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.