When it comes to covering the war in Iraq, McClatchy Newspapers has always done things a bit differently. The third-largest newspaper company in the US, it owns thirty-one daily papers, including The Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, The Kansas City Star, and The Charlotte Observer. (It became the owner of some of these papers after buying Knight Ridder newspapers in 2006.) McClatchy has a large bureau in Washington, but without a paper either in the capital or in New York, it operates outside the glare of the nation’s political and media elite, and this has freed it to follow its own path.
In the months leading up to the Iraq war, when most news organizations were dutifully relaying the Bush administration’s claims about the threat posed by Iraq, Knight Ridder/McClatchy ran several stories questioning their accuracy. Since the invasion, the company has run a lean but resourceful operation in Baghdad. All three of its bureau chiefs have been young Arab-American women with some fluency in Arabic. At home in the cultures of both the West and the Middle East, they have been adept at interpreting each to the other.
From the start, the McClatchy bureau has made a special point of reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis and on the impact the war has had on them. To help it do so, it has relied heavily on its Iraqi staff. It currently has five Iraqi members—former teachers, doctors, and office managers who, joining the staff as translators and “fixers,” have received on-the-job training as reporters. In this, McClatchy is not unique. As the danger to Western reporters in Iraq has mounted, US news organizations have turned to local reporters and stringers to help gather the news. (The work is even more dangerous for them than it is for Westerners; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the 124 journalists who have been killed since the start of the Iraq war, 102 have been Iraqis.)
McClatchy, though, has gone a step further. About a year ago, it set up a blog exclusively for contributions from its Iraqi staff. “Inside Iraq,” it’s called, and several times a week the Iraqi staff members post on it about their experiences and impressions (the blog can be found at washingtonbureau.typepad.com/iraq). “It’s an opportunity for Iraqis to talk directly to an American audience,” says Leila Fadel, the current bureau chief, whose father is from Lebanon and whose mother is from Michigan, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and who is all of twenty-six years old.
As such, the blog fills a major gap in the coverage. In a recent survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of the Pew Research Center, US journalists in Iraq were asked to grade different aspects of reporting on the occupation. Their highest marks were given to the coverage of the military operations and experiences of US troops—fully 82 percent rated this as excellent or good. Their lowest marks went to the reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis; this was rated fair or poor by 62 percent. “There are too few reports that include Iraqi citizens—not Green Zone politicians but regular folks,” one TV journalist said. “We need to hear their voices.” “The coverage has been ethnocentric,” a newspaper correspondent commented. “There is not enough attention to the plight of the Iraqis.”
The abysmal security situation is no doubt partly to blame for this. Despite the improvements in safety in Baghdad in recent months, most of Iraq, including large parts of the capital, remains too dangerous for journalists to travel in without heavy protection. When you have to travel around town in armored cars, it’s hard to interview the man on the street. But there seem to be other reasons for this neglect as well. As the Pew survey noted, American editors seem to have a “declining interest” in the Iraqi side of the story. The same is no doubt true for American readers. “There are so many stories about our troops,” Leila Fadel told me. “That’s what Americans want to read—stories about their brothers, husbands, and sisters.” This has only increased with the surge. Politically active Americans seem mainly interested in one question—is it working? To find out, American journalists have embedded with US troops, gone out with them on patrol, interviewed lieutenants, captains, and colonels. It’s a classic case of Washington setting the journalistic agenda. In the process, stories about the Iraqi people and how they see the surge, and the war in general, have been squeezed out.
“Inside Iraq” specializes in such stories. The entries on it are rarely edited, and the English is left intact. “You can hear the way they think and speak, untouched,” Fadel says. The emphasis, she notes, is on telling personal stories rather than expressing political views. Even so, the blog is full of passion, irony, bitterness, and outrage, qualities that help get across the dark realities—and unfathomable costs—of the occupation with an immediacy that Americans are rarely exposed to. It’s the occupation as seen through the eyes of the occupied.
Some of the postings deal with the daily challenges posed by a society suffering a precipitous physical decline. “I just would like to tell you that this is the 7th day that we don’t have water in our neighborhood,” observes one writer in an April 14, 2007 entry. (It, like many of the contributions, carries no byline—a security precaution.) The lack of water results from the lack of electricity, which is needed to keep the water pumps going. Fortunately, the blogger notes, he can afford the fuel for a private generator. “Yesterday,” he writes,
almost all our neighbors came to our house asking for water. We kept our water pump working for hours and we couldn’t do anything but providing people with water until 11 pm. I could see happiness and Thanks Allah, my family gained many nice prayers from our neighbors who were really thankful.
An entry from mid-June describes the “vacation” the writer was forced to take as a result of a curfew imposed on Baghdad. “I lived the daily suffering of my family for whole three days,” we’re informed. Breakfast has to be cooked for everyone at the same time in order to conserve the precious propane gas. Next comes the daily cleaning of the house—turned into an ordeal by the lack of water. There’s no electricity, and with the temperature outside 45 degrees centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit), the house is suffocating. At 2 PM the electricity comes on for three hours, and the writer takes a bath, followed by a nap with his son:
I just put him between my arms and slept trying to enjoy the moments of having cool air of my room air cooler in spite of the bad smell of the sewage system that flow over.
When the electricity goes off, he reads a book. At 8 PM, when the power returns, the family watches TV, especially the news channels in Iraq, but the blogger sits in another room because he wants to see “a comic movie or a song just to forget for a while the terrible situation of Iraq.” Around midnight, when the generator goes off, everyone heads to the roof to sleep because it’s too hot inside. “I can say that my three days vacation deserves to be No. 1 worst vacation because I experienced the typical Iraqi day,” the post concludes.
The loss of freedom of movement is frequently lamented on “Inside Iraq.” A contributor named Laith writes in mid-October about being asked by his wife if he remembers the restaurant they had lunch at during their engagement. Yes, he replies, it was Filis, in the once-upscale Mansour neighborhood. Why does she ask? “I like to have lunch there, in the same restaurant,” she tells him. With a sarcastic laugh, he asks, “Did you live enough and you want to end your life quickly?” When she expresses shock at this, he tells her that the whole area around the restaurant is now controlled by insurgents. Just the day before, he writes, he found himself in a taxi on the street of the restaurant. “I swear I wished to cry,” he observes.
It was Ghosts Street. 90 percent of the shops were closed including Filis restaurant…. One upon time this street was one of the most beautiful and full with life.
Families used to start coming to the street from sunset and stay there in the different restaurants and cafes until 2 am. Iraqi families used to spend their nights happily in that sweet street but not anymore. Now and according to a close friend who live in the same neighborhood, people who stay late in the street might be targeted by a sniper or an IED explosion….
I don’t know who can bring life back to our lovely streets after the failure of both, the US army and the Iraqi Security Forces. I don’t know when I can take my wife again to have a special launch in Filis restaurant again.
Not all the posts are so morose. Some note with satisfaction that certain parts of Baghdad are reviving as a result of the US troop surge. In a November 10 entry, for instance, a blogger tells of visiting his brother a few blocks away. For more than a year, he writes, his neighborhood, Amil, had been ripped apart by sectarian violence, with some streets abandoned to snipers. But two weeks earlier, with the start of meetings between sheiks representing Sunnis and Shiites, the violence had begun to subside, and on his way to his brother’s he walked along some streets
I wouldn’t dare to pass a week ago. I also noticed the two cafes on my way open, with great surprise, one of them filled with customers…. I was really happy to see this happens having our traditions and habits come back again.
Recently, a number of similarly hopeful entries have appeared on “Inside Iraq.” On December 14, for instance, a blogger noted how
Yesterday morning I made a tour to different areas in Baghdad which I would never think or dream to pass through a year ago…. To my surprise, I saw the highway full with traffic having cars of all kinds even trailers comparing it with the last few months which was almost deserted of all kinds of cars even the military ones. I am really happy to see and feel the security situation becomes better and better.
Such posts are greatly outweighed, however, by those expressing anger and gloom, exasperation and despair. The overwhelming sense is that of a society undergoing a catastrophic breakdown from the never-ending waves of violence, criminality, and brutality inflicted on it by insurgents, militias, jihadis, terrorists, soldiers, policemen, bodyguards, mercenaries, armed gangs, warlords, kidnappers, and everyday thugs. “Inside Iraq” suggests how the relentless and cumulative effects of these vicious crimes have degraded virtually every aspect of the nation’s social, economic, professional, and personal life.
The simple act of getting to and from work, for instance, requires huge amounts of energy, ingenuity, and courage. Every morning at nine the McClatchy bureau holds a meeting at which the staff reads the local press and reporting tasks are assigned. Determined to arrive on time, the Iraqi reporters set out two hours in advance for trips that would normally take ten or twenty minutes, but even so they often arrive late. First, there are the checkpoints that have mushroomed across the city. These are manned mostly by Iraqi soldiers who, while ostensibly looking for bombs, often seem more interested in monitoring people’s movements and exercising control over them.
In one alarming encounter, an Iraqi reporter describes being asked for her papers. While they’re being examined, another man approaches and says, “You’re a doctor, aren’t you? I remember you. You work at the Nursing Home. I know you because I used to work there.” Until the word “doctor” was uttered, she writes,
I was OK. Just another checkpoint. I took out my papers sixteen times on my way home the other day. But doctors were different. Targeted by kidnappers for ransom money, and sometimes killed. But more dangerous, they were targeted by people with an agenda that says “Harass Iraqi doctors until they flee; if they don’t run, kill them.”
She says she’s not a doctor but a teacher, but she’s told to pull over to the side of the road. While the men confer, she looks skyward and prays. “If any digging was to take place into my identity and my profession,” she writes, “then I was dead anyway. NOT a doctor, no, a correspondent for an AMERICAN news agency!!” Finally, after waiting “more than twenty of the longest minutes of my life,” she’s told she can go. Arriving in the office to find the morning meeting in progress, she plops down on the couch and struggles to steady her pounding heart, but she cannot stop thinking about how her accuser had fixed her with “those dark, piercing eyes.” The man “was frustrated to lose his prize. He feels cheated—and humiliated. He will not forget me easily…. I will never use that route again.”
One major target of the Iraqi bloggers’ frustration is government officials. Officials are criticized for their incompetence, their arrogance, their indifference to the concerns of ordinary citizens, and above all their subservience to the United States. To Americans, the pressure that Washington constantly exerts on the Iraqi government seems a necessary step to break the country’s political impasse; to the McClatchy bloggers, it seems an indefensible violation of the nation’s sovereignty. A US push to get Iraqi legislators to amend the national oil law draws a sharp rebuke:
At small gatherings and inside old cafes the betting runs high…will the Parliament buckle under the pressure?? How unseemly for the government of a sovereign state—and its Parliament to be pressured into making…of all things… amendments to its own constitution…by a foreign force!
As this entry suggests, the United States is not spared on the blog. On the contrary, it is the subject of almost constant comment—most of it negative. Frustration, indignation, resentment, fear—these are the emotions most frequently aroused by the occupation. One major source of grievance are the US military patrols and convoys that are forever hurtling across Baghdad. Motivated by a legitimate fear of car bombs, the Americans insist that while they are on the road, all cars must remain a safe distance away. If anyone gets too close, or makes too sudden a move, the Americans will often open fire. Though rarely mentioned in the US press, such incidents have claimed untold hundreds of Iraqi lives, and the fear of adding to the total is a constant theme of the blog, as in this entry from October 18, about being in a minibus caught in a traffic jam:
During our 10 minutes waiting to pass the intersection, I saw a US army convoy, four Humvee vehicles and two 4wheel drive cars among them. OMG, Not again. Everybody was watching the convoy carefully praying so hard that they pass over peacefully.
While everyone is focused on the convoy in front, a passenger looks in back and sees that another, consisting of four Stryker armored vehicles, is approaching. “Death in front, death behind,” he warns, and the passengers, looking behind them, are terrified. When the two convoys pass without incident, they give thanks to Allah. “It was the longest ten minutes I ever lived,” the blogger notes.
The blogger thinks back to the incident that occurred a month earlier in al-Nosoor Square, when Blackwater security guards opened fire on a crowd, killing seventeen:
The bullets that tore the bodies of the innocent people came to my mind. I imagined the shouts of the woman whose son was killed in the same car with her. I saw the wreck of the car few days after the incident. I also remembered the tears of the old man that we met who lost his wife in the incident. I don’t know how long we will live with these daily fears.
That shooting had for the first time thrust Blackwater and other private security contractors into the spotlight in America. From “Inside Iraq,” however, it’s clear that Iraqis have felt abused by them for years, and most Western journalists have also at least been aware of the aggressive behavior of these mercenaries. Indeed, with their wraparound sunglasses, assault rifles, and menacing manner, they were hard to miss. Yet with a few exceptions—Steve Fainaru in The Washington Post, T. Christian Miller in the Los Angeles Times, Jeremy Scahill in his book Blackwater, and PBS’s Frontline in “Private Warriors”—this major aspect of the US presence in Iraq remained until very recently hidden from American view.
“Inside Iraq” provides many other startling glimpses of the American occupation. One, from late November, recounts an incident witnessed by a teacher at a Baghdad school:
Yesterday noon, an American squad from the United State Army (about ten to twelve) broke in Al-Mansour preparatory school for one reason or another. We don’t have the right to ask them why they came to the school. The soldiers spread in different spots of the school walking towards the back yard which is used as a soccer field. Most of the students were in their classes when the squad came, but still there were many students in the yard who were terrified to see the American soldiers with their guns. One of the students was upset to see the soldiers and he threw a stone and hit one of them. Three soldiers surrounded him kicking him with their boots for some minutes on different parts of his body.
Later, a teacher of English said that the captain of the squad told him “next time if students throw stones, we will use our machines guns not the boots.”
The blogger reflects:
I really hated myself hearing that news as I am a teacher myself. What shall I do if I were there? What shall I tell my students? How can I behave? What excuses will I give for that incident?… In 2003 I thought we were getting democracy and freedom, but what happened at that school does not tell the story of freedom.
In a May 25 posting, a blogger named Hussein describes how, while he and his three brothers were at work one day, three armored vehicles pulled up to his house. Twenty US soldiers got out and went inside. There they found his mother and father, two sisters-in-law, and five children. The soldiers forced the father to kneel with his head to the wall without taking into account his age (sixty-five) or his physical condition (high blood pressure). Searching the house, the soldiers found some electric cables they suspected were being used to make bombs. (In fact, they were for use in the home generator.)
Searching through the mother’s wardrobe, the soldiers found a small tube containing a white substance—chemicals, they believed, used in making bombs. In fact, the tube contained some salt that she had been given as a gift and had taken to a shrine to get blessed. The woman was given no opportunity to explain this or to taste the salt, as she had offered. A few seconds later, the blogger writes,
they brought my father taking his finger prints telling him that… the test is positive and the marks on his hands referring that he is an expert of explosives. In fact, he has nothing to do with that, he was an electrician who worked hard for about forty years till he had got the pension in 1991, but he didn’t stop working for his own business till the last four years ago. I forgot to tell that they asked my father about any kind of weapons that we have, he told them that we have only one machine gun in the house and he gave it to them. They took the gun and my father saying that his hands carry TNT. Father has been taken to the unknown having no idea where he is, the condition he is in as he is ill and where to ask to have any kind of information about him or the charges behind this arrest.
This incident sent a shudder through the McClatchy office, and Leila Fadel immediately began sending out e-mails to everybody she knew in the military, trying to discover the whereabouts of Hussein’s father. A general she contacted took an interest in the case, and before leaving for a break in Beirut she was led to believe that he would be released. While she was away, however, she learned from Hussein that not only was his father not being released but that he was being transferred to Camp Bucca, the main US detention facility, near Basra. Distraught, Fadel began sending out more e-mails, asking officials what evidence they had to implicate Hussein’s father. She was told they had something but could not provide it.
Keeping up the pressure once she was back in Baghdad, she eventually got through to the American general in charge of all US-held detainees in Iraq. Mark Seibel, McClatchy’s managing editor for international news, raised the matter with General David Petraeus while on a visit to Baghdad in July. Finally, after three months of inquiries, petitions, and pleas, Hussein’s father was released.
I asked Fadel what she thinks would have happened had she not gotten involved in the case. “If Hussein didn’t work for us and if I didn’t call people, and if those people didn’t know that a journalist agency was involved,” she said, “he might still be in detention.” Fadel told me that she planned to write an article about the case but—overextended—had not yet gotten around to it. To date, the incident has appeared exclusively on “Inside Iraq,” available only to those who seek it out.
Of all the reports I read on “Inside Iraq,” few affected me more than the one titled “Shadows,” by a reporter named Sahar. In it, she recounts being wakened early one morning by her barking dog. Outside, she hears a number of men, some of whom are speaking English. Frightened, she asks who it is. The army, they say. She asks for time to get dressed, and they agree. When she opens the door, ten tall men in uniform walk in. Three of them, she can tell, are Americans; the rest are Iraqis. While courteous, the men look right through her. One of the Americans begins searching the living room. In it is a large bookcase filled with books in English. “You read a lot Ma’am?” he asks. “Yes, in fact I do,” she replies, using English for the first time. “What’s this?” he says. “Heinlein? Asimov? Grisham?”
He turns to look at me again, this time with a different expression in his eyes. “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes, of course. It’s in that cabinet.”
He opens the cabinet and looks closely inside.
“You play Diablo?! And what’s this?! Grand Theft Auto??” He forgets all about the weapon and turns to us with a wide grin on his face, and astonishment in his eyes. My son asks him, “Is ours the first house you search?”, “No, why?”, “Because all my friends have these games, why are you so surprised?” The serviceman looks embarrassed, and turns to inspect the weapon.
They went through every room, every cabinet, closet and drawer silently. After they accomplished their mission, in about thirty minutes, they walked out, gray shadows in the twilight.
With its quiet exploration of the subtle interplay between occupier and occupied, the vignette reminded me of Orwell’s writings about his imperial service in Burma. Interested in learning more, I reached Sahar via phone at McClatchy’s Baghdad office. She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, “He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn’t see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can’t imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else.”
The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. “People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same,” she said. “They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep.” Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, “don’t know this. And when you don’t know a person, you can’t feel for them, can you?”
She continued: “How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It’s our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog.”
In October, Sahar, along with five other Iraqi women who have worked for Knight Ridder/McClatchy, traveled to New York and Los Angeles to receive the annual Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Today, she is the only one of the six who remains with the bureau. The rest have all fled Iraq—because of death threats, because of the violence raging in their neighborhoods, because of (in one case) the murder of a husband, daughter, and mother-in-law by other Iraqis. In thus leaving, these women joined the huge exodus out of Iraq, a stampede that has deprived the country of many of its most competent citizens. Sahar, who herself has lost a son to the violence, is determined to stay. “This is my home,” she told me. “This is where I want to be.”
The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether the Americans should stay or go. On this, Leila Fadel told me, her Iraqi staff is divided. Some of them think the Americans should leave at once. While withdrawal would probably result in a bloodletting among Iraqis, they believe the country would be better off if this happened sooner rather than later, thus avoiding the effects of a prolonged occupation. Others think the Americans should stay and fix all the destruction they’ve caused over the last four and a half years. But, she adds, the staff’s views on this keep shifting: “They’re at war within themselves—on whether they want the Americans to stay or not, and whether they think that staying would make things any better. It’s something they go back and forth on.”
Whichever side they come down on, however, there is one feeling that predominates: humiliation. “They remind me of this constantly,” Fadel says. “Americans believe their soldiers are working for the greater good. The Iraqis don’t see that. They see people who are here for their own self-interest—who drive the wrong way on roads, who stop traffic whenever they want to, who they have to be careful not to get too close to so that they won’t be shot.” When one of her staff members wrote the post about the student who threw a rock at a US soldier, Fadel says, she asked him, “Why did this kid throw a rock at a man with a weapon, a helmet, and a vest? What was he thinking?” “These are foreign soldiers,” he replied. “This is an occupation.” That, Fadel notes, is a very common feeling among Iraqis. “Everybody I speak to thinks this. They don’t have power in their own country.”
—December 19, 2007