Andrew Marshall on Security in Iraq, Relying on Iraqi Staff, and Turning a Baghdad Bureau Into a Bunker

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall served as Reuters’ Iraq bureau chief, based in Baghdad, from August 2003 until June 2005. There, Marshall spent much of his time protecting his staff, several of whom were threatened, detained, wounded, and — in three instances — killed. He joined Reuters in 1994 and has reported from 20 countries, covering stories ranging from the violence in East Timor as the country transitioned to independence to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Liz Cox Barrett: How do you respond to some of the most common criticisms of the reporting coming out of Iraq — usually from critics safely stateside — such as that good news is under-reported or not reported on at all, that things on the ground are better than reporters would have readers believe, or that reporters are out of touch with the day-to-day life of Iraqis because they’re safely in the Green Zone, in their hotels, etc?

Andrew Marshall: I reject any suggestion that the international media are presenting an inaccurate picture of the situation in Iraq. It is a complaint that I have never heard from any of the ordinary Iraqis I have worked with and lived with over the past two years. It is certainly true that some progress has been made since the invasion of Iraq — hospitals are functioning, schools are open, some areas of the country are relatively free from violence, and on election day millions of Iraqis braved the threat of violence to vote. And this progress has been reported by the media in Iraq.

But large areas of the country are gripped by a relentless insurgency, crime and kidnappings are rife, and the level of reconstruction has fallen far short of expectations. Every single day, civilians are killed in Iraq, sometimes by insurgents, sometimes by Iraqi forces, sometimes by U.S. troops. In many parts of the country, particularly the major cities and the regions where the insurgency is strongest, Iraqis live their lives in a climate of fear and great uncertainty. We would be doing the Iraqi people a great disservice if we did not reflect this in our reporting. Anybody who argues that the media is giving a false picture should come to Iraq to see the country for themselves, and spend time living and working with Iraqis.

It is true that the daily drumbeat of bombings, mortar attacks and shootings sometimes drowns out the broader picture of what is happening in Iraq, and that journalists in Iraq must be careful to set events in context. That is one of the many reasons it is essential for foreign journalists, who are increasingly pinned down in fortified compounds behind vast concrete blast walls and rolls of barbed wire, to ensure that they spend as much time as possible talking to ordinary Iraqis about their lives and the conditions they face. It is our duty to report on the violence, and on political developments, and on the reconstruction effort, and to ensure that we tell the full story of what is happening in Iraq. I strongly believe that we have done that.

LCB: How many Iraqi stringers does the Reuters Baghdad bureau work with now? Are Iraqis still eager to do this sort of work in spite of the ongoing danger? And how reliant are you on their assistance?

AM: Our Iraqi staff are the backbone of our operation. It is only because of their courage, determination and loyalty that we are able to operate at all in Iraq. Because of the dangers facing foreigners in Iraq, foreign journalists have extremely limited mobility, unless they are embedded with U.S. forces. Iraqi journalists also face great dangers, but they are able to move around the country and report the news more safely than foreigners. In Baghdad, Reuters has a team of around 15 full-time Iraqi reporters, video journalists and photographers. We also have more than 30 stringers, spread across all major cities in Iraq. It is the Iraqi staff who provide the vast majority of information we need for our reporting.

Our Iraqi journalists are well aware of the dangers they face, but they take great pride in their work and have shown exceptional courage over the past two years. For me, the most difficult thing about leaving Baghdad was saying goodbye to the Iraqis who kept our bureau running. I hope I will see them again before too long, and in less dangerous circumstances.

LCB: How much mobility did you and your staff actually have? How many stories/what sorts of stories have you had to let go on account of safety issues? And beyond safety issues, what other sorts of roadblocks did you encounter in pursuing stories/newsgathering?

AM: For foreign staff in Baghdad, operating independently of U.S.-led forces, mobility has shrunk to almost zero over the past two years. The risk of kidnapping is extremely high and it is no longer possible to travel freely around the city. Even going to a news conference in the Green Zone has become a major logistical operation involving armoured cars, two-way radios and heavy security precautions.

In some parts of the country, such as the Kurdish north and some Shi’ite areas in the south, it is possible to travel more freely with the proper precautions. But the key problem is getting there — most of the roads out of Baghdad are exceptionally dangerous. Embedding with U.S. forces does offer mobility, and embedding is an invaluable part of our reporting in Iraq. I salute the U.S. military for its willingness to provide such access to journalists. But embedding only gives one part of the story, and that is why we are so reliant on Iraqi journalists for much of our reporting.

I do not believe that we have had to lose too many stories because of the security conditions in Iraq. We have just had to change the way we get our stories. We quickly learned that through teamwork and collaborative reporting, with Iraqi and foreign staff working closely together, we could find a way to safely report most stories. Initially, as conditions deteriorated, we cut back on features, lifestyle stories and other items that could be considered non-essential, but now we are doing these stories again. We just need to spend more time working out how to do them safely.

The other main roadblock faced by reporters in Iraq is that institutions there are still evolving, and still learning how to deal with journalists and their requests. But Iraqi ministries have made great progress over the past two years in terms of their dealings with journalists. Journalists are used to roadblocks, officials who may not want to talk, groups issuing misleading information to support their position, and so on, and it is our job to overcome these roadblocks. The key difference between reporting in Iraq and elsewhere is the danger.

LCB: How did your job evolve over the two years that you were in Iraq as the situation on the ground evolved?

AM: The key change was that safety issues came to dominate everything else. Iraq was, of course, a risky place in May 2003 when I first arrived, but it was possible to travel relatively freely around the country, and my job was focused on ensuring that our coverage was better than our competitors. As the situation deteriorated, and operating in Iraq became ever more dangerous, the safety of our staff became the central focus of my job.

One of the strongest illustrations of how my job changed — and how Iraq changed — is the way our bureau evolved over the past two years. When I first arrived in Baghdad, Reuters was based in a house on a normal street near the Tigris river. Foreign staff lived in nearby hotels and came to the office every day to work. After the United Nations bombing in August 2003, it was clear that Reuters was a potential target for suicide bombers and we blocked the street to traffic, with the agreement of local residents and other media organizations based nearby. We hired a team of armed Iraqi guards to patrol the area 24 hours a day, and built checkpoints where all vehicles coming into the road could be searched. As security worsened, and the Sheraton Hotel where foreign staff were based came under frequent rocket and mortar attack, we hired more houses in the street to accommodate staff, and moved out of the Sheraton. Later we erected huge concrete blast walls around all of our Baghdad properties, so that they would be shielded from suicide bombings. We bought low-profile armored cars, which became essential for reporting trips. We upgraded our generator because of the frequent power cuts, and even dug a well in the bureau garden in January this year so that we had a water supply, after an insurgent attack knocked out the Baghdad water system for days. By the time I left, the Reuters compound was a fortress.

LCB: What did you find to be the biggest challenges of reporting in Iraq? How was it different from other tough assignments you have had such as covering the overthrow of Taliban in Afghanistan or the violence in East Timor in 1999?

AM: The biggest challenge, without doubt, was finding a way to report on events in Iraq while at the same time ensuring the maximum safety for Reuters staff. Although I helped cover Afghanistan and East Timor, I was not in either country during the worst of the violence. Many courageous journalists were, and they faced formidable risks. But one of the key differences between covering Iraq and working in other hostile locations is the sustained nature of the risk in Iraq — day after day, for months and years, staff working in Iraq face extreme danger. And the danger comes from so many different sources — we have had staff killed and wounded by U.S. forces, attacked and briefly kidnapped by insurgents, beaten and detained by Iraqi forces. Stray mortars and rockets have landed around our compound, and roadside bombs have exploded near our vehicles. It was a great challenge, and a heavy responsibility, to cover the news in these conditions while trying to operate as safely as possible. Foreign journalists like me can walk away from Iraq and leave the danger behind, but our Iraqi colleagues do not have that luxury — it is their country and they will face great danger for a long time to come. That is why they deserve our profoundest respect and admiration.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.