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Back in Baghdad, the differences abound
The last time I flew into Baghdad airport was in January 1991. It was just before the cruise missile attacks on the city at the start of the operation to retake Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupying forces. I came by commercial flight again this week, but to a different Iraq. It’s an Iraq where Saddam-era tyranny has been decentralised, messianic U.S. policy experimentation has fallen flat on its face and violence, crime and hardship are the bedrock of ordinary existence.
How you arrive affects your opinion of a city. In 1991 I was picked up by my driver, Haji Qata, whose job was to steer me away from stories and inform on me to Saddam’s secret police when necessary. He drove me to the relative comfort of the Al Rasheed hotel, a prime vantage point when the bombing began. When I arrived in April 2003 it was in the back of a U.S. Marine armoured personnel carrier that had been both home and transport during three weeks of mobile warfare along the road from Kuwait to Baghdad.
This time I needed an armed escort that travelled at speed into the city, along a highway lined with concrete blast walls and sniper screens, bouncing over the ruts left by roadside attacks launched from rival sectarian suburbs. Baghdad is not less militarised than in 2003 when the invasion force swept through the city, blowing up armaments dumped in city parks. Iraqi police, local security guards, militia forces and U.S. military swarm the streets. Helicopters thud across the skies. The effect is unnerving rather than reassuring. The security blanket has stifled street warfare in recent months, I’m told, but the threat of kidnap, criminal or sectarian, remains vivid.
In 1991 large sections of Baghdad, a city of seven million people, were off-limits to foreigners; secret districts were reserved for Saddam and his Baathist elite working in ministries and palaces behind high walls and screens of palm trees. Now the foreigners have the privileges. We drove through elaborate systems of roadblocks into the Green Zone, the vast section of the city walled off to ordinary Iraqis and reserved for politicians, civil servants and the legions of expatriates who sustain the foreign military endeavour here. The U.S. embassy is housed in a former Republican Guard palace built in chintzy opulence, all mirrored tiles, gilt door panels and marble. Military hospitals, private security armies, helicopter airports and large Saddamite monuments are enclosed within the walls of this Forbidden City. Five years of bruising reversals have sucked some of the fantastical arrogance out of the occupiers of this Oz, so memorably described by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” But on a first view the scale of the enclosure shocked me.
I came to Baghdad to visit the Reuters bureau, across the Tigris River from the Green Zone. Our reporting operation is big and complex. To deliver the story we feed, house and keep safe a half-dozen international staff and dozens of Iraqi reporters, cameramen and photographers. We occupy half a street of housing. To function efficiently we live “off the grid,” generating our own power, cooking our own food and pumping water from our own well. We have protection that would be the envy of most military bases. Walls of concrete slabs line the streets to protect the houses from mortar blasts or predatory human attack. Windows are sandbagged. Guards sit in watchtowers. Vast steel gates and bomb search bays block each end of our street.
Why are we still making such an effort to be here, now that it is quieter than in the bloody years of 2006 and 2007? Firstly because the quiet is fragile, with combatants still to be fully convinced politics will achieve more than violence. But more importantly we are here because this is the 21st century’s inaugural war. It’s a conflict that will redefine the Middle East’s sectarian and religious context, sharpening divisions, distracting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and laying treacle in the path of social and political progress. This war will shape American policy for years by tempering the appetite for ambitious, ideologically-driven foreign adventures. It has imposed a huge cost on America’s image of itself and been a ruinous expense for Washington. In our globalised world the fiscal extravagance has had a ripple effect, touching distant economies and imposing a price on those who had no say in the war’s waging. The law of unintended consequences has applied in spades to a conflict that President Bush said would bring democracy and peace. Governments fell, militants were inflamed, terrorism raged and thousands of avoidable deaths have been suffered.
Reuters has also paid a heavy price in terms of lives. Seven of our colleagues have died in Iraq, six of them as the result of U.S. fire. Our staff have been beaten, abused and detained without trial for months. Working as a journalist in Iraq is still obscenely dangerous. The burden falls mostly on our Iraqi staff, who venture out to report and film. During my time here, in what was described as an “ordinary” week, one of our Iraqi cameramen was detained by police at a checkpoint and another left his house in a provincial town because a death threat was pinned to his front gate. Many of our Iraqi colleagues have sent their families abroad to safety and have abandoned their homes because they were in religiously fraught areas or the commute took them through hostile terrain. I have written elsewhere about the gloom I have felt over our losses. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has rightly called the Iraq war the deadliest conflict for journalists in recent history. They believe 126 journalists and 50 media support workers have been killed since the conflict began on March 20, 2003. There are many reasons for this. Looming large among them is that the journalistic neutrality assumed in other wars is no longer accorded to reporters by combatants in this conflict. We are seen as partisan, as propagandists and as participants.
There is a good team spirit in the Reuters office, despite these difficulties. The city, while tense, is not as grim as before. Outside in the spring sunshine, children are playing in a riverside park and restaurants are preparing meals of barbecued mazgouf, a carp-like fish that is a Baghdad speciality. The government has constructed a zone for carefree relaxation by blocking off roads leading to the riverfront and filtering traffic through strict searches. It has a Potemkin quality but is welcomed, nonetheless, by Baghdadis. In the restaurants foreigners would be dining out at their peril. Abu Ali, our office cook, is preparing mazgouf for us tonight, but we’ll be eating it behind our blast walls.
Sean Maguire is Editor, Political and General News at Reuters