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Back in Baghdad, the differences abound

By Sean Maguire
February 14, 2008

US military helicopter flys over the Baghdad Green Zone 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.

The author at the entrance to the Reuters Baghdad bureau

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.

A guard outside the Reuters Baghdad bureau, which is protected by concrete blast walls

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


What do you expect, Mr. Reporter? We cannot be everywhere at once. However it is safe to say that you are right. There is alot of improvement and there is a chance for Baghdad, and all of Iraq. All we need is for the Iraqis to learn to take care of themselves as a nation, not individually. Maybe I am wrong, but from being here 15 months, that is what I have concluded.

Posted by PFC Andy T | Report as abusive

Its dangerous for everyone! Sadly, these people cannot look past thier own petty differences. Sometimes it is really tough on morale.

Posted by James S | Report as abusive

you are sean. iraq is still a dangerous place. i have been there recently and gosh. looks like a war zone.

Posted by rocky james | Report as abusive

“Petty differences”? For several centuries 100s of thousands died in Europe in wars fought over whether or not “life everlasting” could be bought and sold. Wars were fought over who’s side God was on. Heritics that recanted and swore allegiance to the one true church were summarily hanged. This was considered giving them a break. They were insured of inheriting life everlasting by dying while still believing in the God of their tormentors. Those not recanting of course were burned alive. This heritage gives America the high moral ground. The 3 distinct ethnic groups in the made up country of Iraq do not have petty differences just a different time line for emerging from the 17th century. The War has bankrupted the United States. Will 60 million boomers give up their Medicare and SS and flush it down the drain in Iraq? The US dollar is collapsing, down more than 30% since the start of the war, oil prices have more than doubled. $100 dollars worth of pre’82 pennies contain over $150 worth of copper. We have created 4 million refugees in Iraq. Half have fled the country for their lives. We are creating 4 million home foreclosures in America. As usual the poorest least well off of our society have paid and are paying the bill in blood and economic hardship for the misdeeds of the arrogant fool who created the whole mess. His henchmen Ben the Dollar Slayer and the Treasury Secretary Paulson were embarrassing themselves before Congress again this week. The financial markets promptly sold off on their bad news and bad news testimony. The worst is yet to come as we have to cope with over 100,000 collaborators when we leave Iraq. They may be good to bring to the US for asylum. It is their children that we will be dealing with in another 20 years, exercising their 2nd amendment rights jumping out of the azaela bushes where some prominent citizens are teeing off, Screaming ALI North, Akbar and unloading his magazine.


I liked your story and views. As you know, it is a horrible place. Yes, there has been significant improvement. But, it is an unpredictable and uncertain place. I guess I ask: why do we have to do this clean up “job” virtually by ourselves; w/ the obvious help of the coalition members. Perhaps more countries should be involved. Yes, some countries are involved in their own way, but in what seems like a detached, peripheral way.

This should probably be a UN mission.

This is my opinion., I wanted to submit this reminder however. It is important that we remember: those that were there and those that are there. May a peaceful end arrive soon, so we can build up America in the many ways our country requires help. Thanks for reading and your time. Enjoy

A Soldier’s Request to Remember

We have seen things both great and horrific. Some we well understand, others are beyond our comprehension. By the grace of God, Faith, our diligent skills, and persistent attitude, we return home to America alive to tell our heroic tale. We were led by heroism and by example and called to focus on our duty and get the job done. Our deeds and sacrifices are now a part of History. Now is a time to heal, but not forget; a time to enjoy the company of family and friends and the familiarity of our surroundings.

This is also a time to pause and remember, recalling those who no longer can share all of this with us. They are with us still, as their memory becomes part of ours. Stories are told and fondnesses recalled. For them, we must grieve, but also, we must live.

Let us not disregard what we learned while we were deployed as we keep in mind the ones who take our place. Their struggle begins, and in a way, so does ours. Be proud of who you are and what you did over there. Of course, we walk in the footsteps of other great women and men as new soldiers ready themselves to someday leave their footprints in foreign soil.

Display your American flags with pride and wrap a yellow ribbon around some near by tree. Do not yet take down those yellow ribbons ‘until it’s over, over there.’

Take pride in the role you played. Someday, people will remember the differences we made. No matter where Life takes you from here, know what you did was important and, always remember that you were there.

SPC Charles A. Mazzarella
US Army


Since Reuters and others will no doubt spend great effort announcing the 4,000 US soldier death in Iraq (you are already warming up), please give the accurate account of those lost for the sake of accuracy, if nothing else. You repeatedly use the term ‘killed’ to describe all deaths, when, in fact, over 10 percent of those deaths are due to causes other than hostile action. I wouldn’t want anyone to think you had an agenda other than reporting the facts. You might also find time to compare the death rates in the US military with the death rates of other military who aren’t even involved in conflict, as well as that of the US military in peace time under the ‘enlightened command’ of the Noble Prize winning James Earl Carter. The sacrifices should be honored, not manipulated in an effort to portray it as futile or misguided. At least stick to the facts, for once.

Posted by Gene | Report as abusive

Thank you for this report. I sift through the media information looking for the real current story of Iraq. One does not see much through the media and one wonders if it is the truth or not. Americans have a right to know what is happening there and I feel you have presented an honest account.

Again, thank you.

Drew G.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

Wow, great article, I don’t think the ceasefire will hold for long. Those guys are rearming now. They were waiting out for the cold winter in the north to end. These insurgents are trained to fight in the desert and in cold times Iraqis don’t fight much. They also needed time and money to rearm and we gave them exactly that. I can bet that there will be more attacks on US forces in the coming months and we better be prepared to face that. Baghdad once was a great city, like the old saying goes “All good things must come to and end” Baghdad is doomed. It is better for anyone who is there who love life to get the hell out of that place.


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