Kidnappings, executions, car bombs, ambushes. A reporter describes how staying alive in Iraq became a full-time job.
In August CJR asked Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent, to keep a journal of her life in Iraq, where she had been since before the war, and where reporters were finding it difficult to do their job. In September, just after she sent us her report, Fassihi sent an e-mail to friends and relatives - something she does regularly. Usually, she says, these emails are chatty, but this one reflected her observations on an ominous sea-change: "The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem, has been unleashed ... as a result of American mistakes" Within days her private note bad popped up on the Internet and circulated far and wide, even making an appearance in Doonesbury. She became Exhibit A in the perennial discussion about the link between the published work and private opinions of reporters. Below is a full slice of Fassihi's reality in Baghdad, and it raises a question: How could she work there and not have an opinion?
The chartered Royal Jordanian aircraft, the only civilian flight to Iraq, nose-dives down onto the Baghdad airport runway in spiraling corkscrew turns.The force of gravity pulls me forward from my seat and I nervously clutch the armrests. It feels like a prolonged crash. I gaze out the window at the dusty horizon lined with palm trees as the plane rocks to forty-five-degree angles right and left. Airplanes can't land here without these evasive maneuvers, because rockets and mortars are fired at them every day. It's hard to believe that until only four months ago we could still travel to Iraq by car.
My team of driver and translator, Munaf and Haaqi, wait for me at the nearest U.S. military checkpoint to drive me to Baghdad.The highway from the airport to the center of town is short, but one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. Insurgents hide in the date farms and attack military convoys with rocket-propelled grenades. I sit in our recently purchased armored car and feel relatively safe. I remind Munaf to stay in the center of the road to avoid hitting one of the landmines. A few minutes later, we find ourselves driving directly behind a convoy of American Humvees and tanks. I panic.The Americans could get attacked at any moment and we don't want to be caught in the crossfire. "Hang back, hang back," I tell Munaf. He slows down but the cars behind us don't want to pass, either. "I can't stop because the Americans will get suspicious and shoot," Munaf says. In Iraq, no one wants to drive near the Americans.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18
I spend all day at the Convention Center inside the heavily fortified American compound where most official activities take place. Getting there was risky today, because the roads leading to the checkpoint are shut down and we had to walk about a mile. All the security guards checking our press passes are wearing helmets. One of them says,"A mortar hit right here this morning," and points to a bunker several feet away. T walk even faster. I'm trying to catch the last leg of Iraq's political conference, a four-day marathon of meetings, dealings, and debates to hash out the selection of a hundred-seat national assembly. It is quite something to see all these people gathered in one place and freely voicing their opinions.There are Shiite clerics clad in sweeping robes and turbans, women candidates in skirt suits and high heels or the black head-to-toe hijab, Kurds in traditional baggy pants and fringy head wraps, and Western-educated technocrats in suits and ties. I spot the former interior minister, Samir Sumaida, and have tea with him. He is critical of the conference's shortcomings but is quick to list its benefits as well. "There's been a lot of manipulation and open cheating here, but despite all this we have a body far more representative than ever before," he says. "This is what democracy is all about, these are the first steps and we are learning." A loud boom interrupts our chat. The building shakes and we all run for cover. An American soldier is screaming, "Mortars! Get away from the windows!"
SUNDAY, AUGUST 22
Our house, which we share with Newsweek, has been transformed into a fortress. To get to it, you have to pass several roadblocks and checkpoints and negotiate a labyrinth of forty-foot concrete blast walls that surround the compound. security has been beefed up; we have more guards at the gate and one on the roof. Sometimes it feels like living in a luxurious prison. I already miss walking. On my last trip home, I spent seven hours walking around Manhattan on my first day back just because I could. security and administrative work takes up most of my time these past few days. I read through the security reports e-mailed to us every day and discuss with the Iraqi staff new measures to make sure everyone is safe. We have to register our armored car and the paperwork lacks appropriate border stamps. I can't get hold of the Jordanian driver who brought the car in, and don't want to send it back to the border, but the police keep stopping us at checkpoints around town threatening to confiscate the car. Last night as Haaqi pleaded with a cop to give us back the car documents, I sat debating whether I should risk standing at a police checkpoint - a common target of attacks - or take a chance on losing the manifest. In Iraq, we are often security experts first, administrators second, and reporters third. I interview an imam in a mosque today and I politely decline his request to turn my cell phone off. I can't afford to be out of touch with the bureau and my colleagues in case there is an emergency, I explain. Sure enough, half an hour later my phone rings. It's the check-aftera-boom call from my boyfriend, Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek. "You okay? Come back home soon, there was an explosion somewhere," he says. We have several conversations of this nature each day. In Iraq there is this constant anxiety over life and death.
MONDAY, AUGUST 23
The Najaf crisis is escalating and I want to find a way to go there. My friend Ivan Watson, a reporter with NPR, sent an e-mail from Najaf today saying the road from Baghdad was "terrifying." He lay down in the back seat for the entire three-hour drive, hiding under a sheet and heaps of plastic bags. They passed an aid convoy, including an ambulance that had been ambushed minutes before and was burning.Two photographer friends are stuck in the Imam AIi shrine right now with Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, because they can't walk back through the sniper alleys and into the noman's land of the old city. A French photographer friend got shot in the leg by a sniper as she ran for cover. And worst of all, Georges Malbrunot, a French reporter for Le Figaro newspaper, has disappeared on the road to Najaf.
Babak and I discuss the possibility of a trip to Najaf, but both our Iraqi teams refuse to go. "They'11 kidnap you and kill us," my driver Munaf says. He read in the newspaper today that an Italian journalist was kidnapped in Najaf and the dead body of his driver was discovered in his car.
In search of a way to write about Najaf from Baghdad, I go to the two main Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods to do man-in-the-street interviews, clad in a scarf and long robe. In Khathemiya I am able to walk around the streets and corner passersby for a chat. In Adamiya, a Sunni enclave where most of the population is anti-American, I have to be more discreet. We drive around for some time until we find a crowded bookshop. Haaqi goes inside for a few minutes to take its pulse and determines that it is safe enough. Inside, the bookseller chats away, praising the brave Mujahedin of Falluja and calling it "a nationalistic resistance," while dismissing the Sadr militia as opportunists who are politically motivated. I stand close to the counter, practically whispering in English to Haaqi and holding my notebook out of sight below the counter as I take quick notes.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 27
I am in Najaf. There is a tense calm in the city today after Grand Ayatollah AIi Sistani arrived yesterday and brokered a peace deal between Sadr's militia and the Iraqi government, and, in effect, the Americans. Analysts are saying that, after many weeks of fighting, the crisis in Najaf was resolved by a frail cleric.