If a Tree Falls in Baghdad…

Ten years after the Iraq war, almost everything in this country -- from security to its place in the region -- is still in play.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

BAGHDAD — Before the war, even Baghdad’s weather was a secret. CNN didn’t list the Iraqi capital in its Middle East weather forecast — it didn’t really matter so much, I suppose, to international viewers switching channels in their hotel rooms. But after a decade of trade sanctions, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was desperate to be recognized by the West and the Information Ministry officials let me know they considered CNN’s omission a deliberate snub. A few months later, and for years after, Baghdad’s forecast would be of intense daily interest to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Pre-war Iraq was one of the ultimate journalistic challenges. It was difficult to get into and even more difficult to determine any truth beyond the most obvious one — that it was a dark place, full of extraordinarily resilient people. You got used to being followed, having your hotel room or house bugged, and your phone tapped. It was harder to get used to how easily foreigners could unwittingly get Iraqis into trouble. And almost impossible to imagine that covering Iraq could become even stranger than it already was.

As CNN’s bureau chief, I had been expelled from Iraq a few months before the war, for what the Information Ministry termed increasingly hostile reporting. "We’re not expelling you — we’re just asking you to leave," the director had explained. I’d been covering the country and living there for more than four years.

When the war came, every journalist who covered Iraq automatically became a war correspondent. Those of us employed by big news organizations dutifully flew to Britain for courses on how to put on chemical and biological weapons suits and gas masks. We stuffed backpacks with what our employers hoped might be an antidote to anthrax. And some of us wondered what we were supposed to do when there weren’t enough gas masks to go around.

When the route into northern Iraq through Turkey slammed shut just before the war started, my CNN team went in through Iran, crossing into Iraq through its eastern border. For the next few weeks, we roamed around the shifting front lines with a satellite truck. There was almost nowhere we couldn’t go. We ran cables into caves beneath a long-destroyed Kurdish village to talk to families hiding out there. We huddled against hillsides while the Iraqi army mortared the positions of U.S. Special Forces, who were calling in air strikes.

In some places, we were there before U.S. forces arrived. In Mosul, hours after the Iraqi army left and long before U.S. and Kurdish forces came in, the northern city belonged to gunmen and looters. We took cover behind our vehicles as the central bank was set on fire and people rushed through a hail of bullets with armloads of cash.

There was no government and no rules. "If you keep driving down this road, I’ll shoot you," an American officer told us at night, near a northern airfield where U.S. forces were about to parachute in. We didn’t really believe him. But the lack of order also worked in our favor: When the generals finally arrived, you could show up in the morning and fly around with them — without a press officer hovering, trying to make sure you cleared the quotes.

That was nothing, though, compared to the free-for-all that was Baghdad in the first few weeks after the capital fell. Those of us who covered pre-war Iraq went from needing permission to film even a portrait of Saddam or an ordinary street corner to being able to go anywhere and talk to anyone. It was dizzying. Dozens of Iraqis turned up with implausible stories that turned out to be true . And many more that turned out to be false — like the Iraqis peddling documents purporting to be nuclear secrets from the trunks of their cars.  

As the insurgency gained momentum, foreign journalists retreated. Many of us were embedded with U.S. forces, and we saw firsthand what happens when you invade a country you don’t understand. Both to the country itself and the soldiers sent to war there.

If you accept the risk, covering war on the frontlines is easy, in a sense. In Fallujah, the soldiers and Marines we were with made no attempt to keep us from seeing the bodies of civilians or the charred aftermath of a missile strike. They didn’t have time for it. The disinformation happened in the briefing rooms and press conferences, where we were told that the United States didn’t track casualties or that violence was worse under Saddam Hussein. (Neither point was true.)

When the United States handed over full sovereignty to Iraq by withdrawing its troops from the cities in 2009, it seemed to believe it was given a get-out-of-jail-free card in terms of public accountability. The United States had led an invasion, toppled a dictator, and spent tens of billions of dollars trying to repair the damage, but almost every awkward question — whether about torture in Iraqi prisons or abuses by U.S.-trained Iraqi forces — was answered with "it’s a sovereign country now."

As the United States pulled back, so did the foreign press corps. Ten years after the start of the war that transformed the region, there are fewer than a dozen foreign journalists based in Iraq. Although there are endless stories, reporting from Iraq is still expensive, still dangerous, and only getting more difficult. 

We aren’t the targets anymore. Most journalists, or the organizations they work for, have traded in their high-profile armored cars. In a city where we used to have to crouch on the floor to avoid gunfire on the airport road, we now drive around with the windows open. But there’s still the significant risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb goes off — whether that’s a market on a Friday morning or the falafel stand near the entrance to the Green Zone.

The Iraqi government is drawing inward. Like most countries in the Middle East, this has never been one that recognizes that Western journalists are just journalists — and not covert agents trying to destabilize the government. Some Iraqi officials today are as wary of the press as their pre-war counterparts.

Television is particularly difficult. With almost every bombing, the government imposes a new layer of regulations. Police and soldiers who used to talk freely now need permission from the Interior or Defense Ministry. Being allowed into a press conference at the prime minister’s office involves handing over your watch as well as your pen and notepad. Tape recorders are completely out of the question.

Even entering the parliament building now requires prior written permission, and both cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs are considered a security risk and confiscated at the entrance. Once you get in the building, parliamentary session themselves still aren’t open to the media. The press gallery was closed years ago, "for security reasons," and the only recordings of proceedings are an edited, delayed television feed.

For the first time since the Saddam era, there are official travel restrictions. The government recently announced that foreign journalists need prior Iraqi Army permission to travel to the restive Anbar Province, where Sunni protesters have been staging regular demonstrations against the government. Journalists for foreign news organizations trying to cover the ongoing protests have been stopped at Iraqi Army checkpoints. Some have been arrested.

The United States seems to have finally succeeded in doing what it wanted to do here — becoming so low-profile that it is essentially invisible. Press releases announcing events that have already taken place or condemning the latest bombings occasionally make their way from the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone to the outside world. As far as most Iraqis are aware, that is the extent of the U.S. presence in their country.

Almost everything in Iraq is still in play: It’s a country where you can find online restaurant reviews alongside travel warnings. The big questions here — about security, the political balance of power, Iraq’s place in the region — remain unanswered.

People, even editors, think they’ve heard all the stories there are to tell about Iraq. They are so wrong. This is one of the most powerful, fastest-growing countries in the region. Almost every Iraqi has an amazing story. It’s a nation of survivors in a country on the rollercoaster ride of history — reinventing itself every day.

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