam Hussein had been caught had begun to spread and were already airing on Arabic television. The US soldiers and Iraqi security guards at the convention center gates all had big smiles on. As we got searched, we could hear the beginnings of celebratory gunfire in the capital.

Shortly after 3 pm, a tired-looking Ambassador L. Paul Bremer strode to the podium and announced Saddam Hussein's capture at 830 pm Saturday, Baghdad time, to a packed crowd of journalists, soldiers and coalition workers.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him," said Bremer, flanked by the top American military commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and the next president of Iraq's Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. There were loud cheers from the soldiers and coalition workers who packed the auditorium.

But some of the most emotional moments came from members of the Iraqi media. Several of them stood and shouted as a videotape of Saddam was shown. One said she was too emotionally overcome to ask a question. Another, Fatah al Sheikh, a journalist with Ishrakat al Sadr newspaper (owned by the Sadr organization, a Shi'ite group), sobbed loudly, collapsed in his seat and was comforted by his colleagues.

“Long Life for Iraq!” they shouted, along with "Death for Saddam!" and "We want punishment for Saddam!"

My translator and driver were excited at first, then dumbfounded, then a little confused and a little sad. Then happy again. We went from the convention center through the streets of Baghdad, from Shia neighborhoods to Sunni strongholds, talking with men and women about their reaction to news that many thought would never happen.

"At first I was really excited. Something inside of me felt like things are going to change for the better," Omar said.

But after he heard the applause that greeted Bremer's announcement and the passionate cheering from the Iraqi journalists, Omar said he felt very sad.

"For a democracy, you need a neutral and free media and what that journalist said was crazy," Omar said. "Death to Saddam?"

Omar wasn't the only person in the room who was uncomfortable with the cheering. "It was unprofessional. We were working. It was a news conference. It wasn't supposed to be theater," a photographer said.

Omar also admitted that it was sad seeing someone once so strong look so weak, especially as the videotape showed an Army medic doctor feeling Saddam's head and pressing down on his tongue with a wooden stick.

"I hate Saddam, I don't like him, but he's an Iraqi and for the Americans to find him living in a hole ... and it looks as though they're treating him like an animal," said Omar, who is Sunni.

Hassan, my driver, who is Shia, was less upset about that, saying Saddam looked healthy and didn't seem to be being mistreated. But he too said, "Really, it's difficult. First I am happy but now I don't know if I am angry at Saddam or sad for him. After all that talk, all that you did Saddam, you hide yourself in a hole and they capture you like a mouse?"

On the street, reaction was mixed.

A blue pickup truck cruised through the streets of al-Eskan honking its horn and carrying more than a dozen young men hanging out of its doors and windows. Abbass Ibrahim Abbass, 23, a cloth factory worker, shouted, "I'm happy because they catch Saddam. Damn the Tikritis!"

But as darkness fell in Adhimiya, a man with a black scarf wrapped around his head fired a Kalishnikov into the air as he led about 200 young men through the streets chanting "Long Live Saddam!" Some of the men in the crowd carried posters of Saddam. An older man watching from a side street muttered, "They're just kids."

Abdul Adim, a 45-year-old employee of the Ministry of Housing who would only give his first name, said:

"Saddam is a Muslim man and the infidels have caught him. I wish the Iraqis themselves caught him because the Iraqis should rule their own country, not the infidels," he said. "I prefer the Iraqis kill Saddam themselves rather than let the Americans catch him. We are Muslims, we should fight occupiers, we should fight for our lands, this is a part of our religious belief."

There are now many reasons for anti-American hostility.

Almost no one we talked to thought the violence would end.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

New Iraqi Army soldiers are leaving their posts reportedly because the pay ($60 a month) is too low.

It's the same salary Iraqis get as members of the new Iraqi Civil Defense Force and the Iraqi Police, both of which have been targeted by insurgents who have killed them at an alarming rate.

But teachers are getting $140 a month and engineers even more than that.

And members of the old Army, who were given pensions after staging angry protests over the summer, are in some cases only just receiving payments for September.

Things are a bit skewed here.

Some housewives don't know the price of meat because they cannot afford to buy it. This explains why some Iraqi manual laborers who earlier this year were paid about $2 a day by coalition forces took the job.

But other Iraqis are buying $110 new model Samsung cell phones. And those are among the cheaper models - one merchant is selling a $445 new model that includes a digital camera. It's not clear how many customers he'll have for that one. (The networks aren't up yet and cell phone service, once promised in December, is now not expected until at least the New Year).

CDs are also expensive here, my driver Hassan says.

I told him about the RIAA and the controversy over copying digital music at home.

His eyes grew wide at the idea of paying $16 for a new CD.

There are virtually no original CDs for sale here in Baghdad. Only good quality copies and bad quality copies.

Hassan didn't even consider buying a good quality copy at 5,000 dinars ($2.50) until I insisted that a bad quality version of the latest Amr Diab CD was unlistenable with its skips and stops.

There's a CD shop in Karada called Ghost which sells dozens of copies including recent releases by the Raveonettes and Eminem. But most of the foreigners who come in seem to want Arabic music, he says.

The latest hit by Nancy Ajram:

kill meh oo sahr (he said a word and something happened)
albi be kill meh (something in my heart, because of that word)
nar a lar nar (a fire on a fire)
bess meh a la bess meh (a smile on a smile)
gelbi eh tar (my heart is confused)
nessani ess me (makes me forget my name)
madri keif oo when (i don't know how and where)

yaaaaay saha yoonoo (wow the magic of his eyes)
nazrahtoo (the way he looks at me)
owuhl matla ayna ba'ayne (the first time we met, eye to eye)
yaaaaay shoo mah doo ma kill mah too (how nice his words)
kill meh kaif lau kanu it nane (it's only one word, what's going to happen if there are two?)

Saturday, December 06, 2003

In reporting a story about the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, I kept asking Iraqis whether they thought democracy was consistent with Islam.

In Najaf, a conservative holy shrine city about two hours south of Baghdad, the answers were pretty consistent.

"We want democracy according to what Sharia law says," said Na'aman al-Mayahi, 28, a student at Sadr Religious University.
"If we apply the sharia by its strictest laws, then we will have democracy. Our laws are peaceful laws."

When I explained that some of the basic democratic rights included the right to free speech, the right to assembly, free direct elections and equal rights for everybody regardless of sex, race, religion, etc. al-Mayahi said quickly "not all these four are allowed by Sharia law."

Adnan Khalil Ibrahim, 42, a retired high school chemistry teacher, told me that in Islam, "we treat everybody equally."

I asked about women.

Men are allowed to have four wives; women are entitled to half the inheritance their brothers get; a woman's word is worth less than a man's in a court of law; a woman's murder if guilty of adultery can be sanctioned in certain cases.

"If you did a census in Najaf, how many people would actually have more than one wife?" Ibrahim said. "You will find a rare number of people who do this."

One reason for the four wives rule, Ibrahim added, was "to protect women from falling in sin or committing adultry because of their sexual needs. "

It's true there are restrictions on women in sharia law, Ibrahim said.

"As far as inheritance is concerned, it's common that the responsibility of putting bread on the table belongs to the man alone and because men are more responsible from this point of view, they inherit more. Each woman has a husband taking care of her, so her financial needs are less, while a man is supporting himself and his family."

Under Saddam, Iraq's three wars decimated the population. There are entire villages - in the Shia-dominated south, ironically - where it seems only the women are left.

(The population is also very young. In 2000, the median age in Iraq was 17, meaning half are under 17. "That tells you this is a population that is very malleable," Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer with the United Nations Foundation told me recently. "They're easily persuaded, they can moved by grievances as well as by greed, they can be called to arms, they can fight.")

Actually, in our laws, we consider women more important than men, said Ibrahim's cousin, Adil Abdul Eelan, 25.

Eelan works in the Islamic Cultural office in Najaf, which publishes leaflets and holds seminars about Islam. "We consider women to be a jewel. No one can touch her."

My translator that day was Shamil Aziz, 51, an engineer and a Christian, with two daughters, Mariam, 24, and Nadine, 21. He is worried about a new government dominated by Shia clerics, if it means an elevation of sharia law. He has relatives in London and in Sweden but he doesn't want to leave Baghdad.

"In the Quran, it says thieves should have their hands cut off, but why should I accept that?" he said. "Women caught committing adultery will be stoned. Why should I accept that? If my wife witnesses a crime and wants to testify against the suspect she will need two women to counter a man's testimony in a court of law. Why should I accept it? If I have five boys and five girls, they are all my children and it's my money, why should I accept their inheritance laws?"

But aren't those rules just for Muslims?

"Look at Iran," Shamil said.


I had dinner with my driver’s family recently, and their views were more optimistic than a lot of the public reaction I’ve been hearing reporting on plans for a new Iraqi government.

“Let me tell you something. The Americans cannot fix everything in 6 months, 7 months, 8 months,” said Mahir Abdul-Razak, my driver’s older brother and a graduate from Baghdad University’s College of Administration and Economics. “In the near future, you will not hear so many explosions. Step by step, this will take time. I know that if Iraq does not get development, it is not good for America.”

Mahir blamed the countries surrounding Iraq for sending in foreign fighters.

“They are afraid of a new Iraq so they send terrorists to stop the progress or they do not stop them from coming. Saudi is the first country afraid of us, also Iran.”

When Mahir graduated, he decided against a government job because they only paid about 3,000 dinars a month (less than $2 a month at today’s rates, but worth slightly more before the war). “I would have had to take ‘commissions’ from people,” Mahir said. “It’s a very big problem in Iraq.”

Mahir now commutes 35 miles to Bacuba each day to work with his father’s building and construction company, which is far when many people can barely afford to fill up their gas tanks.

But things are better now. Before, when government and business officials were asked to for routine transactions, they would always have their hands out, Mahir said. “Now, I notice, in the banks, in government offices, they are shy. Nobody is asking me for money.”

Instead of 3,000 dinars a month, teachers are now getting 240,000 dinars a month (about $140 a month).

“It’s a very big jump,” said Maha Abdul Razak, Mahir’s sister. “My cousin was a teacher and she wanted to retire before the war. Now she is back to work. She has bought a satellite dish. Her children are wearing new clothes. Engineers take even more - $180 US dollars a month.”

Maha is nursing a one-month-old baby girl, Miriam. She and her husband Basil also have a son, Yousef, who is 3.

“It’s difficult for the Iraqi people now, waiting, waiting for something good. The good life will not be for me. It will be for my children,” Maha said.

“I graduated in 1993 but when I wanted to work the government said I must go far away to Dialla. I was in Baghdad and I should teach English to secondary school students here. They said I had to spend three years somewhere else, but I had my family and I’m a girl, so it wasn’t possible. So what am I doing now? Losing my language, just forgetting it.”

Monday, December 01, 2003

Members of the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council - a group of Iraqi-Americans hired by the Defense Department to help rebuild Iraq - are planning an anti-terrorism demonstration for this Friday, Dec. 5.

Since the coalition says more and more Iraqis are convinced terrorists are targeting them and not just the US military, it'll be interesting to see if the protest draws big crowds.

While some IRDC members have complained about being sidelined by the coalition and by Iraq's Governing Council, my translator thinks the IRDC is a more credible and more effective body than the US-appointed council.

"They are working as civilians," said Ali Abbass, a 21-year-old dentistry student. "We know they are also appointed by the Americans, but they are simple people, they don't travel with big security teams and they move among the Iraqis. They speak the language, they are depending on the tribes for help and to communicate. They have been abroad and they are educated, but they are not working with the coalition's name. And their jobs and families are in the US so they will go home."

And yet, Ali thinks the most high-profile project they're working on at the moment is terribly misdirected.

The demonstration - which is supposed to take place simultaneously in Detroit, Washington, Paris and London - is currently consuming hours of planning, including elaborate discussions on how to publicize the protest in a country without basic communications.

To send a unified message to the terrorists, the IRDC members want every business, school, mosque, political party, union and neighborhood group in Iraq to urge people to demonstrate.

"I can see the great effort they are putting into this. If they are asking all these organizations to help, why don't they ask each group to pay a small amount of money to help make a civilian volunteer force to protect the schools and neighborhoods?" Ali says. "You know terrorists are also targetting crowds. Are you sure they should be encouraging people to get in the streets?"

True, Iraq is finally free to have demonstrations, one of the basic rights under democracy.

"But this is the first time we are seeing car bombs, grenades, disguises like donkey carts for bombs," Ali insists. "They should educate people about terrorism not just tell them to walk in the street and shout. Iraqi people don't really have meetings and talk about community issues except in the Ba'ath Party.

"When Saddam had an election, the Ba'ath party carried out everything. They were professors in the universities, employees in government agencies, even at the smallest level they were spread through every neighborhood, so it was very organized. Now the IRDC is trying to import a very American concept. It's a nice idea but I don't think it works with the current situation. They are finding a lot of sympathetic people who want to feel they are doing something important, but this is not what we need right now. We need security, electricity, jobs. The Iraqi people are still living in the dark ages and here they are gathering thousands of people for nothing."

Jalil Talib al-Musawi, a former Army officer who said he represented an Islamic group called al Sadeh al Ashroff ("Honest Relatives of the Prophet"), seemed to agree.

"Why aren't you directing your energy at the imams of the mosques?" al-Musawi said at a recent IRDC planning meeting. "You should monitor the mosques. After six rocket-propelled grenades were fired the other day, the mosques in Khadra and in Dora started to broadcast halahil (celebratory noises often heard at weddings)."

US Army Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling has said there are about 20 mosques in Baghdad that the military is keeping tabs on because of potentially incendiary Friday sermons. It's not clear how much free speech the clerics will have in this new democracy.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

There have been pounding sounds for several nights now, but instead of Improvised Explosive Devices blowing up at nearby Baghdad University, they appear to be the sound of coalition forces targeting safe houses used by insurgents just south and west of the city. The photographers still rush up to the 10th floor at night to try and see what’s going on, but they’re not rolling out of the hotel at every blast the way they used to. The military likes to give these operations names like Iron Hammer and Ivy Cyclone II.

The city seems to have more concrete barriers on the streets than ever before. Apart from the ones placed in front of sensitive locations, it’s not clear what the barriers do when they’re placed in the streets, except slow down trafb in places where you’d think this was undesirable. The jams trap coalition convoys as well as Iraqis. Apparently these things are made in the north and cost a fortune to transport here via flatbed truck. They certainly aren’t preventing any shootings or stopping any mortars and they help make the place look even more under siege. On Abu Nawass Street, which runs along the south bank of the Tigris opposite the Republican Palace compound, security measures taken not by the coalition but by the news media have allegedly shuttered shops belonging to Iraqis trying to make a living. Go to and scroll to or search for Ghayda Al Ali.

I’ve spent the last two days talking to soldiers who work in mortuary affairs taking care of the bodies of their fallen colleagues, and also talking to the angry families of Iraqi detainees held by coalition forces. Sad on both counts.

There are sixteen mortuary affairs specialists who handle the dead in the greater Baghdad area, and everyday a body comes in that must be tentatively identified, inventoried and placed in a casket to be airlifted home.

On the detainee issue, which has been exacerbated by the departure of the Red Cross, it’s been difficult getting a more detailed response from coalition officials. They acknowledge the system needs improvement.

“I thought the Americans were going to help us, more than Saddam Hussein” said Sadia Mohammed Jabber, whose son has been detained and is missing. “But they are doing nothing but arresting people just because someone says they’re a bad guy or they’re a Ba’athist.”

There are plenty of bad guys who insist they are innocent. But there seem to be just as many cases of bad intelligence, or false accusations because someone has a grudge.

I’m out on a midway break tomorrow Thursday. You do need to recharge, I think, so that the bureaucracy here does not wear you down and so that you can see stories with either fresh eyes or at least without a totally jaded attitude. Bush is in London vowing to stand firm in Iraq, and soldiers here seem resigned to staying for a long time. But politically-minded types keep throwing around the words “exit strategy.” Most Iraqis I’ve talked to are sufficiently distrustful of all the interest groups here to be seriously worried about an early departure by the Americans.

Meanwhile, it is a little surreal watching the Michael Jackson child molestation press conference live on BBC tonight, from Baghdad.

Monday, November 17, 2003

The occupation finally has an exit date: July 1st.

Iraq's Governing Council agreed Saturday to a timetable putting itself and Ambassador Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority out of business by the end of June. In their place will be a provisional government with full sovereign powers and also direct elections for people who will write a permanent constitution for the country.

But coalition forces now face a new challenge: convincing most Iraqis that they will truly have their own independent government by next summer even as the military maintains a presence in Iraq and Americans continue to live and work here ostensibly ensuring that $19 billion in aid is spent appropriately.

"If the Americans are still in charge, this is still an occupation," said Sheikh Abdul al Salam al Kubaisi, the alama for all Sunni imams in Iraq. He is also dean of a college for imams near the Abu Hanifa in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad that saw some of the worst fighting during the war.

It'll be interesting to see whether this new government will be held in higher regard than the US-appointed Governing Council, which is dominated by exiles. US forces are under daily attack by insurgents who want the Americans out as soon as possible. The thinking is that peace and stability will arrive as soon as Iraqis see Americans handing over political power to Iraqis and putting Iraqis in charge of their own security.

Exile number one would be Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress and a council member with close ties to the Pentagon. His name is often mentioned here in connection with an 11-year old bank fraud conviction in Jordan, which he says was politically motivated. Well aware of his liabilities, Chalabi seems to be pushing hard for grass roots approval of the new government - surely he thinks he will have another shot at power, say some journalists here who have nicknamed him "the man who would be king."

"We will form a coordination committee of Iraqis appointed by Iraqis without CPA intervention," Chalabi said Saturday, describing plans for how delegates to the provisional government will ultimately be selected. "The majority will be appointed by Iraqis who have representatives in the provinces. We will have some input … this new body must not be controlled or must not be cast in the image of the Governing Council or any other political party."

So far, though, the average person on the street will tell you they want to see results, not hear more promises.

It's difficult for many to see how they will benefit from a government process most of them find remote. Also, there is fierce Iraqi pride or nationalism here and as long as they perceive Americans are pulling strings behind the scenes, they will assign ulterior motives to their every move.

Raad Salman Humood al-Bakri, 52, sells and prints books for a living. Unlike many other Iraqis, he actually thinks the Governing Council should have been given more of a chance.

"They need more time to work. If we have another interim government this will turn Iraq upside down. This will create chaos because it will be like starting from the beginning," said al-Bakri, a member of Iraq's Shi'ite majority. "The council is working under an occupation, and they need more authority and freedom to gain the trust of the Iraqi people.

"It is not America’s business to decide about delegates, interim governments and elections – all this should be decided by Iraqi people," al-Bakri said.

"Iraq needs one Iraqi leader who knows Iraq well, who should not care about religion, sects, nationality, who has the sincere ability to unite Iraq. We don’t need only promises but someone to achieve these promises. I don’t care who will rule us, Sunni or Shia, but we need a leader."

Maybe the unknown prime minister that the council is thinking about appointing next month (according to Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader and this month's council president) will be a first step.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Knight Ridder correspondent Drew Brown and Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey, my battle-weary KR colleagues here, came back from an embed in Falluja Friday.

Nothing much had been happening on patrol and the soldiers told them to return Saturday afternoon for another go round. As they were leaving Falluja, one soldier turned to them and said "Sorry dude, we didn't have anything blow up while you were here."

Drew and David got back to Baghdad late Friday. The story Drew sent to Washington was about the soldiers' tedious but crucial and dangerous job of hunting down unexploded bombs - all the while subject to ambush at any moment.

"Till now, they've been lucky," he wrote. "They hadn't lost a single soldier."

Then Saturday morning, David heard on Arabia TV that a Bradley armored vehicle had been hit north of Falluja. He went into Drew's room to tell him they might be the guys they had been embedded with.

Drew was in the midst of emailing a girlfriend. "I can't do this anymore," Drew typed.

Both of them drove up to Falluja immediately. It was their guys. A roadside bomb had exploded next to the Bradley, killing two soldiers Drew and David had been on patrol with Thursday night.

Drew walked up to First Sgt. Greg Westbrook and told him: "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say." Westbrook put his hand on Drew's shoulder and said "It's okay. I think the guys liked having you guys around."

But it's not really okay.

In David's room, in between jokes that if only they had stayed another day, they wouldn't have missed the story, David and Drew looked at each other. These guys know each other from months of war reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Yeah, if we stayed, one of us would be dead," Drew said.

He is chain-smoking again tonight.

And I'm rethinking David's idea that we get embedded.


Tonight, while writing about the latest attacks and the response from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, I hear more explosions in the Green Zone - the Republican Palance compound where the top civilian administrator for Iraq lives.

My driver calls, asking if I need him to take me there. I don't, yet.

Then we hear an American tank has been hit in Baghdad. I call my translator and driver back to the hotel about 10 pm. They arrive but we soon hear from David that there are no fatalities in this IED attack (improvised explosive device: homemade roadside bomb).

An hour later, terrifically loud and rapid gunfire erupts across Baghdad. Combined with the military jets passing overhead, this seems unusal because we haven't gunfire for weeks and weeks.

The racket sends all of us onto our hotel balconies, not away from them.

In the distance I see what looks like a large bonfire but I'm told it's US military tracer fire. I call my translator again. This time, I'm told that Iraq has just beat Korea at soccer, 4-2.

Chip Somodevilla, another KR photographer, pops his head in: "Don't you wish we celebrated football victories like this at home?"


Today, Armitage insisted the future looked bright in Iraq.

"We've got momentum," Armitage said, adding that he didn't think recent attacks served to further isolate coalition forces, even though some soldiers say the security problems have forced them back into combat mode instead of being able to focus on civilian operations such as fixing schools and sewer pipes.

Armitage might take some solace from Malik Fakhri, 32, who sells nuts and nougat in Kadhimiya market, a busy Shi'ite neighborhood where merchants look out for each other.

While not without complaints, Fakhri thinks things are slowly getting better and he doesn't even hold the Americans responsible for restoring security.

"Till now, we haven't seen anything from the coalition forces," he said, a phrase that begins many conversations here.

"Let's forget the security issue because they cannot fix this. Let's talk about rebuilding. We haven't seen any new buildings. The government ministries are still looted and destroyed."

Fakhri supports the Iraqi Governing Council, which he thinks has a few good members on it. He just wishes the coalition would give them more authority and independence.

Actually, the council has sometimes suffered from a lack of coordination with the coalition. They recently issued an order that everyone who lost their government job in the previous regime for political reasons should get rehired. But because there are no funds to restore these jobs, former employees lining up at government ministries demanding their jobs back are being turned away.

Making a living is all that matters to most Iraqis. A one-kilo box of dried apricots that used to cost Fakhri 1,000 dinars wholesale now costs 3,000 dinars ($1.50). He turns around and sells it for 3,500 dinars, making the equivalent of about 25 American cents of profit per box.

"It's true that things are getting better," he said. "Business is picking up, but the prices are still high."

The price seems high for everybody here.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Grafitti has been popping up on a low brick wall that circles the Janeen Secondary School for Girls in the Four Streets neighborhood near Yarmuk Hospital, not far from the old Um al Toobool Sunni mosque.

Actually, it has been there for awhile, but it is the new grafitti that is interesting. Between July and now it has multiplied.

You can see “Long Live Saddam” written in Arabic at least five times.

Also “Long Live the Iraqi Army,” and “F*** the Americans,” in green and black Arabic script.

And “All Iraqis are saying that Saddam is the pride of our country.”

The only English grafitti looks like it might have been written by the same anti-American tagger: “I (heart) USA!” it says, but it’s crossed out in the same color paint it was written with.

Earlier this summer, a prominent wall of a former intelligence headquarters used to display grafitti that said “You’ll Be Dead, US Army,” in large, capital, English letters.

That was scrubbed out months ago, but it looks like plenty of less-noticeable anti-American sentiment is now spreading and not just in places where former regime supporters might live or frequent.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The bureaucracy here is unbelievable.

To arrange to see government ministers, you call various ministry and coalition phone numbers for days with no success. The coalition press people with oversight for various ministries are unable to make arrangements for you. You then visit the ministries to request interviews. Security guards will often take away your satellite phone, digital camera, radio, tape recorder and walkie talkie. Once inside, it can take up to an hour just to find or meet the equivalent of a media spokesman for the ministry. Then you officially apply for an interview by writing down your name, organization and questions in advance, in Arabic.

Then the answer is usually “not today, not tomorrow, maybe next week.” Because my satellite phone does not work well indoors, or perhaps because the ministry employees are also not easily reachable even on their coalition-provided cell phones, I’m told to come by the ministry each day to check on the status of our request.

At the oil ministry, one of the more efficient ministries, we actually have a 10:30 appointment with a spokesman for the minister. We get to the ministry itself before 10:30 but it is 11:40 by the time we reach the spokesman. This is because various guards and ministry employees insist we must first see other people and sit in other offices along the way.

The red tape reminded my translator, Ali Abbass, of another story he worked on immediately after the fall of Baghdad, with another reporter. Three hospitals had already given him statistics on civilian deaths, but the director of a fourth hospital demanded they first seek permission from the Health Ministry, an impossible task as the government was nonexistent after the fall of the old regime.

“This country needs people who can think for themselves, not just follow the rules,” Ali said Tuesday.

I agreed it was a big problem for a country seeking to rebuild quickly.

“This is a disaster, not a problem,” Ali replied. “If we need a new Iraq, we need new minds. Not the old minds, they had their minds washed by Saddam. You can find many people here who are well educated and have good minds. But people have been taught to be scared, so they cannot make their own decisions.

“For example, if I am the director general of a government agency, I have a list of rules. But if one of Saddam’s relatives came to me and asked me for something that would force me to break all the rules, I should do it. I will just follow orders, not think for myself, out of fear for what will happen if I disobey.”

The favored term here for someone who can't think for himself is "donkey," an epithet liberally applied in the city's chaotic traffic.

Monday, November 03, 2003

On Friday night, the eve of a possible "Day of Resistance" or uprising in Baghdad, the whole KR team (3 reporters, 2 photographers, 7 translators and drivers) left the al-Hamra hotel. We had heard a warning put out by the Australian government about a threat to a hotel in the neighborhood. There are least four in our block and we're the biggest.

It was a difficult decision, and I think some of us felt a little like schmucks for doing it, although maybe this is only in hindsight.

Personally, I wanted more information and didn't want to leave just because 80% of the hotel guests were doing the same, including most of the other journalists in the building. You can't make sound decisions here like lemmings going over a cliff.

One of our translators said why don't you leave just for the one night. Probably nothing will happen, but why give these cowards even a small percentage or possibility of harming you?

It was hard to argue against that. But the US Consular Officer described "a particular threat over the next two weeks beginning on 1 November." It's not the first time there have been warnings and I didn't want to be fleeing everytime someone said boo. We also didn't want to be having the same roundabout conversations each night.

KR had previously looked at moving into a private house and at the time rejected the idea (There are arguments that a private house isn't necessarily safer, and who wants to manage a house and all its staff? It's also more isolating).

Most of us had been inclined to stay at the al-Hamra. We talked about the kind of attack that might take place, and what the chances were for a car bomber versus a rocket attack and which direction an attack might come from and whether we were safer on a higher or lower floor.

Then another one of our translators arrived and insisted that a United Nations building down the street from us would be hit and begged us to leave. I wasn't sure whether to trust the information, but I wasn't sure I could disregard it either.

Another journalist next door recommended sleeping in the hallway if we stayed, to protect ourselves from flying glass.

As we sat and mulled it over, we got a phone call from a photographer who had heard from two Coalition Provisional Authority employees that the rumor was gunmen were going to burst into our hotel and shoot everyone. That sort of did it and we all went to stay with our translators.

But by mid-morning Saturday, we were all back. I don't know if the others felt a little foolish. I know I felt sheepish the night before as we passed the hotel security guards on our way out, leaving them behind to deal with whatever bloody attack we envisioned. My driver had shouted a fond good night to them, thanked them and urged them to be safe.

On Saturday, the so-called Day of Resistance didn't pan out. One of my KR colleagues figures the real target was not the Hamra but another hotel down the block. My driver wants to bring our security guards a meal after 5:15 pm, when they're allowed to break their Ramadan fast.

I moved all my things back in Saturday afternoon, unpacked again and slept pretty peacefully. Today (Sunday) was also quiet in Baghdad but not in Falluja. A Chinook helicopter was shot down by an unknown weapon, killing 15 soldiers and injuring more than 20, in the deadliest single strike against US troops since the start of the war.

The soldiers were flying into Baghdad airport to catch a flight out to Germany or the US for some much-needed rest and recreation.

Sort of puts things into perspective.

Friday, October 31, 2003

They are talking about changing the Iraqi flag and national anthem, just as they replaced the old Iraqi currency.

Actually plenty of the old 250 dinar notes are still around, with Saddam's face on it, but they are to be phased out within three months.

The switch to the new dinar went pretty smoothly. People immediately dunked the new bills in water and then scrunched them up to see how durable they were, and many approved. It sure beats carrying around bricks of the old currency (1950 iraqi dinars = $1 US) .

But the flag is another matter, according to Oday Gada'an Mhessen, a second lieutenant Iraqi policeman who is assigned to the Directorate of Government Protection and who helps guard the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

"No, we will demonstrate if they change the flag," Mhessen said. "This flag comes with the words 'God is the Greatest' and we are an Islamic country."

Told that the phrase is written in Saddam Hussein's handwriting, Mhessen thought for a moment, and leaned on his rifle. "No problem if they change the handwriting. But the words? We don't accept it. We're used to seeing this flag, we like it."

Coalition officials and the 25-member Governing Council haven't yet said how they plan to change the flag. Given some prior cultural missteps, we ought to stay tuned.

In the meantime, the city feels as if it's in a lull, as if the suspects responsible for the violence at the beginning of the week are just giving us a breather. The US Consular officer in Baghdad has just warned that there are rumors of a "day of resistance" throughout Baghdad on Saturday (the start of the working week and in this case the start of the second week of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, prayer and family gatherings). And Sunday.

How do you increase your security awareness when it's already on heightened alert?

We're already using radios (in addition to satellite phones) to communicate with each other. We have translators and drivers staying late and/or getting here early - no small feat when they can't eat or drink until 5:20 pm.

Our hotel has improved its security although to what extent seems open to debate. Some people here think it's not high-profile enough to be a top target; others think the ease of lobbing mortars and rockets from the main road make it an easy target.

A big UN food program office on the main road just opposite the side street we use to get to the hotel has just erected some blue netting above it's walls, presumably to reduce the chances of a grenade attack. We're just waiting for the booms and shudders to start again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Running around today to hospitals and police stations chasing this morning’s multiple suicide bombings, I didn’t encounter a single Iraqi cop who said, forget this job, it doesn’t pay enough.

Instead, it was a steady chorus of police saying they wouldn’t be deterred. “Nothing will stop our work,” said Mohammed Kadhim, 25, injured in the blast at the al-Baya'a police station in the Hay Iaalaam neighborhood.

Attacks at the Red Cross and four Baghdad police stations (three bombs detonated at police stations, the fourth police staion bomber was shot before he could detonate) left at least 34 dead, including 8 Iraqi police, and more than 200 injured, including 65 Iraqi police.

“I must work because I have a family. I must feed them,” said Capt. Hamid Majeed, 51. “Also I have worked in the police line of work for 33 years and I want to serve my country.”

Even as he complained that the Americans had not provided enough guns, body armor and other equipment, Majeed insisted the Iraqi Police and the US soldiers were good partners. “I will stay and I will never care,” he said, dismissing terrorists who are targeting anyone who collaborates with the Americans.

The saddest part of today was not the bloodstains and body parts but watching the four children of Maj. Ahmed Saleh Ibrahim, a 41-year-old engineer who works with the Iraqi Civil Defense Force. Ibrahim ended up in Yarmuk hospital after a suicide bomb attack at the al-Khadra police station next door to his offices sent him flying into a water pipe.

Daughters Halla, 11, and Fatma, 4, curled their lips and cried as they kissed their dad. Sons Haitham, 13 and Mohammed, 7, scrunched up their faces and moved others in the room to tears. One of our drivers said that if their father died, there would be no future for these kids.

Amid all the bandaged heads and arms and the stench of blood and the moaning men and workers applying antiseptic, was one sour note. A doctor of ophthalmology who refused to give her name asked why I was asking the injured military police about what had happened today, about the attacks all across Baghdad.

“All the Christians and Jews want to kill all the Muslims in this great month,” she said. “You should ask the Americans, they know everything that is going on. You will see, you will know everything in one or two years. It will all come out.”

Even though conspiracy theories abound here, I was taken back that this educated, well-groomed, English-speaking woman would tell me this. She was the only such voice in a day of scores of interviews. I started to try to convince her otherwise, before I thought better of it and turned back to interviewing the injured Iraqi police officers.

It's now nearly 1 am Baghdad time, Tuesday. Maybe today will be quieter, Insha'allah.

Monday, October 27, 2003

OK, these explosions are getting just a little bit unnerving. Last night there were several late at night.

Just now, 830 am Monday – the first official day of Ramadan for most Iraqis - another huge explosion shakes our hotel. There’s a flurry of radio traffic. Reporters are banging on each other’s doors. The Rasheed Hotel was hit yesterday, what is it now? Wait, it’s the Red Cross, we think.

I was going to blog something this morning from yesterday but I need to go now. Fast.
Except that I am waiting for my driver and translator, who are stuck in traffic. Another KR reporter and photographer have just left in what seems like one of the last available cars at the al-Hamra.

But we will have to split up anyway. It sounds like there are multiple explosions all over Baghdad. There are reports of explosions at the Amariya Hotel near the Radio and TV building, more rockets into the coalition compound known as the Green Zone, and an explosion at the Ministry of Industry. At this point, these are all unconfirmed reports.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Most Iraqis don’t read a newspaper, and an even higher percentage don’t trust the dozens of local newspapers that have sprung up here, according to new poll by the independent Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies.

Of the 39% who do read a newspaper, they seem to prefer Azzaman, an Arabic daily published in Iraq, Bahrain and the UK, even as they claim they do not trust it.

More people listen to the radio – primarily Arabic BBC – and watch television.

Interestingly, most Iraqis watch the coalition-funded Iraqi Media Network (IMN), a TV network described by Governing Council member Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaidy as “a disaster, a complete catastrophe.” IMN has come under fire for being expensive and full of propaganda, but it has recently added an entertainment channel which is popular.

But it would be wrong to assume that most Iraqis prefer the Iraqi Media Network to al-Arabia, Qatar-based al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV or al-Alam, an Iranian channel, all of which scored below IMN.

This is because while 93% of Iraqis have a TV, only 43% have a satellite dish, which would allow them to watch these Arabic news channels.

The same poll said 5.4% of Iraqis use cell phones but since cellular networks are not yet up (for people other than coalition workers), that’s actually a reference to the cordless phones that many Iraqis carry. When their home phone rings and they are not more than a couple of miles away, they can answer the cordless set hanging from their hip. This number is of course expected to shoot up when cell phone service starts up soon.

The percentage of Iraqis with Internet access was described as 3% which seems to include both people with dial-up access at home (from the former state company for Internet access) and those who frequent the Internet cafes springing up all over town.

The poll also asked people to prioritize several statements about what they wanted out of a new Iraq. I thought this was one of the most hopeful things about the survey. After 30 years of Saddam, and in a country where you often hear Iraqis say that other Iraqis need to be ruled with an iron fist, this is a positive sign.

95.5% said the top priority was for people to choose their political leaders through fair and regular elections.

89.5% said the most important thing was for all nationalities of Iraq to share power in the government.

87.9% said the top priority was for Sunni and Shia to share power in government.

83.4% said abiding by the law and punishing criminals was the most important priority.

78.1% said people should be able to openly criticize the government.

69.7% said the media should be able to report without censorship.

70.9% said women should have the same rights as men

56.4% said religious leaders should play a large role in politics

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Here’s a small example of why things sometimes seem so murky here.

Today, we heard about a peaceful protest at the Oil Ministry after US soldiers detained or maybe slapped or maybe handcuffed an Iraqi woman who had resisted a search of her bag by sniffer dogs. The incident quickly raised questions of cultural sensitivity because she reportedly had a Koran in her bag and did not want it to be licked or sniffed by the dog, which in Muslim eyes would make it unclean.

None of this could be immediately confirmed, and given available resources and other important stories we’re chasing, we decided not to go to the ministry because the protest was small and breaking up when we heard about it. To get the story, we would need to drop what we were doing and interview the woman, who we thought would be inaccessible by the time we got there. We planned to ask about the incident at the afternoon briefing by coalition officials.

It’s possible soldiers at the scene were culturally insensitive. It’s also possible the story is not what it seems. In the end, we decided a larger story down the road about cultural missteps would be more meaningful than a quick daily based on sketchy facts.

Here’s what Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Charles Heatly said:

“When we helped the Governing Council with its initial rollout if you like, three months or so ago, we addressed this issue to them directly,” said Heatly, an Arabic speaker who has spent years in the Middle East. “We know there’s people out there who want to blow you up, who want to undermine progress here. We want to look after you, we want to do so in a culturally sensitive way.”

Heatly said the Governing Council replied: “As far as we’re concerned, we are happy for you to use dogs within specific parameters. We’re happy for you to use them in public buildings … what is unacceptable would be for you to bring dogs into people’s homes.”

“Those who want to suggest that the use of dogs is not halal (lawful) and completely unacceptable are simply wrong,” Heatly said. “There are a number of Arab countries whose police forces use dogs both for drug sniffing and for explosive work.”

Coalition officials used the opportunity to lecture the media about jumping to conclusions – last week the wires reported that US soldiers had gunned down four Jordanians; instead the Jordanians had driven into the side of a tank because they hadn’t seen it.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Covering the Turkish embassy suicide car bombing Tuesday was pretty straightforward except for a military spokesman insisting only two people had been injured while witnesses and TV reports said as many as eight were hurt. I walked through the college campus immediately next door and there was shattered glass everywhere, bits of rubber tire and, according to a security guard, human remains on the roof. Soldiers roped off the scene, keeping reporters away from the embassy and making it feel less chaotic than I expected. The attack wasn’t as deadly as the Baghdad Hotel bombing two days earlier, but for many Iraqis, it was further proof that the Americans don’t understand Iraq (Turkish troops in Iraq?) and that they can’t protect them.

The next day, a yellow crane was parked outside our hotel and a notice in the lobby said a three-meter high concrete barrier would be erected around the al-Hamra. By Saturday, reporters were joking about the three narrow sections of concrete standing at one corner of the parking lot, about enough to protect a Honda Civic parked immediately behind it. We’re trying to check rumors that there’s a shortage of concrete barriers because a company in Kirkuk has the local monopoly on them.

I’ve been here a week now, and it seems that from an electricity-garbage-traffic point of view Baghdad is better than when I left at the end of June. Iraqis still go hours without electricity, sewage still runs down the street in poorer neighborhoods and traffic is still brutal on Saturdays (the start of the workday week here) but most Iraqis I’ve talked to say these things are better than before. There are reports that the curfew may be lifted completely in a week's time. More shops are open later in the evening in the busy Karada neighborhood and merchants like Mudhafir Abdul Majeed Fatohi, who owns five electronics shops, say business is about 70% of what it was before the war.

“Every month is better than the previous month,’’ said Fatohi, 52 and a mechanical engineer with papers that allow him to do business in Sweden and Jordan.

But from a security point of view, it’s obviously much worse. Not only have there been more roadside bombs and suicide bombings, but Shia on Shia violence has escalated and the fear of carjackings and kidnappings is higher than ever. A radical cleric who is complicating the new Governing Council's job by pushing his own new government is suspected as the driving force behind several of the latest bombings. Women continue to be shuttered in their homes because of these fears, although sometimes this is the result of an overprotective husband more worried about other men looking at his wife. My driver’s wife Tagreed is begging her husband to let her work, go back to school or at least go outside to socialize with other women. But so far, Hassan has refused. It was different before the war, when criminal gangs did not roam the streets, both of them say.

Monday, October 13, 2003

I was heading back to Baghdad from a visit to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Najaf when the bomb at the Baghdad Hotel went off. Najaf is two hours south of Baghdad. As our drivers sped back, Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey and I spoke by radio. We knew we’d never make it to the scene before soldiers closed off the area and we knew from a satellite phone call to our Knight Ridder colleagues that they were on top of things. I sat forward in the car seat, feeling useless and thinking about early reports that at least 6 to 10 people were dead and dozens had been injured. The Baghdad Hotel is home to government contractors and people who work with the coalition, including Iraqis on the Governing Council. Gilkey joked that our hotel is next. I called my husband in New York, where it was 730 a.m., to say I was fine and asked him to tell the rest of my family in the Bay Area that it wasn’t my hotel. He told me what CNN was reporting and then our connection was cut off. Later, I heard that a Washington Post reporter was inside the hotel interviewing a government official when the blast went off. I made it back to cover the briefing by coalition officials, where another reporter asked whether the Coalition Provisional Authority could order hotels to beef up security. CPA spokesman Charles Heatly’s reply was that in this case, existing security measures had worked – Iraqi police shot at the car speeding through a checkpoint, and it detonated before it could get closer to the Baghdad Hotel. The gates at the al-Hamra don’t seem so big anymore.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Arrived safely at Baghdad Airport Friday morning after an uneventful one and a half hour flight from Amman on Royal Wings, a subsidiary of Royal Jordanian. The flight was “sold-out’’ and we were denied spots on a list of confirmed passengers, but we went standby and there were plenty of empty seats. On board the 50-something seat propeller plane were other journalists, an Army medic on her first R&R since March and a Brit who says his firm is providing security for oil fields. Arriving in an empty immigration hall in Baghdad, we were greeted by a customs official who asked us to have a pleasant stay. Behind the glass, another official looked at my passport, noted my place of birth and said, “California! Arnold!” and gave me a thumbs up sign.

The al-Hamra hotel – once dust beige and non-descript among its neighbors - is now painted bright white and seems more of a target. There are concrete barriers and big gates blocking the entrance now. Management has banned all cars from the small parking lot immediately in front of the hotel. The street below my window is closed to traffic. The near constant sound of gunfire is gone, at least for now. My Knight Ridder colleagues, both veteran war correspondents, gave me a big dose of what it’s like to work in Baghdad now: it’s more dangerous, crowds are more volatile and security has made getting into a coalition press conference an hours-long event in which you are searched at least three times. Falluja, a town in the so-called Sunni Triangle, so regularly breaks out in violence that reporters no longer go there each time they hear a soldier is killed – otherwise, you’d have to live there.

Friends have asked me what I packed for Baghdad.

Among other things: a laptop, spare battery, floppy and CD drives, a high-speed data modem for satellite Internet access, a satellite phone and charger, tape recorder, notebooks, shortwave radio, MP3 player, a pair of walkie talkies, police scanners, water purification kit, a medical kit, 2 pairs of khakis, 2 long skirts, 4 long-sleeved shirts, 4 T-shirts, a full-length black abaya and head scarf.

Spent most of Saturday re-introducing ourselves to coalition officials and spokesmen for the military and then covering a briefing from members of Iraq’s new Governing Council, who are trying hard not to be seen as puppets of the American administrators.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Things are shifting.

After days of critical reports about the administration's plans and motives in Iraq, the White House is overhauling its Iraq and Afghanistan missions in a move meant to speed up the reconstruction. Some say it's a slap at the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld, who's been slammed for not having more of a clue that Iraq would be so difficult to put back together.

Since getting home in July, it's been difficult to think of anything but Baghdad, but time has helped.

I've had plenty of distractions, from a journalists conference to a week of sailing off Martha's Vineyard. I've covered Arnold Schwarzenegger, the second anniversary of 9/11 in New York and the hype and spectacle of Fashion Week. But nothing got my pulse going like the one-sentence email from an editor two weeks ago: "you up for a return?"

So tonight I had a romantic dinner with my husband, to celebrate my birthday. Tomorrow I get on a plane for Amman, and on Friday, hopefully, I'm on a plane back to Baghdad.

It is a little weird to go from writing about Beyonce in the front row to thinking about whether I should convince my former driver to give up his BMW for a less-likely-to-be-carjacked vehicle.

My parents don't understand why I want to go back. They still haven't forgiven me for going to Iraq the first time, from late April to the end of June. This past weekend, I met them in Philadelphia for an architectural conference celebrating former University of Pennsylvania dean of architecture Paul Cret, who taught many students from China, including my grandfather, Robert Fan Sr., class of 1921. Having argued terribly with my Dad about going back to Baghdad, it was comforting to be with him, rediscovering my grandfather and thinking about how my family ended up in this country.

"I must thank Yang Ting Bao,'' my father said, crediting another U Penn graduate who told my grandfather on a 1951 visit to Beijing that the capital's weather wouldn't agree with him. It was a strong hint and my grandfather, who had already fled to Hong Kong, chose not to return to China (The next year, he helped my father sneak out of Shanghai). Other students returned to China to help rebuild their country only to have their careers and lives irrevocably changed by political upheaval.

Now I wonder about an Iraqi-American contact who has returned to help rebuild the country of his grandparents. I try to imagine - for each of the people I interviewed last time - what it's like to face a wildly uncertain future.

I'm eager to see the Iraqi friends I left behind and hear how their opinions of the Americans have shifted. I want to see whether the US-appointed Governing Council (which didn't exist last time I was there) has any hope of winning over a majority of Iraqis. I want to know how the US plans on fixing the mess that is Baghdad and who they're going to hire to help them do it.

But first I have to pack.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Tomorrow I will have been home a week. After having been away since April 9th, everything seems strange to me, even the elevator buttons in my apartment building. I have one more Iraq story to finish up. After finding it so difficult to get news while I was in Baghdad, due to costly Internet connections, I feel as though I'm now inhaling news about Iraq. The unfinished and slow pace of reconstruction seems to me one of the most important stories out there. I can think of little else. But my relieved family and a few of my friends think I'm insane to want to go back. Here's part of an email my fixer sent me after I asked him what was going on. He sent it July 15th, the day I arrived back in New York and one day after yet another US soldier was killed in an RPG attack in the wealthy Mansur neighborhood:

"I think that you know everything that is happening here so you tell me what will happen. The general situation is bad, struggling against the American forces everywhere and threats from Saddam Hussein all the time and the Iraqi people don't know what to do - following the Americans and then be ready for Saddam punishment or by one of his loyal followers, or follow Saddam and be punished (almost killed) by the Americans. We said it before, it is complicated and we are waiting for a solution and until then my regards to you and your husband ..."

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

After 10 weeks in Baghdad, I left on the road to Amman Sunday. It was a relief to escape the heat and the fatigue that had begun to settle in after such a long stay, but I was sad to leave behind the Iraqi families I befriended, especially as the situation worsens and their patience shrinks.

A colleague and I rode in a Chevy Caprice, which followed another colleague in a GMC hired through a reputable Jordanian company. We didn’t join a convoy, due to recent concerns and rumors about bandits possibly being tipped off by Baghdad insiders every time a convoy leaves town loaded down with cash or camera and computer gear.

The 12-hour journey ended at the Royal Hotel in Amman, a luxurious culture shock of a place after Baghdad’s Al-Hamra hotel.

Looking up from my fresh orange juice and pile of fresh fruit this morning, four huge palm trees on a balcony looked like matchsticks inside a towering oval space. There are indoor and outdoor pools, one with water cascading into it. We were greeted with a big plate of chocolate and cookies on our arrival. The bathroom is an expanse of marble. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself.

The first thing I did was leave for Jerusalem, which I’ve never seen before. There are almost no tourists in the old city, where in less than half an hour you can walk from the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter to the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. The Dome of the Rock is still closed to tourists despite newspaper headlines Tuesday that said the area was beginning to re-open to non-Muslims. Tour guides and shopkeepers seemed desperate for visitors and cash, shouting out 50% discounts if you so much as glanced at their window. Even in Jordan, hotel operators in Petra are threatening to sue the US for the drop-off in tourism after the war with Iraq, the latest bad news after the 2000 uprising in Jerusalem and the worldwide economic recession.

After a night at the American Colony, including the most amazing tomato salad in the shade of the hotel’s old courtyard, it was back to Jordan, with a quick stop in Jerash, a 2nd century city of Roman ruins about an hour north of Amman. The border crossing into Israel took an excruciating four hours, which is nothing compared to what Palestinian travelers endure. Coming back, I opted to pay for VIP service, which brought down the waiting time to an hour, not including delays at traffic checkpoints.

Now I’m reading today’s headlines about Iraq and feeling particularly useless. As I put away a croissant and wait for my flight to London, my colleagues are covering yet more violence in Baghdad and Falluja and my Iraqi friends are grappling with a mounting anger and frustration. These are educated moderates who understand that democracy and freedom take time but who are incredulous that the Americans have done nothing tangible to stem widespread security and electricity problems. I’m heading for the comforts of Europe, and eventually a flight home to New York, but they are entering the most scorching month of the year. As US officials insist that things are getting better each day, all I can say is Insha’allah.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

It’s hard to imagine what life was like before email and high-speed connections. Haven’t filed a weblog in ages because it’s now so excruciatingly slow and expensive to get online using a Thuraya phone. Even if our laptops connect to the Thuraya satellite, the directions from the satellite to an internet address are breaking down or getting lost. For more than a week, no URLS worked except a numerical one for my Mercury news email and even that was spotty at best. It takes at least an hour to open less than a handful of emails and reply to half of them. Of all the challenges of working here, and there are many, this is probably the most maddening.

The other day, we spent four hours in traffic trying to get to a hospital that was only 20 minutes away. Each day, we drive around trying to find people we need to interview, often leaving messages trying to set up appointments to talk another time and then get back to the hotel to discover there is a press conference scheduled for the same time as our appointment. Internet cafes are beginning to open, but phone service is not yet back up.

Iraq news seems to have faded from the front pages at home but soldiers are still getting attacked here and Iraqis are increasingly frustrated with the inability of the Americans to provide basic security and electricity. At background briefings we are told that electricity has been restored to most of Baghdad and that with the increasing numbers of troops and military police and the disarmament campaign it’s getting safer in Baghdad each day. But the Iraqis we meet and interview as well as the translators and drivers we work with provide a different barometer. And then there is the issue of their pay. Salaries from April, May and June are to be paid by the end of this month or early July, but thousands of ex-Army soldiers who have been told they won’t get their jobs back because of their links to the old regime have threatened violence unless they are rehired or given pensions.

Reporters here seem divided on whether things will get worse before they will get better. There was more violence in Falluja on Friday, which the military again attributed to “pockets of resistance” rather than fed-up Iraqis. All for now.

Monday, May 19, 2003

On Saturday night, there was a small party down by the pool. Journalists were dancing to Madonna and Missy Elliott, sipping wine and unwinding after interviewing pimps, photographing grieving widows and chasing government ministers. It felt a little weird. A photographer I’ve been working with kept telling me to relax but it’s so hard to turn it off. Part of it may be guilt, but mostly I feel as though I might miss something or go soft or lose my focus. Dion Nissenbaum, who dropped by briefly, called it surreal. But the photographer was right about hitting a wall. You can get burnt out so easily by working 17 hour days six or seven days a week in 100 plus degree weather.

My translator, Ali Abbass, and driver, Hassan Abdul Razak, came by the pool, interested in our music and our stories about how men and women interact at home. Ali, 21, gets teased by his Cassanova-like pals because he doesn’t have a girlfriend. But the reality is Ali wants his freedom. He is a good student who wants to travel and have female friends who, after a few discreet dates away from the prying eyes of friends and family, won’t turn to him and say "I love you, let’s get married." He and Hassan are both fascinated by a story that another fixer here has lost his virginity and told his journalist employer, who has in turn told everybody else.

Ali’s first contact with a foreigner was only a year ago, when his businessman father Abbass Nabhan, 60, brought a German couple home for lunch. They did not speak Arabic and Ali’s father did not speak German, but somehow they understood each other. Ali, curious as he was, just stared at the couple. "That was the first time I faced a foreigner face to face," Ali said. "I was confused. I didn’t know what to say."

Then, after Baghdad fell, and employees couldn’t get to work, Ali helped out in his father’s hotel, and began to meet some of the overflow of journalists from the nearby Palestine hotel. Ali was carrying a guest’s bags up the stairs to the 6th floor during an electricity blackout when they struck up a conversation during a rest on the 4th floor. But when the journalist asked Ali to work as a translator, Ali demurred, amazed that anyone would think his English was good enough. Instead, he suggested the reporter hire his brother, Amar. Eventually, a radio reporter from the Netherlands asked Ali to help, and Ali finally said yes. Ali’s uncle also began to translate for some British journalists, and another brother, Maher, got a job as a driver for a journalist from the New York Times. Soon, the family’s after-dinner conversation offered an amazing window onto Saddam’s regime.

"Everybody was saying, ‘I did this, I went there.’ Maher was trying to find people who had been tortured or who had their ears cut off. Amar found some underground jails. I went to the intelligence agency to look for documents," Ali recalled. "It was amazing and horrible."

"Initially my first reaction to the war was that I didn’t like the American forces. Nobody wants their country to be attacked. If I heard that the Iraqi forces did well, I was happy. But then when I thought about it, and when I saw these unbelievable palaces and underground jails, really I felt that I am lucky to be alive. We lived under not just criminals, but crazy criminals."

Ali’s father, who worked in the construction business and imported aluminum and lead piping before operating a hotel, was imprisoned briefly in a round-up of all the lead importers after one of them was jailed because of his ties to a trade and industry minister. Even after his release, Ali’s father lived in fear that he would be locked up at anytime. Twice, he fled his home – once, to Syria for three months.

"Just yesterday, I was talking to my mother and she was complaining that the Americans had not fixed the electricity, the security, and that nothing was getting better," Ali said Sunday. "I told her we were patient for 35 years. Now we are free. We have to give the Americans some time. It is not easy to fix everything. My father laughed and said now I am talking like an American."

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Yesterday marked the end of two weeks in Baghdad. I no longer flinch at the sound of gunfire that sounds as if it’s coming from just below my balcony. Restaurants and shops have re-opened, even though the electricity still sputters off and on.

Here at the al-Hamra hotel, just south across the Tigris from Saddam’s Republican Palace, we are lucky to have a working restaurant and room service - such as it is - for when you have to eat and file at the same time. They have even filled the swimming pool, which beckons when the dusty afternoons reach 42 celsius..

When I arrived, it was quieter and no one ventured out at night, but in general, the city didn’t feel like a war zone. Reporters didn’t seem to be using their heavy protective armor. There were specific places where you could see the rubble left by heavy bombing and each government ministry was either bombed or burned by looters, but Baghdad appeared functional.

Now I see that the longer you stay, the more pain and damage you see.

Sometimes it’s behind a wall, as with the posters of the missing and the lists of the executed that are posted by the Committee of Free Prisoners on the inside garden wall of the former home of a Republican Guard.

Sometimes it’s in a conversation, as when a squatter who’s been evicted from her home tells you she cannot afford bananas – which cost mere cents - for her two children. Or when her neighbor, a retired engineer, begins to cry as he tells you how he was tortured with electric shocks.

Sometimes it’s closer to home, as with the lantern-lit memorial service held on a fifth-floor rooftop of our hotel in memory of Elizabeth Neuffer, the Boston Globe reporter killed along with her translator when her driver smashed into a guardrail near Tikrit.

Yesterday, my driver decided to speed through a waterlogged street near a water main break. I was worried about hydroplaning but the greater danger turned out to be that Hassan flooded a nearby car with open windows. Four angry men pulled up next to us, shouting and waving their fists. My first thought was wondering whether they had guns, but I didn’t find out because Hassan dodged down a side street and then circled back another way. I didn’t know whether to be angry with him or thank him for his evasive moves.