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Under Siege: An Editor in Iraq

A former Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post describes the obstacles he faced in war-torn Iraq

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran - October 11, 2006

Hear the author speak October 25 at mediabistro.com's panel discussion War Reporting from the Frontlines: How Journalists Grapple with Covering Iraq

It's only 60 miles, I whispered to myself in a vain attempt at self-assuagement as I settled into our driver's Mercedes. An hour was all it would take to get from Hilla to Baghdad. So what if the road ahead was known as the Highway of Death? My Washington Post colleague, a photographer, was disguised in a head-to-ankle black abaya, and I figured my swarthy complexion would make me inconspicuous. A guard, toting a fully automatic AK-47, would be following at a discreet distance in another car. And besides, I reminded myself, we had driven the road that morning with nary an incident.

In the morning, though, we had been brought down from Baghdad by a prominent tribal sheik. Resplendent in a gold-fringed robe, he ensured our free passage through police checkpoints that everyone knew were infiltrated with insurgent spies on the lookout for foreigners. The insurgents wouldn't dare whack a car with a sheik. It would spark a tribal blood feud that would make American military operations seem tame.

But now we were on our own. The sheik was not making the return journey. What if the insurgents at checkpoints were not fooled by our appearance?

Halfway through the trip that afternoon in June 2004, my fears came true. Just as the guard's car got boxed behind a slow-moving truck, Omar, our intrepid driver, noticed that we were being followed. It was a gray Opel sedan, a favorite vehicle of insurgents because the back seat folds down, allowing easy access to weapons stored in the trunk.

Omar sped up. So did the Opel. Omar moved to the right lane and slowed. So did the Opel. Omar weaved through the traffic. So did the Opel. We're toast, I thought. Then, a moment later, Omar found a break in the traffic and gunned his engine. The speedometer nearly maxed out as we sped forward. Tires squealed. He jerked onto a side road to lose our pursuers. We held our breath.

The next morning, we realized how lucky we had been: Baghdad's largest newspaper reported that 17 people had been murdered on the same stretch of highway the day before.

I opened my map, dog-eared from repeated trips. Every other major artery out of the capital was already too dangerous to travel. North to Mosul, west to Ramadi, northeast to Baqubah, southeast to Kut and Basra -- all had turned into "red routes," in the parlance of security specialists. The capital itself was a patchwork of red (no-go) zones and yellow (proceed with extreme caution) zones surrounding the American-controlled green zone. With the highway to Hilla now a shooting gallery, there would be no more forays to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to visit Shiite leaders. We were trapped in Baghdad.

I retreated to my room at the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel in a funk. The rest of my work in Hilla, the city that has sprouted around ancient Babylon, would have to be done by remote control. I'd have to send out Iraqis to ask questions of people I wanted to meet in person. I'd have to talk to others over the phone -- if I could get through. And I'd have to remain cooped up at the Sheraton, a decrepit concrete monstrosity that was fast becoming my San Quentin.

When I arrived in Baghdad on April 10, 2003, the day after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein's government, I could go anywhere in relative safety, even to Fallujah and Tikrit. No guards. No flak jackets. No convoys. I could talk to almost anyone, even former Baathists. I scrawled "PRESS" on the side of my car and told everyone I met that I worked for the Washington Post. The inevitable response was a smile and a conversation. After decades of repression, everyone wanted to tell their stories.

During the following months, as insurgent attacks became more frequent, the carefree attitude gave way to a growing wariness. At the time, I was less worried about kidnapping than I was about getting caught in crossfire or being mistaken for a private American defense contractor. I convinced my bosses to buy me a $90,000 armored Jeep Cherokee, which I promptly took to Baghdad's Sadr City slum. Sixty dollars later, the shiny silver paint was sandblasted off and taxi decals were affixed to the sides.

That camouflage worked for a while, but when contractors started doing the same thing, I gave up on the armored SUV and got back in Omar's soft-skinned Mercedes. As the months passed, the danger mounted. In late 2003, I was in the Baghdad Hotel when it was car-bombed. Had the window behind me not been covered with Mylar film, I would have been diced with glass shards. A few weeks later, on a drive back from Hilla, Omar and I passed what we thought was a traffic accident. Two cars were on fire. Dozens of people were milling in the road. As we drove by, the mob appeared to be celebrating. When we returned to Baghdad, we learned why: The burned corpses we saw on the road were those of seven Spanish intelligence agents who had been ambushed moments earlier.

By early 2004, my ability to travel had become increasingly circumscribed. When I left Iraq in late September, ending an 18-month stint as the Post's bureau chief in Baghdad, the country was under siege -- and so were the Western journalists there.

The inability to travel, to see Iraq with my own eyes, to talk to people directly, was maddening. As a foreign correspondent, I should have been searching for truth on the ground, fact-checking the claims of the American military, the Iraqi government and the insurgents. Instead, I was crawling up the walls of my hotel room.

If there were not so many U.S. troops in Iraq, newspaper editors and television executives would have pulled their correspondents from Iraq months ago as their counterparts in Europe did. But Iraq is still the biggest foreign story these days. Nobody wants to be the first to bail out.

Keeping journalists in Baghdad who cannot work as journalists perpetrates the myth that we know what's really happening there – and, that stories go untold because of political bias. I've been slammed in private emails and public op-ed pieces for not writing enough good-news stories. I've also been taken to task for not doing more to follow up on the civilian toll from U.S. military operations. The truth is that I would have loved to have written more stories that fell into either category – and, I suspect most other American journalists would have, too -- but doing that was either impossible (because of the dearth of good news beyond the renovation of yet another school) or wildly dangerous (such as driving into Fallujah to examine the results of the latest "precision" air strike). The unfortunate reality is that American newspaper readers and television viewers are exposed to only a small slice of what's occurring in Iraq, despite the best efforts of the correspondents there.

My near-miss trip to Hilla in June was to interview Farqad Qizwini, a liberal, politically independent Shiite cleric who has been trying to challenge the dominance of conservative Shiite political parties. He runs a large religious school where students read an Arabic translation of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and are exposed to a variety of religions, including Judaism. Some might call it a good-news story. Because the U.S. occupation administration failed to give Qizwini a spot on Iraq's Governing Council, others might regard it as an example of flawed American policy.

Readers never saw the piece. Sending my Iraqi staff to finish the reporting wasn't good enough. Nor was talking on the phone. I needed to see Qizwini again, to spend another day with him.

But I wasn't going to risk the Highway of Death one more time.

[This essay originally appeared in Stanford magazine.]

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is the author of the recently released book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. Currently an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, he served as the Post's bureau chief in Baghdad from April 2003 to October 2004.

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