In defense of Iraq war reporters

   The morning of Feb. 22, 2006, Baghdad lurched into its deadliest three days of the Iraq conflict and came as close as it would to full-on sectarian war. It was clear in the first hours after that day’s bombing of the golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra that Shiite militias would launch massive attacks in ...

Photo by Sa'ad al Izzi
Photo by Sa'ad al Izzi
Photo by Sa'ad al Izzi

  

The morning of Feb. 22, 2006, Baghdad lurched into its deadliest three days of the Iraq conflict and came as close as it would to full-on sectarian war. It was clear in the first hours after that day's bombing of the golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra that Shiite militias would launch massive attacks in retaliation for the mosque's destruction. Myself and Jon Finer, then my colleague at the Washington Post bureau in Baghdad, headed with our Iraqi colleagues to the headquarters of Muqtada al Sadr's Jaish-al-Mahdi headquarters in Baghdad's Sadr City -- I in a Western female reporter's usual disguise of a black abaya that covered all but my face; Jon in his usual clever disguise of a swarthy, not-exceptionally tall guy, indistinguishable from most Iraqi men (see picture above).

Crossing Baghdad, we passed through the normal number of armed militia checkpoints. At the borders of Sadr City, we experienced the not-normal event of a car loaded with gunmen leaning out their windows, AK-47s pointed, to force our car to the side of the road. They stuck their guns through the car window in my face. Our Iraqi security chief rushed to insert himself between myself and the guns. He calmed down the gunmen. Once in Sadr City, we watched cars similarly loaded with Shiite gunmen spread out into Baghdad proper to exact revenge wholesale from Baghdad's Sunnis. In the courtyard of the Sadr offices, filled with excited, milling men with AKs, we heard a Western voice cry out -- a little louder than Jon and I would have liked in the circumstances. "Jon! Hey, Jon!" It was Borzou Daragahi, of the Los Angeles Times, also in the headquarters of what for that day was Murder Inc. It became evident that many other Western reporters were out in Baghdad that day, and the following ones as well.

  

The morning of Feb. 22, 2006, Baghdad lurched into its deadliest three days of the Iraq conflict and came as close as it would to full-on sectarian war. It was clear in the first hours after that day’s bombing of the golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra that Shiite militias would launch massive attacks in retaliation for the mosque’s destruction. Myself and Jon Finer, then my colleague at the Washington Post bureau in Baghdad, headed with our Iraqi colleagues to the headquarters of Muqtada al Sadr’s Jaish-al-Mahdi headquarters in Baghdad’s Sadr City — I in a Western female reporter’s usual disguise of a black abaya that covered all but my face; Jon in his usual clever disguise of a swarthy, not-exceptionally tall guy, indistinguishable from most Iraqi men (see picture above).

Crossing Baghdad, we passed through the normal number of armed militia checkpoints. At the borders of Sadr City, we experienced the not-normal event of a car loaded with gunmen leaning out their windows, AK-47s pointed, to force our car to the side of the road. They stuck their guns through the car window in my face. Our Iraqi security chief rushed to insert himself between myself and the guns. He calmed down the gunmen. Once in Sadr City, we watched cars similarly loaded with Shiite gunmen spread out into Baghdad proper to exact revenge wholesale from Baghdad’s Sunnis. In the courtyard of the Sadr offices, filled with excited, milling men with AKs, we heard a Western voice cry out — a little louder than Jon and I would have liked in the circumstances. "Jon! Hey, Jon!" It was Borzou Daragahi, of the Los Angeles Times, also in the headquarters of what for that day was Murder Inc. It became evident that many other Western reporters were out in Baghdad that day, and the following ones as well.

The day after the bombing, Iraqi colleagues at the Washington Post and I went to the Baghdad morgue to try to determine just how bad the week’s Shiite slaughter of Sunnis was. We bypassed the morgue’s front office — the morgue, as part of the Health Ministry, was under Sadr’s control; I didn’t expect to get any honest numbers from the Sadr-affiliated morgue directors about the extent of the killing by Shiite militias. At the morgue, we saw crowds of Sunni families who’d come to try to find the bodies of men and boys who’d been taken away by Shiite militias. The morgue registrar helpfully showed myself and the Sunni families a computer photo album of the dead inside, punching with an index finger through screen after screen of photos of tortured faces streaked with blood and bearing grimaces or vacant looks. Leaning over a counter, the Washington Post Iraqi staffers and I heard the morgue’s computer registrar remark repeatedly — by way of explaining the day’s poor customer service to the bereaved families — that the morgue had taken in the bodies of more than 1,300 victims of Shiite-Sunni violence since the Samarra bombing. The 1,000-plus figure was also later confirmed by U.N. officials in Baghdad, drawing on their own sources within the Iraqi government, and by one of our Iraqi staffers via an official and acquaintance inside the Health Ministry.

When our story and others came out, every U.S. official from Gen. George Casey — then the head commander in Iraq — on down denied them. The military issued a press release quoting Casey as stating that Baghdad was "stable, calm, and peaceful."  "So the country is not awash in sectarian violence,” Casey told the talk shows, even as Sadr’s Health Ministry was setting up refrigerated trucks outside the morgue to handle the overflow of victims slain by Sadr’s militias and others. "I don’t see it happening, certainly anytime in the near term." Only later, as reporting on the killing persisted through 2006, did U.S. officials finally back down from the pretense that all was hunky-dory in Iraq. How gratifying it was for me this year, hearing a Bush administration official who’d been influential in Iraq casually mention in a speech that more than 1,000 people died in Iraq in one day after the Samarra bombing. Yeah. Like I said.

My point: contrary to Marc Lynch’s concern that "For years, journalists (even those not living in the Green Zone) were forced either to huddle down in offices and rely on stringers, or else go out into the field with the military as embeds," not all Western reporters in Iraq were huddled down, nor reliant on embeds. After the Samarra bombing, we didn’t all turn anxiously to the U.S. military to tell us what they were seeing, and how we should interpret it. We were doing what reporters are supposed to do: tell what they see, and make people in power uncomfortable about it if possible. With the great exception of the Anbar province, the stronghold of the Sunni insurgency, where only a very few reporters ventured independently during the worst of the violence, we managed to do that.

In Baghdad during that time, my colleague Daragahi of the L.A. Times traveled out of Baghdad to Karbala and Basra. Western reporters at the Washington Post, the LA Times, Cox News, the Chicago Tribune and other news organizations repeatedly traveled to Najaf, the center of Shiite life in Iraq. IED explosions on the road along the way were so routine we wouldn’t bother mentioning them when we got back to Baghdad. So were dicey conversations at armed checkpoints, and casual queries to our Iraqi colleagues from strangers in the Shiite south about whether our Iraqi co-workers would be interested in a cut of the ransom money if the strangers should kidnap us. I traveled with brave and brotherly Iraqi staffers to Balad, passing Sunni checkpoints to interview families fleeing sectarian killing, and to Samarra, through Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. In 2007, reporter Leila Fadel, then of McClatchy and now of the Washington Post, made a gutsy road trip from Baghdad to Amman that opened our eyes about how much safer western Iraq had gotten since 2006.

Louise Roug, one of the Los Angeles Times’ correspondents in Baghdad in 2006, recounts near-daily reporting trips into Baghdad and beyond, and describes it thus: "At a time when the U.S. military consistently (and willfully) downplayed the number of casualties in the widening civil war (and even denied there was any sectarian violence), for example, a translator and I went to the morgue, several hospitals, the Department of Health (by then infiltrated by Shiite militias) and visited some of the toughest Sunni neighborhoods to get a clear beat on how many people had been killed. When the south was turning incredibly dangerous, I went to Basra and stayed, unembedded, to report on how local security forces had lost control and death squads terrorized the population. (This was a time when neither British nor Danish troops in the area went out with less than full battle-rattle, and a week later, Steven Vincent of the New York Times was killed for reporting the exact same story.)"

There are two main reasons why some reporters bruit about the idea that Western reporters never went out in Baghdad.

The first is that the people who themselves chose not to go out to report, out of the judgment that it was too dangerous, invariably stated that no one at all was going out, to try to justify their own decision to stay in. The second is that not everyone safely could go out — reporters who happened to be big, well-fed, American men looked like nothing but big, well-fed, American men. For them, to go out into Baghdad indeed was to invite prepping for appearances in grainy hostage videos. Additionally, organizations that paid for high-dollar British or U.S. security firms to advise them invariably were advised by the security firms not to go out at all. Those people frequented their houses, and the Green Zone. But they were only part of the scene.

That’s not to say that there weren’t severe limitations and frustrations — at the height of the insurgency, our reporting in Anbar came entirely from embeds and from Iraqi special correspondents there. That is a crippled way of reporting. But it was the exception — generally, the Shiite south, the Kurdish north, Baghdad and its environs were still maneuverable by us.

Nor is it say that each trip of reporters, translators, drivers and guards wasn’t planned with the logistical heft of moving a battalion, or that there weren’t often heated, emotional discussions in bureaus about whether a story was too dangerous to go out to cover directly. And I’ve gone too far in this piece before citing the courageous Iraqi reporters and other staffers who daily contributed to stories and sometimes had to carry the street reporting. They served as our eyes and ears, risked their lives. Many of them were fine and sensitive reporters and writers. At The Washington Post, Saleh Saif Aldin, the bravest of the brave, later was shot in the head and killed on a trip out of the bureau for a photo.

Roug, of the L.A. Times, notes that all too many journalists paid with their lives for their efforts:  "As CPJ and other organizations have shown, Iraq has been the deadliest conflict for journalists, with a toll almost twice that of the Vietnam war, a much longer conflict. Even factoring in that a lot of the journalists killed in Iraq have been local Iraqis (82 percent), this war has been most dangerous for journalists to cover. Ever. If we were hunkered down in bunkers, how do you account for: Terry Lloyd, Paul Moran, Julio Anguita Parrado, Christian Liebig, José Couso and Taras Protsyuk (both killed by the U.S. military, shelling the Palestine hotel, although it was clear that there was media workers at the hotel),  Mazen Dana (also killed by U.S. military), Waldemar Milewicz, Kotaro Ogawa, Shinsuke Hashida,Enzo Baldoni, Steven Vincent, James Brolan, Paul Douglas, Dmitry Chebotayev; those who were maimed, such as Kimberly Dozier;  as well as those who were kidnapped, such as Jill Carroll, Rory Carroll and more than two dozen others."

It does indeed make a difference whether or not the people writing up the big stories saw and reported the events they describe. I think it’s too important to let the history of the reporting of the Iraq war be written by the huddled.

Ellen Knickmeyer was the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post from 2005 to 2007, Cairo bureau chief for The Washington Post from 2007 to 2009, and is currently pursuing a masters at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Ellen Knickmeyer is a former West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press and a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post.

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