This is part of a continuing series about the life of an embedded reporter in Iraq.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Chivalry and black-framed glasses may fly in New York City, but it’s a different game in Baghdad.
Two female reporters from the Los Angeles Times had graciously agreed to give me a lift from the International Zone to my hotel. (As the London Telegraph’s Oliver Poole told me back at CPIC, “It’s a close knit group in Baghdad, and everyone there looks out for each other — especially people who are new to the country.”)
As we headed to the car, I insisted that one of the reporters sit in the front seat. I thought it only polite — after all, they were the ones doing me a favor. It was only when I was told, “This is the Middle East, women sit in the back. Men sit in the front, ” that I meekly shut up and got in the car. My next lesson on Iraq came a few minutes later, when I was told to take my glasses off before we crossed the bridge into Baghdad proper — so I wouldn’t stand out as much.
Within a few minutes we had cleared the speed bumps and checkpoints on the 14 July Bridge and were out of the International Zone. It would be presumptuous of me to try characterize all of Baghdad from the handful of blocks I traveled, but the rows of squat, brown buildings that lined the route had obviously been starved of care for quite some time.
We turned onto a side street guarded by Kalashnikov-toting Iraqi guards, tire spikes and a couple concrete barriers, and a block or so later, pulled up in front of the hotel.
I’m not telling you the name of the hotel for the same reason I’m not telling you the names of the reporters who gave me a lift. It’s difficult when writing about the lives of journalists in Baghdad to straddle the line between reporting what I’ve seen and not giving away details that might add to the danger reporters already face. While others have written about the handful of hotels most Western reporters stay in, and a few Google searches will probably point you in the right direction, I still think it best to omit specific names and locations when they don’t affect the content of these stories.
My reason for staying at the hotel wasn’t just to hang out for a couple days. I’m working on a story for the print version of CJR about Iraqi reporters who work for Western news organizations. The only way to do that topic justice is to unembed yourself from the military and head out to where the reporters are.
The hotel is in pretty good shape, but you still have to be buzzed through the front gate, which is always barred and locked, with a metal detector just inside the door and an armed guard stationed at a desk. Aside from intermittent gunfire from the street outside the barriers, things were quiet, and I felt relatively safe. The gunfire seemed to occur most often during the early afternoon, usually consisting of no more than one or two shots. There were times, though, when there would be a longer volley. I was told that some people drive by and take potshots at the guards in front of the hotel, which might account for the longer bursts.
Getting a room wasn’t a problem; while the hotel used to be full of journalists, many either left the country after the December elections or were pulled out by their publications, which have been cutting back on Baghdad staff as things have gotten progressively more dangerous. The day I checked in, the only people I saw were a few middle-aged Iraqi men in leather jackets forlornly smoking by the front desk, and a lonely cafeteria attendant, sitting at his cash register watching a soap opera.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
In fact, I didn’t see any Westerners at all until my second day, when I contacted the acting bureau chief for an American paper who was staying in my hotel. As we were discussing the state of reporting in Baghdad and Iraq in general, he told me that I was a little late to the game. These days, more American reporters are leaving Iraq than arriving. In large part, for the U.S. press, “The party’s pretty much over.”