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.