Rory McCarthy has been the Guardian's correspondent in Iraq for nearly two years. In his diary of the turbulent months leading up to tomorrow's election, he describes Baghdad friends' increasing disillusion with the occupation and the mounting difficulties faced by journalists trying to tell the story
Saturday January 29, 2005
Sunday November 7 2004
I flew back into Baghdad today after a short break in Egypt. The plane from Amman is run by the national airline, Royal Jordanian, but it is flown and crewed by South Africans. It is small and often crowded, and perhaps this exaggerates the size of the passengers. They are nearly all white and powerfully built, dressed ostensibly in civilian clothes but wearing their own hints of uniform: identical, unmarked black rucksacks bought from the military PX, ochre suede desert boots and black purses round their necks to hold their identity cards. They are contractors, either providing food and housing at US bases, or running security teams for diplomats or other contractors. Most are ex-military men chasing high wages, escaping the confinements of the west in the lawlessness of Iraq. Apart from soldiers, diplomats and journalists, they are the only foreigners arriving in Baghdad these days.
The plane dropped steeply in a tight spiral because the pilot must keep directly above the airport, the only secure stretch of land for miles.
As you come out of the heavily guarded airport compound, the last message from the US military is written in English on a small metal signpost: Weapon status red. Lock and load. Just beyond, at the beginning of the broad highway that leads into town, were the remains of a four-wheel drive and a saloon car, the paint stripped from their metal frames by the intensity of an explosion - earlier this morning there had been a suicide bomb attack on the checkpoint. This 10-mile stretch of motorway from the western outskirts of Baghdad into the city centre is among the most dangerous in Iraq. The bombings come almost weekly now.
When I arrived at the hotel, the guards at the concrete-walled gateway told me a former driver had been waiting outside in his car this morning. He was with his cousins, all of whom were armed, and said he was waiting to kill one of my translators, Qais.
Qais is a thoughtful poet, a Shia, who in quiet moments sits in my hotel room reading pamphlets about Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon. Lately he has become the target of a campaign of threats and intimidation by this driver. It has gone on so long, it's hard to see where it began. With jealousy, perhaps, rivalries between irreconcilable Iraqi personalities, twisted notions of pride, paranoia. We told the driver to leave long ago, but the threats keep coming. In October, Qais received a text message in Arabic on his mobile phone that said: "Wherever you go, even to Mecca, I will find you." Not long after, he sent me a text. "Tell u what, when I am sleeping now, 1 eye is opened, 2nd is closed, like wolf."
Tonight, US troops captured the general hospital on the western edge of Falluja, the start of an offensive we've been expecting for weeks. The Iraqi government declared a 60-day state of emergency.
Monday November 8
I'd already agreed with Qais that, for his safety, he should stay away from work for a while, and today we met in the Babylon Hotel nearby so I could pay him. It is Ramadan, the month of fasting, but in the lounge small groups of Iraqis sit in black leather chairs, illicitly smoking and drinking Coke. Qais came dressed in a black shirt and, for the first time, a jacket, the shoulders slipping off his small frame. He was angry, humiliated and impeccably polite as he walked away. I wish it didn't have to be like this.
Saturday November 13
I went this morning to visit Mohammad Hassan al-Balwa in a smart suburb of Baghdad. He had the television on in the corner of the sitting room and we sat together and watched footage from the US assault on Falluja, some 40 miles away.
Balwa was born and brought up in Falluja, and is one of the city's wealthiest men, owning several houses and dozens of plots of land. He is 49 and wears a neat pair of glasses and smart suits, as befits a well-educated engineer. He spent several years studying in Romania for a PhD and now runs a successful import-export business. Balwa says that business has slowed dramatically since the war; a handful of Iraqis are making a fortune from contracts with the Americans, but they face serious threats to their lives and are denounced as "collaborators" by the insurgents. Perhaps pragmatically, I suppose he is waiting for an American withdrawal before he starts lining up his business deals once again. Like most in Falluja and the surrounding provinces, he is a Sunni Muslim. We have never talked about how he inherited his family name, Balwa, but it means "disaster" in Arabic.
Towards the end of 2003, Balwa was made head of the Falluja city council, a position he had been invited to take up by the Americans. He'd tried to work with the local US commanders, but became rapidly disenchanted and, although he could see benefits from a relationship between Iraq and the US, bitterly opposed the occupation. I was surprised to find him today watching al-Hura ("the free one"), a new Arabic television channel funded by the Americans as a pro-western alternative to the popular al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. I didn't think any Iraqis watched it, least of all someone like Balwa. Perhaps he is not as angry as he sounds.
When we first met, in March 2004, resentment of the Americans in Falluja was on everyone's lips, but it was before the days when insurgents walked freely through the streets with their weapons. You can trace the crisis back to a year earlier, to just after the fall of Saddam's regime, when US troops fired on a demonstration in the city and killed 14 civilians. It was the moment when the Americans, in effect, lost Falluja; from that day the insurgency grew rapidly, attacking US bases and convoys. Eventually, in March 2004, four American security contractors were shot dead as they drove through the city. Their bodies were burnt, dragged through the streets, then hanged from a metal pontoon bridge across the Euphrates.
The following month, US marines launched an offensive against Falluja, but after three weeks, with hundreds of civilians dead and dozens of American casualties, they struck a ceasefire deal. It backfired and the insurgents took control, running the city through their own mujahideen shura, or council. "There was a council, there were police," Balwa said, "but everyone was listening to the mujahideen shura."
Now, after months of warnings, the US military were launching another assault on the city, this time a bigger and more determined offensive. Most of the 300,000 people of the city fled several weeks ago.
Balwa was appalled by the latest offensive, but even he, an educated moderate, spoke freely of his sympathy for the insurgents and showed few misgivings about the Islamic extremists among them, such as the group Tawhid and Jihad, which boasts of its campaign of kidnapping and beheadings. (Among its victims was the British contractor Ken Bigley.)
"That was the best situation we had," he said. "When the mujahideen shura were in charge, there were no robbers, nobody was being arrested and no Americans were going in." Then he offered a slight retreat. "We didn't have any choice. It was not the best thing we could get, it was the best thing we had."
In fact, he left the city in the summer and brought his wife and young children to Baghdad, where they live in a friend's sparsely furnished house. His green BMW was parked in the drive and, though the family was fasting for Ramadan, his eldest son, Hassan, brought in a plate of baklava and cans of Pepsi for me.
For four months, Balwa ran the city council, until he quit during the first US offensive in April. He is not an overtly religious man, nor was he a senior Ba'athist (he surely held at least some junior position in the party, though he insists he did not), and he believes that the resistance has largely arisen simply in opposition to the American occupation. "If the Americans were not in this country, we wouldn't have heard of Tawhid and Jihad, or seen on the television what is happening now. But the pressure that the Americans brought on the Fallujan people is what made them so tough."
When I stayed at his house back in March, Balwa showed me around his old school, the Falluja Preparatory School for Boys. The Americans had spent thousands of dollars "reconstructing" the building but, apart from a new coat of paint, it was hard to see any improvement. Windows and desks were broken, light fittings were missing, there was no equipment in the science lab and pupils in the English class were sharing a few tattered copies of The Merchant Of Venice. That was the best school in town.
"I want to make this point clear," said Balwa. "For four months I worked with the Americans - me and a lot of doctors and technical people and educated people - but they couldn't do anything for us." He insisted what he and most Iraqis call the "muqawama", the resistance, will fight until the Americans withdraw, that the elections due to be held tomorrow are a "lie", and that the Americans ultimately face defeat in Iraq. As I left, he shook my hand and said he planned to return to Falluja after the battle.
Sunday November 14
This morning, an editor at the BBC asked their television reporter in Baghdad, on air, how Iraqis felt about the current situation. The reporter replied: "I haven't really spoken to many people because we are unable to show our faces on the streets. It is too dangerous." It used to be that journalists, seeing each other again in Baghdad for the first time, would ask: "How long are you staying?" Now they ask: "Are you going out much?" While 27 million Iraqis are trying to come to terms with the wrench from dictatorship into ugly occupation, foreign reporters can barely walk the street in safety.
It was different in the months immediately after the war. We (myself and other Guardian journalists) took a house, a comfortable, whitewashed, cube-shaped home owned by the Khudairi family, a pillar of the rich elite. The building had been empty since they fled the country in 1991 during the first Gulf war, so the electrics and plumbing were in need of constant repair. Next door, in a much larger house also owned by the Khudairis, lived Sharif Ali, the pretender to the Iraqi throne. He kept sheep in his vast garden, next to the empty swimming pool, and entertained tribal sheikhs from across Iraq with lavish banquets.
We had two or three indolent guards who offered a minimum of protection, often slept through their shifts and started up the generator when the power went down every two or three hours. Yet we felt generally safe in our quiet backstreet. In April 2004, however, when the US military first attacked Falluja and a wave of kidnapping began, we moved out for a month and retreated to a hotel. It was better guarded but still outside the Green Zone, the Baghdad headquarters for the US, British and Iraqi governments that is on the site of Saddam's former palace and now heavily fortified with rows of blast walls, razor wire and tank positions.
I grew a beard, tried to dress more like a young Iraqi man might, and we returned to the house for the summer. We finally left for good in September, the morning after four carloads of gunmen kidnapped two Italian aid workers from their offices, in broad daylight, a few minutes' drive from our house. Returning to the hotel, which was by now surrounded by 12ft-high concrete blast walls and patrolled by Iraqi guards, felt like a deep personal defeat. After a year of trying to live among Iraqis, we'd had to hide behind our concrete walls. I was completely cut off from the people I was supposed to be writing about. The talk was constantly and exhaustingly of security.
A week after we left the house, Ken Bigley and two of his American colleagues were kidnapped from a house not unlike ours in Mansour, a wealthy district of western Baghdad. All three were later decapitated. Several journalists stayed in the hotel for days at a time. Our landlord's agent was eager for us to sign up for another year's rent, but there was no going back.
It was Eid today, the end of Ramadan, but it was excruciatingly quiet. No sign of the usual celebration.
Thursday November 18
The US marines now seem largely in control of Falluja and are clearing bodies from the streets. A journalist embedded with the troops reported one marine captain as saying, "This exemplifies the horrors of war", as his men took away the corpses. "We don't wish this upon anyone, but everyone needs to understand there are consequences for not following the Iraqi government."
Wasfi Shamari came to the hotel for coffee this morning, and to continue with a story he had begun telling me several weeks earlier. It is also about the consequences of not following the Iraqi government, but at a very different time. He was arrested in March 1991 near his home town of Hilla, a couple of hours' drive south of Baghdad, in the rich, fertile fields around the Euphrates. It was a time when Saddam's government was reeling from the Gulf war and facing a massive and unplanned revolt from angry Iraqi soldiers returning defeated from Kuwait, from large numbers of Shia in the south fighting back after years of repression, and from Kurds in the north fighting for autonomy from Baghdad. The rebels took 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, but the US authorities chose not to intervene and Saddam quickly brought out his tanks and helicopters, and crushed the rebellion.
Shamari, a schoolteacher and a Shia Muslim, took part in the revolt, but was arrested on March 17. He was moved between a series of high-security prisons, interrogated and beaten, and was lucky to escape with his life - thousands of other prisoners taken from Hilla at the same time were transported to a large field at Mahawil, a town just outside the city, where they were shot dead and buried in lines of trenches. Their bodies were uncovered only in the first weeks after the war last year. No war crimes trials against the most senior perpetrators have really begun, and one of the local tribal sheikhs involved in running the Mahawil killings was arrested and then accidentally released by the Americans last year.
Shamari is a dignified man, dressed in a grey suit. He has a scar on the right side of his face and another above his eyebrow, and he talks methodically, as a lawyer might, moving slowly though his story. It is factually detailed but strangely shorn of emotion. Two years after he was arrested, he was dumped, alive but weak, in a street in central Baghdad, near what is now the Green Zone. A taxi driver drove him back to Hilla for free. I ask what it was like when he first saw his family again. "It was a big shock for them to see me alive and so thin and broken," he says. "Returning to these feelings is really difficult. I was crying and words didn't mean anything."
For years afterwards, he lived a half-life, frequently re-arrested or in hiding from the authorities. Now he runs an Iraqi association that represents former political prisoners. "The thing they want to take from you in jail is your humanity and dignity and pride. And they did. And sometimes they equate you with animals, and it is hard to get it back. It takes time and you have to be tough. Some people don't get it back."
His phone rings and he is called to a meeting of government ministers in the Green Zone to talk about his plans for a future as a politician.
Monday November 29
I feel this story is becoming more important than ever as America's ambitions in Iraq unravel, but our security is now a real problem. Margaret Hassan, a British aid worker kidnapped a few weeks ago, has been shot dead. Four ex-Gurkhas were killed in a mortar attack on the Green Zone. More than 40 bodies of Iraqi policemen and national guardsmen have been found dumped by the roadside in Mosul, which seems to have taken over from Falluja as a frontline for the insurgency. Most of the city's police force has fled.
The Iraqi government announced that, despite the violence, elections will be held on January 30 2005, as planned. Several Sunni politicians almost immediately called for a delay and warned that the vote could tip Iraq into civil war.
As the violence grows worse, several journalists are moving from our hotel into the Green Zone, where they will stay in the Rashid Hotel, which is virtually a military barracks. Room inspections are enforced and mobile phone networks are blacked out by radio wave baffles.
It would be almost impossible for us to work there, and would probably put our Iraqi staff in even greater danger, so we'll stay put in our hotel in what the US military by default calls the Red Zone. We'll start to take more security precautions, but I'm not going to hire armed guards. Several reporters, especially at the television channels but also at newspapers, are now working with gunmen by their side. I don't know how they can expect Iraqis to talk to them frankly or to tell them apart from the US military. It's little different from the days of the Saddam regime before the war, when we were forced to work with information ministry minders whose very presence would terrify into silence most of the people we met.
The British Foreign Office has banned its staff from driving along the airport road because of suicide bombers. Embassy staff are also no longer flying on either Royal Jordanian or Iraqi Airways, the only two civilian airliners that fly into the country. The main highway that leads west to Jordan has been too dangerous to travel for most of the year.
Meanwhile, in London, at his monthly news conference, Tony Blair said he wanted to see more good news coming out of Iraq. "I just wish more of the other story of what's happening in Iraq would get across," he said.
Saturday December 11
I spent the morning in Mustanisirya University in Baghdad with an English literature professor called Siham Hattab Hamdan. I've been visiting her every few months since the start of 2004, when I met her at the local council offices in Sadr City, the Shia slums in eastern Baghdad. She is my age, 33, dresses conservatively in a hijab and never shakes my hand. Her brother Karim was executed in 1983 because the regime suspected he was a member of Dawa, a Shia opposition party. She continued her studies and eventually wrote an MA thesis on The Significance Of Travel In The Novels Of EM Forster. After the war, she was invited to join the US-appointed local council in her area and, because she is bright and eloquent, was flown to Washington with a handful of other Iraqi women a year ago to meet George Bush. But she is not exactly a convert to the American occupation, and has become gradually more disenchanted as the months have passed. She has been able to do little for Sadr City, an area of tremendous poverty with glaring problems of sewage and electricity shortages. In April and again in August, a radical Shia militia in the district (and elsewhere across the south) took up arms against the US military. Hamdan has been threatened with death several times for sitting on the council, a position seen by the insurgency as tantamount to collaboration.
Today she was away from politics, teaching the metaphysical poets to a classroom of students. The university campus was full of young men and women, most crowded around small tea stalls chatting furiously and never apparently going to class. In her office later, Hamdan talks about Forster and how she finds elements in A Passage To India that are similar to the crisis in Iraq.
"There is that kind of prediction that everything could happen at any moment," she says. She talks about the sense of foreign occupation and the relationship between Aziz, the Indian doctor, and his English friend and supporter Fielding, with whom he eventually falls out as the chasm between occupied and occupier inevitably stretches too wide. "Ordinary Iraqi citizens feel that sense of foreign forces on their land, that this is an occupation. Sometimes you can justify it, but you cannot accept it. At the beginning, we thanked the British and Americans for getting rid of Saddam, but again we cannot accept them as realities. It is difficult to decide between them. This is the best of two evils, but it is still an evil. It is Forster's hope that one day people can understand each other and benefit from each other, but not in a manner of exploitation and expansion."
Monday January 3 2005
Back in Baghdad again, after two weeks' break. An odd press conference today at which the Americans put up on the stage Walid Aman Hussein al-Janabi, an unsure-looking man who is the governor of Babil province, an area to the south-west of Baghdad. "How is the security situation in Babil?" the governor was asked. "The security situation in the region is perfect," he replied. Silence.
The problem is that one of the two main roads south from Baghdad runs through the north of his province, where it encounters a violent Sunni belt known, not unreasonably, as the "triangle of death". There have been many killings there, of both Iraqis and foreigners. Driving down to Kerbala in May with a colleague, we passed the scene of a shooting along this road. A crowd had gathered to inspect the bodies of two dead journalists, one Polish and one Polish-Algerian, riddled with bullets and soaked in blood.
The governor later admitted that he personally didn't drive along the road and that he had flown in to Baghdad by helicopter this morning. There is sometimes an alternate reality in the minds of those operating inside the US-secured government apparatus. On the same stage in February last year, an Iraqi journalist asked an American brigadier general what he would say to Iraqi children scared by the roar of low-flying helicopters and passing tanks. "What we would tell the children of Iraq is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom," the general replied. There's none of the dignity here that Shamari, the political prisoner, talked about. This is just humiliation.
An American woman contracted to USAid, the development arm of the US government, was killed in a suicide bombing on the airport road this morning.
Thursday January 13
A French journalist who had been staying in a hotel near the Green Zone went missing last week. No one seems to know what happened, but it seems ever more likely that she has been kidnapped. Journalists are becoming targets because the insurgency clearly feels the publicity benefit of showing a western hostage on television. At the same time, criminal gangs realise that, like all other westerners here, we represent ransom possibilities. There are rumours that millions of dollars have been paid to free some foreign hostages in recent months. Also, Iraqis frequently tell me they feel the western press has done nothing for them and that they identify us all as steadfast allies of the American and British occupiers.
Both the Americans and the Iraqis now admit that four of Iraq's biggest provinces will be too insecure to hold elections. In public, they insist they are on top of the security crisis, even though it appears to worsen by the day. Already this month, the governor of Baghdad and the city's deputy police chief have been assassinated, as has an aide to the leading Shia clerical authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In private, though, the Americans accept security is flimsy and have been warning journalists to dissuade their offices in Washington and London from sending out too many reporters to cover the January 30 election because it is so dangerous - 49 journalists died last year while covering Iraq. The big American networks are sending in their stars, people like Peter Jennings and Geraldo Rivera, but they are going to be staying firmly inside the Green Zone, unable to present more than an official view of the election happening in the real Iraq beyond the concrete barriers. In Paris, President Chirac told French journalists to keep away from Iraq. "If there were fewer journalists, there would be fewer risks," he said. "It is not reasonable."
Many streets are going to be closed in a three-day lock-down leading up to election day, when Iraqis without the requisite ID cards won't be allowed to drive. The only people on the roads will be the American and Iraqi security forces, journalists, election observers, party political agents and, almost inevitably, a handful of suicide car bombers.
American officials have commandeered a couple of helicopters to fly journalists to cities too dangerous to reach by road. There they will invite local notable Iraqis into the base to talk to reporters. Given the environment in which they'll be speaking, how frank and how critical are these people likely to be?
I've been trying to arrange safe passage with the Iraqi Red Crescent into Falluja to see what's left of the city. Some of its residents have returned, but most of the houses have been badly damaged. Bodies are still lying in the streets, and being eaten by dogs. The idea of holding an election there is unthinkable - no one wants to vote and security is still very bad in the area.
I went to see Balwa again today. He has been back twice since Falluja was opened up on Christmas Eve and found his house so badly damaged that it is now uninhabitable. It had been spray-painted with a red cross on the outside.
"The Americans need diplomacy," Balwa said. "They need to build a bridge to the people in Falluja, otherwise they can't contain the wrath of the people there." He produced a series of documents, proposals made in the summer of 2003 to the Americans by himself and other figures from Falluja, about how the Americans and Iraqis could run the city between them, peacefully. "We had a plan, we asked for support, but it didn't happen. We told them from the beginning they were making mistakes. A year ago, we warned there would be consequences of these actions."
Monday January 17
I took one of those American helicopter trips today and we flew down to Nasiriyah, a Shia-dominated town in the south. Security here has been far better than in the Sunni regions around Baghdad, but still we travelled in a long line of armoured personnel carriers driven by the Italian military, which is deployed in the city. It was a hopeless visit. The city police chief, under the glare of the television cameras, insisted that all was peaceful and elections would pass off smoothly. "It's better than many other provinces in Iraq," he said. But he gave little sense of the political situation or the relative strength of the communists, who were once strong here, or the Sadrist movement, an often violent Shia faction led by a young rebel cleric who has many supporters here. One Iraqi police colonel with 22 years' service pulled me aside and spoke frankly about his distaste for the several religious parties competing in the vote. "Different parties, same shit," he said in English. His colleagues tried to silence him.
We went off in our convoy to visit an orphanage. As soon as we arrived, there was a loud explosion in the distance. An American bodyguard there to protect the US diplomat who was with us insisted it was a car bomb and that we should leave immediately. We stayed, but our efforts to talk to the Iraqis who gathered on the street around us made little headway. As we began to leave, the children in the crowd started throwing stones at us and the Italian soldiers, each with a plume of black feathers bursting from their Kevlar helmets, looked embarrassed as they tried to calm the crowd.
Wednesday January 19
I woke just after 7am when a massive explosion shook the hotel - a suicide truck bomb just 100 yards away had targeted a building used as a base for Australian troops. At least two Iraqis were killed and several others injured, including a couple of Australian soldiers. Windows were shattered throughout our hotel, debris fell into the pool and there was a vile smell coming from the burning wreckage of the car.
We went down to the scene and I felt somehow reassured that our hotel, where many journalists live, was not the target. The shops opposite, including the Milky Way ice-cream parlour, were torn through by the blast, and an American Abrams tank sat blocking the road. It had "Hell Yeah" printed on one side of the barrel and "Heavens No" on the other. Two Apache helicopter gunships circled overhead as American soldiers pored over the wreckage. A crowd of Iraqis looked on, one man wearing a burgundy dressing gown and plastic slippers. It was the first time I'd been able to stand out in the street in the open like this for months.
This was the second suicide car bomb in our district in two days. Yesterday, just before 9am, another huge explosion had shaken the hotel. It was followed by gunfire from the police just across the road, silence, then a wave of sirens and American Kiowa observation helicopters circling overhead. That bomb killed at least two people outside the offices of the leading Shia political party. In the middle of it all, a man in the flats opposite my hotel room stepped on to the balcony in his underwear and, oblivious to the gunfire and panic around him, collected a pair of socks from the clothes rack where his laundry was drying.
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