Past and present: a correspondent in Iraq

October 9, 2009

Tim Cocks-Tim Cocks is a Reuters correspondent in Iraq.-

This month we reported that the number of civilians dying violent deaths in Iraq had hit a fresh low since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — about 125 for September.

Sounds like a lot, but for a country that only two years ago was seeing dozens of bodies pile up in the streets each day from tit-for-tat sectarian killing, it was definitely progress.

And as I prepare to end my assignment in Iraq this week, I need no argument from numbers to convince me that things are better here than when I arrived in Feb. 2008.

During my first few months, militants loyal to to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were raising hell in Baghdad, firing mortars and rockets at the Green Zone almost every hour. We could hear or feel them thud on impact, especially when they fell short, on our side of the Tigris.

A rocket hit the BBC building opposite us, causing a blast loud enough to shake our windows, although thankfully no one at the BBC was hurt by the strike.

U.S. airstrikes on Baghdad’s Sadr City slum were killing many civilians. Roadside and car bombs were erupting all over the place and the streets were largely deserted after dark.

Eighteen months on and things are hardly back to normal but, as any Iraqi will tell you, Iraq feels safer than it was.

Security forces have been purged of Shi’ite militiamen and are doing a better job of stopping suicide bombings, enabling U.S. combat forces to largely pull out of Iraq’s cities in June.

We rarely hear explosions in Baghdad. A semblance of law and order seems to be taking shape.
Reporting from Iraq, as a Westerner or an Iraqi, has been a tough business for some time. For Westerners, apart from the fact that few foreign correspondents here speak passable Arabic, the big headache remains security.

Ever since insurgents started kidnapping Westerners and beheading them in 2004, the foreign press corps here have been living in a kind of semi-incarceration, behind rows of concrete blast walls that make you feel a bit like a lab rat in a maze.

It varies from media organisation to the next, but all of us are pretty restricted in our movements.
We generally keep a low profile, moving around Baghdad in low key armoured cars. We don’t wander the streets for long periods of time or frequent bars and nightclubs after work.

The assumption is that any Westerner is a prime target for kidnappers — for political reasons or for a juicy ransom.

And this is not to say there are no dangers to Iraqi media workers. More than 130 have died in violence since the beginning of the war.

Seven of our colleagues from Reuters have been killed in that time, most of them Iraqis.

Security restrictions have left us heavily dependent on dedicated local journalists who can visit places we cannot and help us cobble together stories we send to the wire.

That’s perhaps as it should be in a global news agency with strong local talent, but it’s hard not to miss roaming the streets as I would in almost any other country.

As a military correspondent, embedding with U.S. troops has been an experience, though it can hard to get the full picture that way — for instance, persuading a nervous bystander in the street to talk to you when you’re surrounded by heavily-armed American soldiers has proved a real challenge.

As security improves, our leash has been lengthened. I’ve been able to travel to places with that were once off-limits, like many parts of northern Iraq.

Will it continue getting better? No one can claim to know the answer to that question. Many Iraqis are pessimistic, as well they might be after decades of war, dictatorship, brutal sanctions and sectarian bloodshed. But since Iraq was pulled back from the brink in 2007, it has defied gloomy predictions.

But I’m reminded of comments by the head of the Red Cross Iraq delegation Juan-Pedro Schaerer about avoiding the temptation to write off Iraq’s persistent violence as “normal”.

This week, one of our journalists, Ahmed, was awoken in the middle of the night by loud gunshots.

Gunmen had stormed the house of his neighbour and family doctor, and shot him in the head. Ahmed took him to hospital, where he remains in critical condition. He may never walk or talk again.
Clearly, that feeling of nearly normality is fragile.

Related blog: A voice in the wilderness?

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