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.