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Bad Reporting in Baghdad By: Jonathan Foreman
The Weekly Standard | Monday, May 05, 2003


IT'S ENDLESSLY FASCINATING to watch the interactions between U.S. patrols and the residents of Baghdad. It's not just the love bombing the troops continue to receive from all classes of Baghdadi--though the intensity of the population's pro-American enthusiasm is astonishing, even to an early believer in the liberation of Iraq, and continues unabated despite delays in restoring power and water to the city. It's things like the reaction of the locals to black troops. They seem to be amazed by their presence in the American army. One group of kids in a poor neighborhood shouted "Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson" at Staff Sergeant Darren Swain; the daughter of a diplomat on the other hand informed him, "One of my maids has the same skin as you."

It's things like the way the women old and young flirt outrageously with GIs, lifting their veils to smile, waving from high windows, and shyly calling hello from half-opened doors. Or the way the little girls seem to speak much better English than the little boys who are always elbowing them out of the way. Or the way the troops get a sense of the gender violence endemic in the culture: Yesterday in the poor al Sahliya neighborhood two sweet 12 to 14-year-old sisters on a rooftop who introduced themselves to me and Staff Sergeant Gannon Edgy as Souha and Samaha were chased away by a rock-wielding male relative. His violent anger hinted at problems to come here.

But you won't see much of this on TV or read about it in the papers. To an amazing degree, the Baghdad-based press corps avoids writing about or filming the friendly dealings between U.S. forces here and the local population--most likely because to do so would require them to report the extravagant expressions of gratitude that accompany every such encounter. Instead you read story after story about the supposed fury of Baghdadis at the Americans for allowing the breakdown of law and order in their city.

Well, I've met hundreds of Iraqis as I accompanied army patrols all over the city during the past two weeks and I've never encountered any such fury (even in areas that were formerly controlled by the Marines, who as the premier warrior force were never expected to carry out peacekeeping or policing functions). There is understandable frustration about the continuing failure of the Americans to get the water supply and the electricity turned back on, though the ubiquity of generators indicates that the latter was always a problem. And there are appeals for more protection (difficult to provide with only 12,000 troops in a city of 6 million that has not been placed under strick martial law). But there is no fury.

Given that a large proportion of the city's poorest residents have taken part in looting the Baathist elite's ministries, homes, and institutions, that should tell you something about the sources preferred by the denizens of the Palestine Hotel (the preferred home of the press corps). Indeed it's striking that while many of the troops I've accompanied find themselves feeling some sympathy for the inhabitants of "Typhoid Alley" and other destitute neighborhoods and their attempts to obtain fans, furniture, TVs, etc., the press corps often seems solidly on the side of those who grew fat under the Saddam regime. (That said, imagine the press hysteria that would have greeted a decision by U.S. troops to use deadly force against the looters and defend the property of the city's elite.) Even in the wealthiest neighborhoods--places like the Mansoor district, where you still see intact pictures of Saddam Hussein--people seem to be a lot more pro-American than you could ever imagine from reading the wires.

Perhaps this is just another case of reporters with an anti-American or antiwar agenda. Perhaps living in Saddam's totalitarian Baghdad has left some of the press here with a case of Stockholm syndrome. It may also be a byproduct of depending on interpreters and fixers who were connected to or worked with the approval of the Saddam regime. And you cannot underestimate the herd instinct that can take over when you have a lot of media folk in a confined area for any length of time. But whatever the cause, the result has been very selective reporting.

The Associated Press's Hamza Hendawi, for instance, massively exaggerated and misrepresented the nature of the looting in Baghdad in the first days after the U.S. armored forces took key points in the city. Like so many Baghdad-based reporters, she described an "unchecked frenzy" that did not exist at that time (the looting was targeted and nonviolent, in the sense that the looters attacked neither persons nor inhabited dwellings). Read her pieces and you'll meet a veritable parade of Iraqis who are angry with the United States.

Then there were those exaggerated reports of April 18 claiming (as Reuters' Hassan Hafidh put it) that "Tens of thousands of protesters demanded on Friday that the United States get out of Iraq. . . . In the biggest protest since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted, 24-year-long rule nine days ago, Muslims poured out of mosques and into the streets of Baghdad, calling for an Islamic state to be established." Demonstrators did come out of one mosque, but reporters seem to have confused them with the large numbers of Shia Muslims gathering for the pilgrimage to Karbala--a pilgrimage long forbidden by the Saddam regime.

There are frequent small demonstrations in the blocks outside the Palestine and Sheraton hotels--partly because that is where the press corps is congregated, but also because it's an area that many Baath party officials fled to after the war began. Anyone who assumes that the atmosphere of that downtown area is in any way representative of the city would be gravely mistaken. However, many reporters have chosen to do just that rather than venture further out to places where they would have seen that far more typical and frequent "demonstrations" involve hundreds or even thousands of Iraqis gathering to cheer U.S. troops. Admittedly, some of those crowds include people begging for money, desperate for aid, or just curious about these strange-looking foreigners. "Most children here have never seen a foreigner" one Iraqi civilian explained to me, "that is why they are so excited." Another told me with a smile, "Everyone here wanted to go to America; now America has come here!"

More irritating is the myth constantly repeated by antiwar columnists that the military let the city be destroyed--in particular the hospitals and the national museum--while guarding the Ministry of Oil. The museum looting is turning out to have been grotesquely exaggerated. And there is no evidence for the ministry of oil story. Depending on the article, the Marines had either a tank or a machine gun nest outside the ministry. Look for a photo of that tank or that machine gun nest and you'll look in vain. And even if the Marines had briefly guarded the oil ministry it would have been by accident: The Marines defended only the streets around their own headquarters and so-called Areas of Operation. Again, though, given the pro-regime sources favored by so many of the press corps huddled in the Palestine Hotel, it's not surprising that this rumor became gospel.

A typical piece of reporting on the "destruction" in Baghdad came from the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran on April 22, which repeated all the usual gossip about the ministry of oil and then quoted Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University: "The Iraqis had very high hopes for the Americans," Jawad told him. "But all this euphoria about change, all this relief, went away when they saw the amount of destruction to the infrastructure of the country and the carelessness of the Americans to the Iraqis' day-to-day lives." Yes, euphoria is bound dissipate, but there's no sign it has yet. More important, what infrastructure destruction? The reporter lets the charge stand undisputed but must be aware that roads, bridges, power stations, and rails lines were all left unbombed and intact by U.S. forces. The exception was power substations that fed key government buildings and broadcasting facilities (unless you count army bases and secret police headquarters as "infrastructure").

But my favorite mad media moment was when an AP journalist turned up in a car heading to the Ministry of Information, the top floor of which was on fire. "Why aren't you putting out the fire?" she angrily demanded of Sgt. William Moore. He looked at her with astonishment and asked, "How the hell am I supposed to do that?" Turning away, he muttered, "Piss on it?"

It is true that the military has been slow in some respects to make the transition to an occupation role. And the senior brass here and at CENTCOM have a lot of explaining to do about their planning for postwar operations--the Army arrived here with virtually no Arabic speakers and even after two weeks there were only a handful. But as Gen. Buford Blount of the 3rd Infantry Division pointed out the same day as the Ministry of Information fire, "It's only a week since we were in combat here," and the media have bizarrely high expectations about how quickly a conquered city should return to normal.

Even embedded journalists (or perhaps their editors) can unconsciously misconstrue the facts on the ground. For instance, David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times, who like me is embedded with the 4th Battalion of the 64th Armored Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, recently accompanied my Scout platoon on a patrol. We went to an upmarket residential area, in which houses that formerly belonged to top Baath officials had been taken over by looters--and in which a house owned by Qusay Hussein had been destroyed by a JDAM bomb. I was talking to Dr. Ali Faraj al Salih, a cardiologist trained at Edinburgh, when Zucchino, a fine, experienced foreign correspondent, walked over and began listening in. I asked Dr. Ali if he'd had any trouble with looters. "No" he replied, "I have guns, with license from the government. And I have two bodyguards." "Have you always had the bodyguards?" I asked him. "Oh yes," he said.

But Zucchino's April 22 article in the L.A. Times--headlined "In Postwar 'Dodge City,' Soldiers Now Deputies"--reports "Dr. Ali Faraj, a cardiologist, stood before his well-appointed home and mentioned that he has hired two armed guards," as if the doctor had been driven to this expense by unrest following the arrival of the Americans.

Things may yet go horribly wrong here in American-occupied Baghdad. But it is bizarre and sad that so few journalists are able or willing to recognize this honeymoon period for what it is.

Jonathan Foreman is a correspondent for the New York Post, embedded with the Scout Platoon of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad.




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