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Baghdad: The Besieged Press

The small Royal Jordanian Fokker F-28-4000, which makes daily trips to Baghdad, sits out on the tarmac away from the jetways as if some airport official feared it might prove to be an airborne IED (improvised explosive device, a US military acronym). Those of us on this hajj to the global epicenter of anti-Western and Islamic sectarian strife are an odd assortment of private security guards, military contractors, US officials, Iraqi businessmen, and journalists; a young man in a sweatshirt announces himself as part of the “Military Police K-9 Corps” (bomb-sniffing dogs).

The Baghdad International Airport terminal is full of armed guards and ringed by armored vehicles. I saw no buses or taxis awaiting arriving passengers. Almost everyone is “met.” I am picked up by The New York Times‘s full-time British security chief, who has come in a miniature motorcade of “hardened,” or bomb-proof, cars, escorted by several armed Iraqi guards in constant radio contact with each other.

As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural– urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere.

It starts on the way into Baghdad, the cluttered seven-mile gauntlet which has come to be known as Route Irish after the Fighting 69th “Irish” Brigade of the New York National Guard, which patrolled it after the invasion. Some also now call it Death Road, because so many attacks have occurred along its length. Now largely patrolled by Iraqi forces, it is not quite the firing range it used to be. But it is still the most nerve-racking trip from an airport that any traveler is likely to make.

Although pre-war Iraq had a relatively modern highway system, with multilane roads and overpasses, an occasional clover leaf, and even international standard green and white signs in both Arabic and English, it has been eroded by neglect, fighting, bombings, and tank treads which have ground up curbs and center dividers. Everywhere there is churned-up earth, trash and rubble, loops of razor wire draped with dirty plastic bags, decapitated palm trees, wrecked equipment, broken streetlights, and packs of roaming yellow dogs sniffing at piles of garbage, the perfect places for insurgents wishing to hide cell phone–triggered IEDs to greet the next passing convoy of patrolling American troops. Much of the roadside looks like a combat zone, even when it hasn’t been under attack.

Many of Baghdad’s main roads are a nightmare of traffic congestion. When American or Iraqi patrols of Humvees mounted with 50-caliber machine guns, M-1 Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pull onto a street, everything slows to a crawl. Signs tied on their tailgates warn in English and Arabic: “DANGER: STAY BACK!” Every driver gets the message. Failure to maintain one’s distance can draw fire.* And so, like a herd of cold and hungry animals fearful of getting too close to a campfire, traffic cringes behind such patrols, while frustrated drivers are left to wait, breathe one another’s exhaust, and curse the occupation.

It has not helped that when Saddam Hussein fell, almost all ordinary governmental activities—such as registering cars and issuing drivers’ licenses—ceased, and thousands of vehicles flooded the market in Iraq from other countries. Traffic lights rarely work since electric power is still sporadic; the only control comes from a few street cops who have been recently posted at key intersections to direct the relentless crush of vehicles. To make matters worse, after several attacks or bombings, the US military or the Iraqi government will often simply prop up a sign in the center of a main artery saying: “HAIFA STREET IS CODE RED! DON’T USE!” Moreover, as the city has become ever more violent and chaotic, people have begun blocking off streets on their own to create safety zones. Since there has been little law enforcement, there is no one to stop this private appropriation of public space.

At first people made themselves feel more secure after the invasion by piling sandbags along streets or in front of their houses and offices. But as suicide bombers began to proliferate and their explosive charges grew larger and more destructive, private defense efforts became more elaborate as well. The advent of the “blast wall” changed the Baghdad landscape.

Developed by the Israelis in order to put up a physical barrier between themselves and the Palestinians, the Iraq version of these segmented walls is constructed out of thousands of portable, twelve-foot-high slabs of steel-reinforced concrete. When stood upright on their pedestals, these “T-walls” look something like giant tombstones, totems perhaps from some long-lost Easter Island culture gone minimalist. When placed together edge-to-edge as “blast walls,” they form the gray undulations that have now become Baghdad’s most distinguishing feature. And because they proliferated during the administration of L. Paul Bremer III, they became known to some as “Bremer walls.”

For example, when one major news organization became alarmed at the deteriorating security situation in the city, it occupied part of Abu Nawas, a main road along the Tigris River that the US military had already blocked in front of two adjacent hotels in order to erect a maze of protective blast walls, guard towers, and other fortifications. So, where there was once a major highway complete with a center divider shaded by trees, there is now a relatively quiet, garden-like parking lot, surrounded by twelve-foot-high protective concrete walls.

As the quest for greater private security increases, a new and unexpected kind of public insecurity has grown alongside it. With vehicles rerouted through an ever-diminishing number of open streets, traffic jams have become more frequent, exposing foreigners, rich Baghdadis, and anyone else out of favor with one or another group of insurgents to a greater danger of being kidnapped, shot, or blown up. It is unnerving (to say the least) to be stuck in such traffic, wedged into a welter of dilapidated sedans, vans, and pickup trucks with heavily armed Iraqis staring sullenly through the window of your expensively reinforced car, as security guards sitting next to you cradle their automatic weapons. With no possibility of escape, you can’t help wondering when your unlucky moment will come. And when traffic completely stops and frustrated drivers begin to break out of line, gun their vehicles up sidewalks, veer across center dividers, or just charge up the opposite lane against the flow of oncoming traffic, it is difficult to remain calm.

The worst offenders are private security guards who are committed to protecting their charges any way they can, and the Iraqi police, who now have brand-new fleets of green and white cruisers with whooping sirens, allowing them to plow their way through traffic-clogged streets as if they were kids on joy rides.

Adding to the overall racket and general sense of anxiety is the fact that it is hard to tell if the incessant sounds of sirens, the periodic bursts of automatic weapons fire, or the occasional explosions that are heard throughout the day mean anything or not. There are police firing ranges within the city, and sometimes a bored guard will just harmlessly fire off a few shots by way of a warning. As Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times explained, “Squeezing off a few rounds of automatic weapons fire here in Baghdad is the equivalent of honking your horn in America.”

So unless an explosion is quite close, people hardly break step. At most, if there is a particularly loud report, a journalist might go up onto his bureau’s rooftop to see where the smoke is coming from.

There is undeniably a Blade Runner– like feel to this city. The violence is so pervasive and unfathomable that you wonder what people think they are dying for. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the everyday violence is horrendous, it does not take too many days before the deadly noises and the devastation everywhere seem to become just part of the ordinary landscape. Soon, quite to your surprise, you find yourself paying hardly more attention to the sounds of gunshots than a New Yorker does to the car alarms that go off every night…until, that is, someone you know, a neighbor, or just someone you have heard about, gets blown up, shot on patrol, or kidnapped by insurgents.

Just a few days after I left Baghdad, Iraqi newspapers carried a short notice that a well-to-do Iraqi banker, Ghalib Abdul Hussein, had been kidnapped from his fortified house by gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms. Five of his personal guards were shot execution-style in his yard. This is just one of thousands of such occurrences. But except for obeying the security guards responsible for you (if you have them), there isn’t much else you can do.

Driving through the streets of Baghdad, one now sees members of the newly created, blue-uniformed Iraqi Police Service, extolled by the Bush administration as another hopeful sign of “Iraqization.” But because police recruitment stations, training schools, and district precincts are favorite targets of the insurgents, many of these new police are afraid of being identified as collaborators with the Americans or the new Iraqi government. Their remedy is to wear black stocking caps with eye, nose, and mouth holes pulled down over their faces so they look like so many bank robbers. One sees these sinister-looking protectors of the peace at traffic circles and intersections, or brandishing automatic weapons in the back of American-bought pickup trucks, which makes them seem far more menacing than reassuring.

2.

The News Bureaus

Visiting any of the news bureaus gives an immediate sense of how embattled foreign journalists now are and how difficult it has become for them to do their jobs. Everyone I spoke to complained that the deteriorating security situation has increasingly made them prisoners of their bureaus.

We could go almost anywhere in Iraq in a regular car, unprotected,” wrote the Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi this February, in a wistful front-page story for her paper about the situation she found when she first arrived in 2003. “I wore Western clothes—pants and T-shirts, skirts, sandals—walked freely around Baghdad chatting with shopkeepers and having lunch or dinner with people I met.” By the spring of 2004, she writes,

the insurgency had been spreading and gaining strength faster than we had imagined possible. For the first time, I hired armed guards and began traveling in a fully armored car. Outings were measured and limited and road trips were few and far between…. As security deteriorated around the country, the areas in which we could safely operate shrank.

Foreign news bureaus are either in or near the few operating hotels such as the Al Hamra, the Rashid, or the Palestine. Like battleships that have been badly damaged but are still at sea, these hotels have survived repeated bomb attacks and yet have managed to stay open. A few hotels like the Rashid, where once there was a mosaic depicting George Bush Sr. on the floor of the lobby, are sheltered within the Green Zone. A few other bureaus have their own houses, usually somewhat shabby villas that have the advantage of being included inside some collective defense perimeter that makes the resulting neighborhood feel like a walled medieval town.

  1. *

    As New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns wrote in a March 6, 2005, dispatch after the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was fired on by American troops while driving to the airport in an incident in which an Italian intelligence agent was killed: “American soldiers operate under rules of engagement that give them authority to open fire whenever they have reason to believe that they or others in their unit may be at risk of suicide bombings of other insurgent attacks.” Burns added that while few of the incidents of such firing are ever formally investigated, “any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that have left the Iraqis puzzled as to what, if anything, they did wrong.”

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