Liberties and Ambiguities

As Iraq began to unravel

Chris Hondros
Getty Images
Once the fighting stopped, it seemed like the country was getting more pacified. By mid-April or so, all of the most experienced war journalists said, “Okay, now we can do it our way,” and, much to the shock and amazement of our embed people, we hired local Iraqis, you know? “Hey, do you have a car?” “Yes, have a car, sir. Yes, no problem.” “Okay, come here tomorrow. We’ll pay you forty dollars a day.” “Okay, yes, no problem.” You know, like we normally do in Africa, Asia, anywhere else. That whole first year Iraq was pretty safe to cover, relatively speaking.

Elizabeth Palmer
CBS News
It was a fool’s paradise in a way. I felt we could go anywhere, and we did, including into the Green Zone, which was extraordinary, because we were able to stroll around Saddam’s playground those days and see that crazy canal system where he’d putter around on his little boats.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post
It wasn’t like we were greeted with flowers and sweets, but it was an incredibly warm welcome. I’m fond of saying that back then the greatest risk I felt I was in was being invited into somebody’s house and being served food of sketchy origin or tea made from water pumped directly from the Tigris River. When I went up and told people I was an American with The Washington Post, I was embraced, I was welcomed into people’s homes. They wanted to tell me their stories. These were people who couldn’t speak freely, in many cases, for their entire adult lives.

Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post
To me, 2003 was really distinctive. It was unusual in a lot of ways. The most unusual was that for the first time, with the possible exception of Lebanon and Palestine, you had an Arab country where you could really try to get a handle on what was going on in the country, try to understand it in a more fundamental way. For so long I had been dealing with information ministries, with censorship, with intimidation, with a certain hesitation to speak. For that period after the fall of Saddam in April 2003, you could really do any story you wanted as long as you were determined enough, dogged enough, patient enough.

Nir Rosen
Freelance Writer
Right away the Shia clerics — the Shias were the ones who were supposed to welcome the Americans as the liberators — were certainly happy that Saddam was gone. But nobody was thanking the Americans. Nobody was greeting them as liberators. [Saddam] was an authority figure, and authority right away became the mosque. Everything else was wiped out. The vacuum was immediately filled up by the clerics, the tribal leaders, but in Baghdad, mostly clerics. And they were talking about pretty much the same thing: they were warning against the Americans, they were telling the Americans to leave, they were worried about American values corrupting their values — this is what you heard in every single mosque throughout the country.

Larry Kaplow
Cox Newspapers
In November of 2003 I was supposed to just go do a simple story on troops celebrating Thanksgiving. So I went to a base in Fallujah, and our car broke down within a hundred meters of the base. My translator and I hitchhiked into Fallujah and got a tow truck to pick us up, pick up the car, and then drive us in his tow truck to Baghdad with the car in tow. We knew it was a little dicey and I told my translator, “I won’t speak any English, and I can kind of pass myself off as an Iraqi.” And we did that, but it was still something you could do in those days. You could just show up in Fallujah and ask for help.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times
We used to go out to dinner at night. It’s hard to imagine. I remember one really nice place we used to go called Nabil’s. In 2003, we used to go there, not even regularly, but we went there a few times. It was very nice. It was blown up on Christmas Eve of that year. I more or less did anything I wanted. I went into Sunni villages, I met with insurgents, I met with people who hated the United States and you could sit with them and talk about it. You could go out all day in a place like Ramadi — where I think now your life expectancy would be about twenty minutes.

That started to change as the insurgency got going, that was kind of fall 2003. And I remember the day very clearly because I almost didn’t survive [laughing]. Ramadan — first day of Ramadan, October 2003 — it was about eight o’clock in the morning and we were all having coffee and there was a gigantic bomb blast and it shook our house, it was so close. And it was the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Two suicide bombers had hit the place. I actually got there before the cops did, and I remember seeing a suicide bomber — charred remains still clutching the steering wheel — but, you know, bodies everywhere, crowd going insane, as they do.

There were five suicide bombings that day, and I remember hearing the other bombs going off as I was literally walking through the bodies at this place. But we worked there and then drove to another — the second place that had been hit, which was a police station in a neighborhood called Shaab, which is basically a Shiite neighborhood. I stepped out of the car. I was with two photographers. About five hundred people turned on us instantly and surged. I remember there was an old man saying, “Kill them, kill them, kill them!” And so we were grabbed by the crowd and taken by the crowd and they started to beat the hell out of us, and I am reasonably sure they would have killed us, but the driver, my driver — Walid, who’s wonderful and happens to be like six-foot-eight and enormous — he reached into the crowd and pulled me out. And we somehow managed to get free and get into the car, and the crowd jumped on the car to try to stop it, which they were pretty close to doing. You know, three hundred people holding a car back could actually do it. They started to throw bricks into the car, and they were smashing the windows, and one of the photographers I was with, Mike Kamber, [they] busted his head open — it was really awful — and we almost didn’t get away. I remember we got back, took Mike to the hospital, and later that day we got back to the house, and I remember — I counted them, and I think it was seventeen bricks in the car; every window was smashed out. But that’s just an example of how it started to change, and the crowd — I remember the crowd — they blamed us for the bombing, you know? Which didn’t make a lot of sense to me — I mean, it doesn’t make immediate sense — kind of counterintuitive. But it’s like before the Americans got here we didn’t have these things and you’re American, so we’re angry at you.

Caroline Hawley
We would drive to Basra. I remember having a picnic on the side of the road for Christmas 2003. We stopped at the side of the road and had tea and eggs after covering Christmas with the British troops.

Colonel William Darley
Military Review
former public affairs officer
Arabic was — language was the Achilles heel, not just of public affairs but of the whole operation. If there’s any single lesson for the military in general, all aspects of the military, it’s first and foremost the ability to speak to people in their own language. It hampered public affairs to no end, but it was a constant, unremitting problem at every level, every operational level.

There was a survey done at the First Cavalry Division, soon after the arrival of a guy named General Chiarelli, who commanded the First Cavalry Division [as of March 2004], and he brought in every company commander, something like a hundred company commanders. One hundred percent, every company commander in the First Cavalry Division, according to General Chiarelli, every one of them said their number one concern, their number one priority, number one problem they had was language. I mean every one of them, it was unanimous, and that’s about as rare as you can get, saying if there was one thing they needed to take with them, that they needed to focus on was either getting the language ability themselves or taking with them extremely competent linguists. Constant, unremitting problem.

And that problem has shown up constantly across the board in everything. Operational, logistics, you know, intelligence. But in my area, [public affairs] it was just an unremitting problem.

Dan Murphy
The Christian Science Monitor
We had no concerns whatsoever. I remember one day I said to our guide, “Look, take off, go home, you’ve had a long day.” Afterwards, I walked up the street for half a mile to go to my favorite sweets shop, and I hopped in a cab and got home. I spoke a hell of a lot less Arabic then than I do now, but that was the way it was then. You know, Iraq has a wonderful road network and we could get up in the morning and think, “Shit, you know what? We haven’t been to Mosul in a while, let’s go there.” And you drive to Mosul. I mean, I drove to Tal Afar and knocked around for a couple of days there and then knocked on the gate of the U.S. base and saw it from their side. Right up until April 2004 we were rolling like that.

Anne Garrels
I broke the rules and went in with a contractor and did a tour of the Green Zone, went to some bars and hung out — openly. I did not hide my microphone in this case, and people were not nearly as forthcoming as I might have wished, but nonetheless, I got at least a slightly clearer picture, and was able to at least portray what the Green Zone really is like — this bizarre environment where you’ve got the CIA compound and the Bechtel compound and this security company compound and then the plush AID [Agency for International Development] compound, and the new sports facility for the military, and the embassy guys live over here, and then the security companies have their own bars. And the drug of choice happens to be steroids in this war — Who’d have thunk it?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.