Reporting in Iraq

The mundane and the profound

Nir Rosen
Freelance writer
I met a young Iraqi guy [in April 2003], college student, secular Shia guy, very street-smart, from a poor family, who became a very close friend of mine and sort of trained me how to be Iraqi — taught me the Iraqi dialect, taught me things I needed to know to fit in in the mosques, fit in on the Iraqi streets. I sort of joined a local gym, mostly Shia neighborhood kids who worked out under horrible conditions. They were lifting bricks. But it was a great opportunity to mix with young men and hang out with them, go to restaurants with them, and because I was their age and I was into exercising, I got to get into the world of young Iraqi men. I never really made contact with young Iraqi women — I think that was mostly impossible. I think most did [know that I am an American], but I stressed the Iranian side of my ethnicity.

Richard Engel
NBC News

[My Arabic is] a little confused now. By now it’s become fairly Iraqi, because I’ve spent a lot of time. Most of the people I speak to now in Arabic are in Iraq. So it’s become confusing; if I’m speaking to someone on the phone, they won’t know where I’m from. They’ll be confused. They’ll know that I’m not Iraqi, but they don’t really know. Who’s this guy? Is he a Lebanese guy? Is he a Syrian guy? Who is this person? It’s confusing. So, that can also be to my advantage. It’s not just speaking Arabic, it’s the gestures, it’s the religious references, it’s the sense of humor, it’s the old — we can talk about movies, old Egyptian movies that we’ve both seen. When they’re talking about some sort of Egyptian pop star I know who they’re talking about, so it’s not just the language, it’s knowing the culture and their terms of reference.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

People will say, “If you print my name I’ll be killed,” and you know you have to believe that ’cause it happens all the time. It doesn’t happen as much as you would think. It’s remarkable how even now you can find people who will speak their minds.

Jane Arraf

[One day] the [Iraqi] police came out and they were dragging a suspect out of the car and they started kicking him in the head in front of our cameras and they saw our camera and they just kicked him harder [laughs]. And I said, “Do you really have to kick this guy?” They just kept kicking him. The soldiers came up to us, American soldiers, and tried to take away the tape. That is their automatic reaction — not of senior people but of police and soldiers. We wouldn’t give up the tape and we held on to it and after a while we talked to a commanding general who said, “Please don’t run that.”

I explained that if it happens in front of you and the camera is rolling, I’m really sorry, but that is not negotiable. But what I would do is put it in context, which I did. The context I put it in was that these are Iraqi soldiers and this is the way — on this day in this police station — they were treating suspects that they thought were responsible for killing police officers. This doesn’t happen everywhere, but on this day it did. And he was okay with that. And that’s the way a lot of them are, and that’s why you develop relationships where there is mutual trust. Because at the end of the day when you explain it to them, they get it. They understand that it’s not going to do them much good if you agree not to show something because it actually did happen.

Luke Baker
I frequently went up to Tikrit in the hunt for Saddam. I did it for weeks at a time, embedding with U.S. troops, because everyone had a sense that if he was going to be caught, he was going to be caught around there. It was a pilgrimage for journalists to go up there, and I did it a lot. And I left there, I think I left the tenth of December 2003. I was due to go on holiday, and there were three of us who went on holiday the same day: the bureau chief, myself, and another guy who was helping out. I was flying to Rome, and the other two guys were flying to London. I landed in Rome and had twenty-six messages on my cell phone. I thought, “That’s odd, what’s going on?” I got the first one and it was my mother telling me that Saddam had been caught, and I thought, “Good God, I had to find out from my mother that Saddam had been caught. I’ve just been six weeks with the American military trying to track the guy down.”

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

It became clear that you didn’t want to go to some of these places after dark. Even with that, you still got around pretty well through the summer of 2003 and into the fall of 2003. After, it became evident that a lot of contractors were driving around in Jeep Cherokees that looked like ours, I took one and then the second of four SUVs to Sadr City and did the Baghdad equivalent of Pimp My Ride. For sixty bucks, I had it sandblasted and had it painted to look like an Iraqi taxi cab. The really nice paint job on this $90,000 vehicle was stripped off and it was made to look like a ghetto mobile, like a Shiite ghetto mobile from Sadr City.

There came a point through the fall of 2003 when you would stop identifying yourself to strangers as a journalist, as an American journalist. I went through a phase where I would say, I’m an Indian journalist, because I’m of Indian descent even though I was born and raised in California. I used that line, particularly in Fallujah quite a bit. If you were just doing a brief man-on-the-street interview, it was never a big deal. If I were actually sitting down with somebody and doing something substantive, I obviously had to let on who I was. Again, that was also before we learned that the insurgents started using Google to Google people they had captured and figure out who they were.

Farnaz Fassihi
The Wall Street Journal

It was on the road to Kirkuk, to Baghdad. The driver said they were kidnappers. And I looked over at this car, right next to me. With five men, with AK-47s out, like, right next to me. This was the summer after the invasion. Right at the beginning. They were shooting. We were flying. That’s how fast we were going. We were going really fast. We were in a better car than they were. We were like — hit the ground. We sort of blocked each other’s bodies [on the floor of the car]. I don’t know how long. But we essentially outraced them. Our car [was] a BMW; I think it was a four-wheel drive. [And the men were in] a white Toyota, I remember. There were like five men. It was very scary. We didn’t have a guard; we didn’t have a chase car. I kept thinking, “This is it. They’re going to kill us. Take the car. Or kidnap us.” Or, as a woman, you’re always very aware of rape. Your mind is racing, like, “I can’t do this.” I just remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is it.”

Christopher Allbritton
Freelance writer
Well, by August [2004] it was very difficult to travel outside of Baghdad, although it wasn’t impossible. What we did was we left early in the morning on the day that I went down to Najaf. I pretended to be asleep in the back seat. We had to go through the so-called triangle of death. They were well known to be insurgent towns. We needed to keep a very low profile but the traffic was always really bad going through this little stretch — I just lay down in the back with a kafiyah over my face like I was asleep. And we made it through okay. And once we got to Najaf I felt more endangered by Najaf police than by the Mahdi army. The Mahdi army treated me with respect — I’m sure they knew I was an American even though I told them I was Canadian. They all kind of had this look on their face like, “Yeah, Canadian. Whatever you say, buddy.”

Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune

Probably in the fall of 2004 when the kidnapping started, it became very necessary not to be publicly identified on the streets as a foreigner. I wear a scarf, I wear Iraqi-style clothing. I don’t go with the whole abaya [the traditional full-body garment for Islamic women] because I don’t walk like I’m an Iraqi that’s in an abaya. I’m not that kind of person, but my coloring is very dark and people mistake me for an Iraqi frequently. And if I am your sort of average working woman in Iraqi clothes — that means skirts down to the ankle, a baggy jacket that’s long and comes down below your butt, and a plain scarf — people don’t give me a second glance. You never talk English on the street; you never take a phone call on the street. For women, in some ways there’s a little advantage, because if you are a woman walking with a man, another man, a strange man won’t look at her; he can’t give her a second glance because it’s just not done. The assumption is this woman is the wife of the guy she is walking with, and you don’t look at other people’s wives or sisters. At the same time, women don’t look around. Women don’t catch men’s eyes; women keep their eyes on the pavement ahead of them, and walk modestly. And one of the things I’ve had to learn to do is curb my natural curiosity and instinct to look around me when I’m walking along, which inhibits a little bit of what you can absorb of the scene you’re in, which is limiting. My Iraqi staff would say to me, “Stop moving your head, stop looking around!”

Yousif Mohamed Basil
Time (CNN)

When I want to get from home to my place of work, I’ll walk a long distance from my house just not to take a taxi in front of my house. Then I take a taxi, and when I come to the neighborhood where my place of work is, I’ll walk from the place where the taxi dropped me for a long distance until I get to thejob. Because it’s very dangerous to just take off from the taxi in front of your place of work because probably the taxi driver is from your neighborhood or is from a certain group and he might say something bad about you.

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times

Another strategy I have is I’ll go to the scene of the car bombing and I’ll collect cell-phone numbers from people there and then quickly go, within like ten or fifteen minutes, and then call them and get their accounts as I’m driving back.


Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The Guardian, Getty Images
Well, you have extra breathing space as an Iraqi, you speak the language, you speak the accent, everything’s fine. So as long as you are traveling in your car, you’re fine, as long as you are walking in the streets, you’re fine. The moment you carry a camera out, the moment you pull out a notebook, the moment you stay and show that you are a journalist, all the breathing space you can have as an Iraqi disappears and you become a journalist. And maybe for a westerner they will have the privilege of being kidnapped for two, three months, while an Iraqi will just be killed and considered a collaborator or a spy. So the two inches of breathing space is very useful for doing your research, but the moment you want to shoot [a photo], or the moment you want to do your actual story, you fall under the category of journalist, who are all targets. And being in Iraq for a long period of time, and going around the street and covering the events, people know you as a journalist, so you have this profile as a journalist. And once you go somewhere else — “Oh, here is the journalist” — and again, you lose your two inches of breathing space.

Hannah Allam
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)

Yasser [Salihi, a stringer] was an amazing journalist, a very dear friend. He was beloved by every single reporter who came in and we got to a point where we had competing demands where, “If I’m coming, I’m working with Yasser.” Everybody wanted to work with him because he’s just this bright spot. He was wonderful, talented, fair, committed, just every adjective you can think of, a great guy. And he and I had been in insurgent-controlled Fallujah together. He and I had gone there a lot together. I mean, just the most crazy harebrained dangerous things you can think of. And then [in November 2004], he was killed on his day off.

He was in his neighborhood, and it is predominantly a Sunni neighborhood. It’s known for being fairly anti-American, lot of attacks there. And he was just on his way to buy some gas to take his little daughter to the swimming pool, like he’d promised her for a long time, and he drove too close to a U.S. checkpoint that was unmarked and not a usual checkpoint — it was one of those that would spring up overnight — and he was shot once by a U.S. sniper. He was shot in the head.

Alissa Rubin
Los Angeles Times

For senior reporters who have worked in war zones, there’s a kind of, you know, checklist of things you need to know, and we’re much more attuned to what those are. And the editors are, too: Well, do you know that you can go there? Has anyone else gone there yet? Was there fighting there recently? Have there been kidnappings? Are other news organizations using armored cars? Do you want to use local guards? How many local guards do you think you’d need? Not traveling with local guards in the same car you’re in, so you know, if shooting starts, they’re not shooting out of your car and people aren’t shooting into your car. I mean, these become second nature.

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent

One has to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about one’s own security, but often doing very boring things, like making sure that the driver’s checked the tires properly, or where did they get the gasoline from, because a lot of black-market gasoline is watered down. It’s extremely dangerous for the car to break down in some neighborhood of Baghdad and it could be fatal. There are a lot of very boring things that could happen that one should really check about and often journalists don’t.

James Hider
The Times

By early 2005 — as you know I’ve got brown hair — by this time I had dyed my hair and eyebrows black, as an attempt to look slightly less foreign. I just did it myself. It was a disaster — my hair turned blue so I had to do it again. I looked like a complete freak. Then once I got it right, I looked like a very sick Kurdish person who was having a rough time, which, you know, lots of Iraqis don’t look in great shape either. It really worked quite well. I mean, some people actually spoke to me in Arabic when I had black hair. I felt like I looked like Roy Orbison’s ghost, but people would ask me stuff in Arabic.

I started to get some Iraqi clothes, some horrible nylon clothes and some jeans that came practically up to my chest, and cheap Iraqi shoes. I stopped carrying my stuff in a western-style bag. I put my stuff in a plastic bag with a Coke bottle, and had my tape recorder and my note pad in there. Eventually I developed this whole thing so that I could get around. If we got caught in traffic I’d hold up an Iraqi newspaper and pretend I was reading it so that nobody could see my face.

And I remember one time, I was in the car, and I was sitting in the back and the driver was up in front. We stopped at a junction quite close to a hotel. And there was this little girl hawking sweets in the street, and I was talking to my driver at the moment she stuck her head in my window. We were talking in English, and she rushed to the car behind and started shouting, “Amreeki, Amreeki,” and I don’t know if she was told to do that if something happened or if she was just freaked out by foreigners. Luckily, the car behind was my chase car, and so Yasser, who is my chase-car driver, got on the walkie-talkie to my driver and said, “This girl is telling everyone that you’re American, get out of there quickly.” So my driver just jumped the junction and we got back. But it was one of those things where you think, “God, everyone’s watching.” You know you could be tricked into being revealed for who you are by some six-year-old girl who’s selling candy in the street. And so you just have to be so careful, and even with disguises it’s still incredibly dangerous, and you know, it’s getting worse.

Christopher Allbritton
Freelance writer
I was still going out probably until midsummer 2005. I cut back on it, but I was still going out. By the middle of summer 2005 I would go out rarely and it was only to go to set interviews. Because I cannot pass at all; I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t look Arabic. If anyone sees me they’re going to obviously tell I was a foreigner so I had to curtail my movements. By fall 2005 it was embeds and just going to government offices. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t go to the market. I couldn’t go get a feel for the city. I couldn’t really breathe the story anymore of what was happening to Iraqis. And at that time I decided if I can’t do this then there really is no point in being here. I didn’t want to keep sending Iraqi stringers and keep doing this by remote control. I went back and forth because I was really committed to the story.

Thanassis Cambanis
The Boston Globe

As it became more and more constricted, more and more of the reporting has become the product of our Iraqi colleagues, and in a lot of places it really is an equal-colleague relationship. Newspapers are functioning in much the same manner as a wire-service bureau in terms of how they work. Outside of Baghdad you have a network of stringers who phone in reports and check things that you hear.

Ali Fadhil
Translator, reporter

My background is I’m a physician. I graduated from medical school in 2001. I practiced medicine in Iraq and also in Yemen, and I returned toIraq — I worked as a doctor in June 2003 until January 2004. By the end of the year I had a dual job to work as translator-fixer for the western journalists and as a doctor back in the hospital. My friend, Rory McCarthy, he is a Baghdad reporter for The Guardian; he’s a very nice guy, but at the same time, he was a tyrant with me, and in fact he is the one who taught me how to be disciplined when I do a story or I do an interview. There is no way that I can miss questions, there is no way that you can just misrepresent something — you just hear something and you interpret in the way that you think it’s right — no, you have to go and ask him again and again and again. And so he helped me a lot in figuring out these things.

Larry Kaplow
Cox Newspapers
I’ve been working with the same main translator for more than a year and another one for, I guess, almost a year, and they know that if they make a mistake I can get fired. And I tell them over and over, “Look, if you can’t get it, tell me. That’s all right. I just need to know that I’m not saying anything more than you actually got out on the street and you’re not putting words in these people’s mouths.” You ask them a lot of questions about where did you talk to the guy, what did he look like. And sometimes you often ask them to get [phone] numbers, so you can have them or another translator call the people back and ask them questions. It’s not because they would purposely try to mislead me, although some translators would do that, too, but because they might make assumptions that are not acceptable assumptions for American newspapers to make. Or they might have planted the idea with someone and just got an affirmative response that they then embellished with their own assumptions of what that person is trying to say. And there is just so much bad information here. You just have to check and check and check things over and over and over. People will pass on apocryphal stories as if they happened to them personally. And you find out, well, no, it was actually a cousin; well, no, it wasn’t a cousin. Well, no, actually it didn’t quite happen like that anyway.

Ali Fadhil
Translator, reporter

You remember Miss Jill Carroll? She was kidnapped on the seventh of January [2006]. On the eighth — actually the same night, on the seventh — midnight, twelve-thirty, my house was raided by special forces, American forces, and they thought Jill Carroll was in my house. They brought a picture of her and said, “She’s at this house; where is she?”

What happened is they used explosives to open the three doors of the house; every single window of the house was blown up, and in seconds. We thought that a plane maybe fell down on top of the house — we were sleeping: me and my wife, Zina, and two kids, Adam and Sarah. Suddenly we heard this explosion, woke up; Sarah was still sleepy, and in seconds the door was opened — the room door — and a rifle came through and shot bullets inside the room while we are asleep. And I thought, “This is a gang”; that’s what I thought, and I throw myself on Zina and the kids. They woke up, they were crying, and in seconds American soldiers are surrounding my bed while I am sleeping with my wife and two kids, and they took me down from the bed. Zina was crying and shouting, Sarah as well; Adam was crying — he was just eight months by that time.

They took me downstairs. In a moment they beat me — just one soldier — and in another moment they brought a dog who started barking at me, and then a captain came and questioned me — showed the pictures, he didn’t say the name, just showed the pictures. “This woman is in your house.” “No.” And he said, “This is Mashhadani house,” by which he means this is a Sunni house; Mashhadani is a Sunni name, a Sunni tribe name. I said, “This can’t be — go to the hall, you’ll see a big picture of Imam Ali” — this is a shrine, it’s a figure of the Shiites. And he went to the hall and he came back, said then, “Who are you? Are you a journalist, as you said?” I said, “Yes, I’m a journalist, filmmaker, working for the British media, blah, blah.” It didn’t help at the beginning; minutes later, he brought out a camera which I use, and it happened that in that camera there was a mini-DVD tape that shows the Green Zone, and I’m standing in front of the camera talking about the Green Zone, how at one time the Green Zone was the place where the CPA ran Iraq, because I was doing at that time a thing about the reconstruction in Iraq. And he said, “Why do you have these tapes?” I said, “Because I’m a filmmaker and we were doing this project”; I was still doing this project. He said, “Do you realize that these places were targeted two days ago?” I said, “No way, because two days ago I was inside the Green Zone, filming from inside the Green Zone.” Later on, he came back with another captain, another officer, and he said, “It seems like there is a mistake, but we want to take you to a place to interrogate you, and you might help us in helping this lady, but we have to take you now and release you tomorrow morning — we promise.” And I said, “I have no problem if you are taking me alone and not taking my brother-in-law or my father-in-law.”

And by the way, they beat my father-in-law, they beat my brother-in-law a lot, and they were really, really humiliated — more than me; later on, when they knew I was a journalist, I was treated like a prince. They blindfolded me, they put me in an armored vehicle. And finally I found myself in a room, a small room with wooden walls, a table in the middle, a mattress at the side of the wall, and a very, very young American soldier with a pistol attached to his leg, standing there guarding me. And minutes later, two American civilians came into the room. They asked me, “Mr. Fadhil, do you know why you’re here?” I said, “Yes, to interrogate me.” They said, “No, it’s because there was a mistake, and we apologize for what happened.” At that moment I was — it’s a shock, because they threw the furniture all over the house, they destroyed the entrances of the house. My daughter was shocked — now she hates Americans. She doesn’t want to believe that she’s in America. She’s three years old, and if you tell her you’re in America, she’s gonna shout. [Fadhil is now living in New York.]

They said, “In the morning we will release you as soon as possible.” I said, “What about the compensation?” And they said, “In the morning, sure, people will come and bring the compensation, and we’ll talk with you about the compensation.” In the morning, two American civilians — different civilians — came in. They were like people working for the private security forces. They said, “We’re gonna drive you now out of the place, with blindfolded eyes, and we brought the compensations.” They had two envelopes; they opened the first one and they said, “This is a thousand dollars for the damages of the house.” And they opened the other, “This is five hundred for the time you spent with us in the Green Zone,” which was the highest-ever salary I ever got in my entire life. I didn’t say anything, I just wanted to get out, and they took me in a car and drove right and left, right and left, for like minutes, and then I found myself in a place between concrete barricades. When I walked out from the place a few meters, I found myself in the worst place I would ever imagine myself in. It was the south gate of the Green Zone. That is the place where many car bombs happened, and if someone walks like how I walk, with civilian clothes outside of the Green Zone, and my face is not washed and my hair like this, and I walked out with money, with a thousand, five hundred dollars in my pocket, and the insurgents caught me — it’s no way. Thank God, it was easy to get a taxi. I found the whole house was worse than what I thought: everything was destroyed — all the rooms were ruined, most of the furniture was broken.

Luke Baker

We’ve had four [staff members] killed, three of whom have been killed by the U.S. military [Waled Khaled, Mazen Dana, Taras Protsyuk]; the fourth [Dhia Najim] is under investigation. We’ve asked for further investigation; as far as we understand he was wearing press credentials — a helmet, a flak jacket with “press” on it — and filming U.S. military operations in Ramadi, and he was shot in the back of the head.

Farnaz Fassihi
The Wall Street Journal

We all have a team of Iraqi staff whose lives we’ve seen unfold for three years before our eyes. We know their families; we know what’s happening to their extended families. We live in a hotel, the Hamra Hotel. The receptionist, one receptionist, his house was bombed. The other receptionist in building two, his only son was kidnapped because he was selling SIM cards [“smart cards” for mobile phones] and they thought he was selling SIM cards to Americans. And got killed in front of their eyes. We are living through their eyes — through our daily contact, with the house boy, the guard. And our job, by definition, means we spend hours and hours talking to people about their experiences. We don’t just say, “Hi, how are you? What’s going on outside?” We sit them down and spend two hours and say, “What’s going on in your neighborhood? What’s going on with your cousin?”

Richard Engel
NBC News

There was the attack on the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra [on February 22, 2006] and Al-Arabiyah dispatched a crew up there — chased the story, big story, one of the most holy [Shia] shrines in the world, certainly in Iraq, is badly damaged, if not destroyed. People are livid — this is a sensitive time to do such a sensitive attack. Al-Arabiyah, like you’d cover a fire or breaking news, they pack up a crew and they send them off from Baghdad to go cover the story. Well, it didn’t go particularly well. They were stopped. The correspondent was taken out of the car, executed. Her crew was taken out of the car and executed. And that was her local crew.

So that is the reality of chasing a breaking news story. So you can’t really do it. You have to rely on someone who’s from there, who’s bringing you the tapes, and then you have to piece together what happened from accounts from the military, accounts from eyewitnesses, accounts from hospital figures, all of whom maybe have credibility problems. You have to piece together the best you can to come up with a mosaic of what’s going on. That’s the reality of it. It’s not easy because if you get a crew and chase this breaking news story, you might not come back.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.