Wednesday, July 07, 2004

With translator Ali Abbass, driver Hassan Abdul Razak, June 30, 2003 (photo by Carl Juste).

Baghdad International Airport approach Oct. 10, 2003.

Covering Sunni-Shia unity demonstration in Kadhimiya (photo by Carl Juste).

Celebrating the Dec. 14, 2003 announcement of the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Baha'a, one of our translators, interviews a victim of the Baya'a Police Station bombing in October 2003.

Just south of Mosul, a patrol known as the Sheikh Force tries to guard against sabotage to pipelines and electricity networks. January 2004.

Erbil province from a 101st Airborne Division Blackhawk helicopter. January 2004.

Tombs stretch into the distance at the ancient Najaf Cemetery, reportedly the largest in the Middle East, and where most Shia hope to be buried.

Beda'a Habem squats in the home of a former Republican Guard soldier; when he came back for his property, she turned him in to nearby US soldiers.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

I’ve been back from Baghdad nearly three months now. Several weeks ago I got some shocking news that took me right back.

One of the Knight Ridder Washington editors called to say that a Knight Ridder translator had been murdered, shot up in a car near his family’s home in the middle of the night, along with his toddler daughter and his mother. He’s the husband of another KR translator who several of us have worked with and are close to.

“What a country,” my husband said, after expressing the same shock and sympathy I felt.

I said that it seemed to run on revenge.

Some military leaders get this. But judging by their official statements, some coalition officials seem oblivious to the deep and widespread anger and humiliation that many ordinary Iraqis feel. The other day there was a story about US intelligence admitting they were facing a broad-based Shia revolt and not just the ire of firebrand cleric Moqtadr Sadr and Saddam loyalists. Anyone on the ground could have said the same, months ago.

I wonder to what extent the decision-makers took all this into consideration when they concluded the only way to stamp out the insurgency was to clamp down hard, which has sometimes meant targeting the wrong families. I don’t have the prescription, but I wish those in charge had got out more and met ordinary Iraqis and “nationality Iraqis,” people who want the occupiers out, sometimes for religious reasons and sometimes for political reasons.

Some ordinary Iraqis would have sanctioned a get tough strategy. Many still blame the Americans for turning a blind eye to wholesale looting after the fall of Baghdad. They lecture Americans about the need to rule with an iron fist. But many Iraqis would have advised bringing on board more local experts, including more Sunnis; turning to actual leaders and technocrats rather than exiles; and treating people with respect.

Late last month, I turned down a third trip to Baghdad. My father was in the hospital. And Knight Ridder would have wanted to send someone who was going to stay with the company. I've decided to take a job at the Washington Post.

A KR colleague, veteran foreign correspondent Carol Rosenberg, recently described her thinking before approaching Falluja after four Americans were ambushed, killed and their mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets. She waited until 24 hours after the incident. The photographers stayed behind. She befriended a local resident on the outskirts first, then he jumped in her car and they went together to visit friends of his. Only then did she think about approaching US military or local politicians seen to be in the pocket of the Americans. I’ll miss the Mercury News and Knight Ridder and all the great people I worked with.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

After 14 weeks in Baghdad, I’m at the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, about to dig into some pad thai noodles, deep fried marinated beef and strawberry and chocolate ice cream. I’m enjoying this.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Rome for two days. Then home to New York. I haven’t slept in my own bed since Oct. 6. But I know from my last trip to Iraq that I will miss Baghdad.

I’ll think about the story for weeks. I’ll miss all the great people I worked with. I’ll wish I had more time to finish all my story ideas. And I’ll wonder about the repercussions as the Americans make concessions left and right as they run for the exits.

For now, though, I’m remembering a mid-way break in Jordan in November, when I was given a different perspective on things by bringing my Iraqi translator, Ali, 21, and my Iraqi driver, Hassan, 23, from Baghdad.

They had never traveled outside their country. They didn’t have passports. They spent a week’s salary to pay for their hotel room. They were astounded at the prices Westerners paid for things.

Journalists ride out from Baghdad in GMC convoys that now cost anywhere between $350 to $500 per vehicle. My translator and driver paid $50 to get to Amman and thought what we were charged was offensive.

They obtained travel documents from the nationality office in Karada before the trip. The government has stopped issuing these now, and it’s again difficult for ordinary Iraqis without coalition business and connections to travel outside the country.

But even with official permission, crossing the Jordanian border was nearly heart-stopping for Hassan, who worried for days before the trip that he would never be allowed to cross.

“There are 42 cars ahead of us in line,” Hassan wrote in a journal he kept of the journey. “Maybe they will deny me entry. Our driver is filling his car every five minutes with the extra benzene (gasoline) he brought so that none of it will be thrown out by the Jordanian customs officials. What a silly regulation.

“I see an Iraqi passenger ahead of us who is kicked out. He wants to know the reason but all he receives is a blow on the back of his neck. ‘Go away,’ the man says. The officer calls me next. I am almost completely trembling. ‘Why do you want to go to Amman?’ the officer asks.

“Ali answers. He tells them we are working with an American journalist and we have a eight-day vacation to spend in Amman. The officer looks at me and says, ‘What about you guy, are you working with the British media?’ He is laughing but I can barely answer. “Okay, you can enter,’ he says finally. Thanks be to God, we are through.’’

Ali told me later that the officer asked him where they were staying. The Four Seasons, Ali said, pulling out a business card for our travel agent in case the man wanted proof. He didn’t.

At one hotel, the front desk accused Hassan and Ali of taking bottled water from the minibar, despite their denials. I know they didn't take a thing, because I showed them the minibar prices which were enough to convince them not to even open the fridge. But the accusation went over badly, as we all agreed the hotel probably would never have argued with any other foreign guest over a $1.00 bottle of water.

Everywhere they went, Hassan and Ali asked Jordanians what they thought about Iraqis and what they thought about Saddam. Nationalism was sort of a theme. Lots of Jordanians told them they adored Saddam and were sorry about the war.

Everyone seemed to agree that there are tensions because many Iraqis who come to Amman arrive without job prospects, live in poor neighborhoods and some become thieves. And many Jordanians studied in Iraq for free under Saddam Hussein, enjoyed special benefits and some looked down on their Iraqi classmates.

But everyone also agreed there were many, many exceptions to all this. There are Iraqis in the richest neighborhoods in Amman and plenty of cross-cultural friendships, the Jordanian taxi drivers said.

“We talked in general about Arab governments,” Ali said, translating after one lengthy, animated discussion in Arabic. “None of the Arab people can understand the politics of his government. And the Jordanians are telling us, ‘Don’t think if you see on TV that the Americans came to Iraq to build a well-developed democracy. Don’t believe it. Iraq will never be cured.’ ’’

In the beginning, Hassan and Ali were convinced that there was nothing they could possibly want in Amman. Almost everything you saw in Amman, you could get in Baghdad, only cheaper, they said.

But this wasn’t true. Hassan, who is a bit of a shopaholic, went on a spree in Aqaba, a special economic zone and port on the Red Sea where there is no sales tax and where fleets of shiny new cars await mostly Iraqi buyers.

After weeks of nonstop chicken scallop, chicken kebab, chicken fried rice, humus and fatoush in Baghdad, I couldn’t wait to order from the Thai and Italian restaurants in the Four Seasons Amman.

But Hassan thought Thai food was too sweet. He thought the squid in seafood salad tasted like plastic.

So he and Ali ordered takeout from McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, both so far unavailable in Baghdad. They brought it back to the hotel and happily ignored room service, except for ice cream.

By the time we reached Wadi Rum, a red earth moonscape south of Petra, both of them were a bit spoiled. We had our own private tents in the desert but the mattresses were soft.

“This is difficult Maureen,” Hassan said. “I am used to the Four Seasons.”

They had never camped under the stars before, nor driven into the desert in a four wheel drive land rover that followed no visible road. Nor driven around wasting gas just to look for a good vantage point to watch the sun set.

Petra was a learning experience.

“Why do we need three hours,” Hassan asked when I told him I was going to spend two days visiting the famous Nabataen city of tombs and facades carved out of rock. In the end, after riding a camel, a horse and a donkey, and after climbing hundreds of steps to admire a view of the entire site, both pronounced themselves satisfied with having spent two days looking at rock.

But Ali said it was reasonable that ordinary Iraqis – given the chance to travel - would not think first of historic ruins and museums and cultural sites.

Instead, they would think first of more concrete comparisons with home, of where and how to buy a car more cheaply than in Baghdad, for example, so they could make money.

“This is Saddam’s legacy. He destroyed our ability to appreciate these things. We will think only of how to make a living,” Ali said.

Both Hassan and Ali were also startled to see in Aqaba how close Israel was to both Jordan and Saudi Arabia. After all these years of listening to speeches about Israel being the enemy, able to launch missile strikes into the Arab homeland, it was strange and unsettling to see it up close and seemingly in coexistence, at least here at the edge of the Red Sea.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Most men you see here are constantly fingering prayer beads or worry beads known as sebha.

They can cost anywhere from $1 to $600 and come in just as many varieties of stone and material and color.

If they have 33 beads or 101 beads, they are prayer beads.

One of the more popular prayers in Islam requires three phrases to be repeated 33 times. The three phrases praise God, thank God and call him the greatest (The 101-bead sebhas are simply three sets of 33 beads separated by two small stones).

My translator, Saleem Khalaf, was working a string of 45 beads all afternoon after I asked him to track down some of his friends who are members of the Mukhabarat or former intelligence service.

In this case, it was a sebha not for prayer but for "ordinary things, to try and make use of time, to busy myself while I am thinking."

Some people hang strings of larger wood or marble beads on the wall to keep away envy.

Other times, people like to advertise their wealth with luxurious strands of coral or zumurrud, an expensive pink stone that comes from Yemen.

"Sometimes we are proud of having luxurious beads, for example, kahrab, which is a semi-precious yellow stone that gives off a good smell when you rub it," Saleem said. "It reflects the sun's rays and gives off light."

Kahrab, in Arabic, means electricity.

Saleem is less worried about finding interview subjects in my remaining days and more pensive thinking about the future of his country.

He has a PhD in Arabic rhetoric and has already fought with his family about a lucrative offer to go teach in Yemen (he turned it down to stay and help rebuild his country).

Saleem is concerned about the apparent increase in sectarian conflict. The other day he helped me arrange an interview with Mustansiriya University language professor Abdul Rahman, who touched on the problem:

"The main problem we're facing today in our society is that Iraqis can't accept other opinions. Those who oppose my political point of view, they're considered my enemy. And this is a result of Saddam's policies, because he was ready to get rid of everyone who opposed his ideas," Rahman said.

Saleem, 36, agreed.

"We often try to beautify bad things, but if we keep doing this, we will never solve anything. Most of us think of Baghdad when we think of Iraq but when you go to different governates you see there's no interaction between different ethnic and religious groups and even political parties.

"When political parties try and recruit members they do so on the basis of their tribal connections rather than using any party platform, The Communist party is actually one of the best in the country when it comes to organization - it doesn't depend on tribes, they have their own political ideas. But they are often rejected by Iraqis who prefer family or religious ties and who are basically unbelievers.

"And tribes focus on quantity rather than quality. They try to win people over in the shortest amount of time, they don't educate people politically. They're not teaching people principles to believe in to rebuild the country. They don't have the organizational skills to divide their members into groups that can educate each other.

Saleem is a lecturer in translation at Mustansiriya University, a former Iraqi journalist and a former Ba'athist. His younger brother was executed under Saddam but Saleem's wife is a Sunni from Ramadi and still grieves for Saddam. Her brother in law is a secret policeman now in Abu Ghraib prison.

"A lot of these parties took the finest buildings available after the fall of Baghdad," he said. "It was hard for them to convince the public afterwards that they were interested in the people of Iraq. It looked like they were only interested in plundering Iraq of its best villas and buildings and cars.

"Before the war no one dared be in anything but the Ba'ath Party.

"Now these parties are no better, offering money or jobs to get people to join. And they're less well organized than the Ba'ath. The parties also promise protection to people who are currently targeted - Ba'athists for example - and a new cover.

"Now, because of the distribution of the 25 government ministers, who were appointed along political party lines by the 25 members of the US-appointed Governing Council, each ministry is seen as the province of a political party, ripe for patronage, rather than working for the good of Iraq."

The Interior Ministry, for example, is seen as belonging to the Iraqi National Accord led by council member Ayad Allawi. His brother in law, Noori Badran is minister.

The Health Ministry has ties to the Dawa or Call Party led by council member Ibrahim al Jafari.

Housing and Construction has ties to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq led by Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

And Foreign Minister Hoshar Zebari is from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and appointed by council member Jalal Talabani.

Everyone at the ministry, from the minster to the guards, seem to be Kurds, Saleem said.

"That's why the future seems bleak to me."

Friday, January 09, 2004

These days, everyone talks about how Iraq isn’t ready for democracy. At least Western-style democracy. Maybe it just doesn’t fit, culturally.

Democracy takes time and an educated population, they say. Iraq needs a strong leader, they say. You can’t just come in, remove Saddam and tell people who have been suppressed for more than 30 years: “you’re free.”

Iraqis want to a say in their future, yes, and many dislike the US-appointed Governing Council and want direct elections. But they don’t actually tell reporters they want democracy. No one actually says they want free speech, the right to assembly, a bill of rights and equal rights for all (Except maybe some of the US-appointed Governing Council members, many of whom could not get elected if they were the only candidate on the ballot).

In places like Najaf, the holy shrine city in the Shia-dominated south, what they mean is they want the right to practice Islam the way they could not under Saddam. And they want the Hawza, the council of senior religious scholars, to rule.

Everyone is afraid of the next group. In the Triangle, they’re afraid of the Shia. In the South, they’re convinced there’s no such thing as a moderate Sunni. In the North, Arabs blame the Kurds for all their ills and the Kurds are talking about their own autonomy.


Playing cards featuring Saddam and the rest of the Most Wanted Gang are $5.95 online back home. They’re harder to find in Baghdad but all over Amman for 1 Jordanian dinar, or about $1.40. No one wants them, though. My taxi driver in Amman loves Saddam and is sad because, as he puts it, Saddam was the one man who could have united the Arab world and faced down Israel.

My translator, Saleem Khalaf, is a Shi’ite whose brother was executed by Saddam. Saleem has a PhD from Mustansiriya University in Arabic rhetoric and teaches translation. He worked before the war as a fixer for the Daily Telegraph of London. He was a Ba’ath party member but was being investigated and threatened with prison for not reporting his brother’s execution to the party and for daring to arrange a funeral for his own brother. He has every reason to hate Saddam. You’d think his mother would too, but she still cries for Saddam, even though she lost a son. “The Iraqi people they are very complex,” Saleem says. “Sometimes they are saying one thing and doing another.” And so many of the younger generation have been brainwashed, he says.


I'm out of here in about a week. Even though the pace has slowed somewhat since the capture of Saddam, there are still so many stories to do and not enough hours in the day. There are so many different strands in my brain these days, pulling them all together before I leave will be a challenge.

It will have been more than 14 weeks away from home by the time I land at JFK.

Friday, January 02, 2004

One Iraqi observer’s theory about Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, the head of the Iraqi police, is that he’s definitely interested in running for office.

Ibrahim showed us photos of himself fighting fires, holding up a large hose to embolden the supposedly more reticient cops and firefighters around him. His style is a lot like Saddam’s.

He’s Sunni, very tall, and carries himself regally. He surrounds himself with bodyguards and has been consolidating his support among tribal sheikhs. A lot like Saddam.

He has a perfect black mustache, darker than the rest of his hair. He’s a former police lieutenant who took care of Uday’s horses until, the story goes, he allegedly stole two of them. Uday threatened to kill him and he fled Iraq. Now he’s back and some people think he’s a hero.

His office looks like a stage, with blue velvet curtains behind his desk, trimmed with gold fringe. There are plastic flowers and a large flag on either side.

More and more people these days say they want a strong leader, someone with an iron grip who can control the lawlessness here. Ibrahim thinks capital punishment is needed.

At an awards luncheon at the Hamra hotel earlier this month, he was asked whether he would fight to bring back the death penalty for convicted criminals.

“We hope that the death penalty will return but the Americans reject it for now,” he said. “Let me give you an example. A month ago, we got information about a gang of kidnappers in the al-Sadoun area. They kept women and children in a small room on the roof of a safe house and tortured them. They pulled the nails of the women and they hit them with an iron stick. When we went there, a fight occurred between us and some of them were killed. Two of them were captured. I hit one of them, resulting in a wound on his face.”

“Later on, in the Police Department, one of the Americans saw the man I hit and asked me ‘Why did you do that?’ I said ‘Look at what he did to these women and children.’ He said ‘Yes I know, but now he’s arrested, so that’s a violation of human rights.’ So, we are thinking in different ways. Maybe the death penalty will return in the future.”

Coming to Baghdad Today?

You can get almost everything you need here now but good gift ideas that Iraqis appreciate include: Digital cameras. Terrycloth bathrobes. Books and CDs. The latest magazines. Fragrance. Imported brand name cigarettes, which are stronger than the ones they buy here.

It’s cold: you need layers, sweaters, long underwear, boots, hat and gloves. If you want any clothes at home copied, say a pair of trekking pants with special pockets, this is a good place to do it.

Everyone brings medicine for diarrhea but they forget standard cold remedies, aspirin and vitamins. Pharmacies here are great but they don’t stock the brands you’re used to.

There is good, strong Arabic and Turkish coffee here in addition to the ubiquitous Nescafe, but coffee aficionados might want to bring their own ground beans. Beef jerky. Swiss chocolate. Gourmet cookies.

AC/DC converters or adaptors. Rechargeable AA batteries and a battery charger. A CD burner in your laptop. You can never have enough digital music.

An open attitude and a lot of patience.

And, as the bombings continue, a healthy respect for not just security precautions but your own sense of risk.