The Stringers

Local reporters covering the Iraq War for Western outlets

Context clues: From the start of the Iraq War, in March 2003, to the time this article was published, in the March/April 2006 edition, more than two-thirds of the journalists killed on the ground were native Iraqis.

Just days before I met Salih in Iraq this past January, he became a wanted man. A stringer for The Washington Post in Tikrit, he had helped report a story that ran on January 13, fingering local Tikriti officials who the story said had looted a complex of palaces built by Saddam Hussein.

The story, like so much else that has gone wrong in Iraq, has its roots in what was supposed to be a sign of progress. Last November, the American military in Tikrit made a big show of handing the palaces over to the Iraqis. Some time later, after hearing that the palaces had been looted, Salih was one of several Post stringers assigned to cover the story. After seeing the destruction firsthand he sent word back to the Post, which ran a piece that named local Iraqi forces and the head of the local security force, Jassam Jabara, as the culprits. Jabara, who had a history with Salih from an earlier story, was not pleased. As a result, according to Salih’s sources, Jabara placed a $50,000 bounty on his head. Salih fled Tikrit and has yet to return.

Salih’s troubles, while extreme, are echoed in the lives of many Iraqi stringers working for Western news outlets across this unlucky country. As Iraq slips further into what seems an endless spasm of bloodletting, many Western reporters have been forced to hunker down, only leaving their guarded compounds for short periods and only then with a translator, a driver, and at least one bodyguard in tow. As a result, they have come to rely more and more on Iraqi stringers to gather information. This isn’t to say Western reporters don’t get out—they do, as much as possible—but given the violent reality of Iraq, there are times where it’s just not feasible for them to travel.

For the Iraqi stringers who risk their lives and often are forced to hide what they do from friends and family, typically without even the glory of a byline in return, the answer to the question of why they do it is complicated. In a country impoverished by decades of war, criminal dictatorship, and international sanctions, money was often the principal draw, at least initially. Drawn from the ranks of college-educated professionals—accountants, professors, doctors, computer experts—the stringers can sometimes more than double what the average Iraqi earns in postwar Iraq.

But for many, after months, and now even years of working in their new profession, this blunt economic incentive seems to have given way to a deeper—even passionate—appreciation for journalism’s ability to tell important stories and, sometimes, make a difference. As Yousif, a twenty-four-year-old stringer who asked me not to include his last name or his employer, put it, “Americans have to know how the Iraqis are suffering. There are millions of stories out there, but the problem is the safety. It’s dangerous to go out there and get the story.”

Yes, it is. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the sixty-one journalists killed in Iraq from the beginning of the war in March 2003 through February 2006, forty-two were native Iraqis. In addition, twenty-three media workers—drivers, translators, and so forth—have been killed in Iraq. One of the most recent casualties was Allan Enwiyah, who worked as a translator for Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor freelancer, and who was shot to death during her kidnapping on January 7. Yousif and Enwiyah were friends.

“It’s dangerous to go out there and get the story.”

The Post’s Salih is the only Iraqi stringer I met who had worked as a reporter before the war. A thickset man of thirty, with a shaved head and large, expressive eyes, he came to the Post a little over a year ago. At the time he was working at one of the numerous papers that sprang up in the wake of the invasion, and heard the Post was looking for local help.

Speaking through a translator in a fortified house with armed guards out front, he told the story of his ongoing struggle with Jassam Jabara. It started in August 2005, when Salih helped report a story about a man who died in custody, only five hours after being arrested by Jabara’s security forces. According to Salih, a day before the story ran, Jabara’s cousin visited him and urged him to pull it, suggesting that otherwise, “Jassam has the ability to make you disappear.” The story ran the next day, and Jabara complained to the governor of Tikrit, urging him to have Salih arrested. The governor refused. Three days later, Salih said, “a black BMW stopped in front of me and two men jumped out, one holding a pistol and one holding a metal bar, and tried to force me inside the car. I kept pushing back and they beat me with the gun and the metal bar.” He showed me thick scars behind his ear and on his back, which he said came from the beating.

Luckily, some locals who knew him came to his aid, and the men fled. Just a few days later, he says, while he was walking near the governor’s office, a man jumped out of a car and opened fire on him with an automatic pistol. Salih ducked, and the shooter’s aim was high.

Because of stories like this, the Iraqis who report for Western news outlets are forced to lead painful and dangerous double lives. One woman, whom I’ll call Salama, told me that although she has been working for American newspapers for over three years, her friends and neighbors don’t know about it. “My colleagues here don’t tell their neighbors they work for an American news agency either,” she said. As we sat in one of the hotel rooms that her news organization occupies in Baghdad—there are armed guards in the lobby and security in the room next door—she told me that she explains her long days at the office to neighbors and friends by telling them she works for a financial company with branches around the world, so she has to work late because of the time differences.

The strain of this dual life has taken a toll on Salama and her family, and while she was rather soft-spoken and polite, her frustration was obvious. “To get a story you have to risk your life,” she said matter-of-factly. “Sometimes I wonder if the people in the U.S. really understand how much we go through in order to write the story.” To underscore that, she told of being pushed from behind by an Iraqi man while covering a story with a Western reporter, of being caught in a firefight in Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling and violent slum, and of being threatened by a group of insurgents while out reporting. Yet in a country with few opportunities, journalism is a way to make a living, and to stay involved. “We never know when something could happen to us,” she said. “But then at the same time, I cannot stop living.”

Like Salama, Yousif is discreet about his work. “Ninety-five percent of my friends—close friends—don’t know I work with journalists,” said Yousif, who is fluent in English and began working for his American employer as the bureau’s IT manager. “It’s very dangerous to tell people you’re doing this. I tell them I’m working for a computer company.”

It’s widely accepted that the insurgents know the handful of hotels and compounds where many journalists stay, and Yousif said he takes precautions on the way to and from work. Typically, he walks a good distance from the compound before hailing a taxi, and when coming to work he asks to be dropped off in different places and then walks the final blocks to the compound. But he is always wary, and pays close attention to the drivers. Once, a taxi picked him up near the compound, he said, and the driver seemed very interested in the neighborhood and who was staying at nearby hotels. A few days later, the same taxi driver picked Yousif up near his home, far from the compound, and started asking the same questions, so Yousif told him to take him somewhere else entirely, and got a new taxi.

Beyond matters of life and death, the Iraqi stringers face more mundane frustrations. Yousif, for instance, is hungry to do more writing, but says that “They’ve only mentioned my name in about five articles, because most of the journalists want to do their own stories.” Western journalists do give him plenty of advice, however, “about how to look at the stories from a different angle, what is important, and what the people outside Iraq are concerned about.” That last part is sometimes the hardest. One of the biggest challenges, Yousif said, has been “trying to think like an American guy, and think what Americans might be interested in.” Especially at first, he said, he would pitch stories to the reporters that he gleaned from conversations he overheard on the street or things he read on insurgent Web sites, only to be told that his ideas were probably only interesting to Iraqis, and not necessarily to an American audience.

Another common thread in my conversations with the stringers was the immense distrust, bred of fear, that Iraqis have for one another these days. One evening, while we sat in the living room of Yousif’s employer’s guarded compound, he told of the time he bumped into a friend at Baghdad University while he was there with an American reporter. Since his friend thinks he works for a computer company, Yousif quickly made up a story about being there to broker a deal with the university to supply computers. “He didn’t buy it,” Yousif said with a laugh, “but he didn’t see the journalist, so I escaped.” The friend, he explained, thinks journalists are spies for the Americans. “Iraqis always think that there is a conspiracy against them.”

He would pitch stories to American reporters, only to be told that his ideas were probably only interesting to Iraqis.

Critics of the press’s coverage of the war in Iraq often grumble that American journalists are obsessed with reporting “bad news,” while ignoring the “good.” To many of the Iraqis working for the U.S. media, this seems irrelevant, even absurd. Ahmed, an owlish thirty-one-year-old who taught poetry at a local university before the war and who now works for an American newspaper chain, shrugged and said, “It’s true that journalists here are mostly writing about the bad. But when you have a hotel being built in Najaf and a kidnapping of a female journalist in Baghdad, what are you going to do? The bad news eclipses the good news.”

Assad, who works for an American magazine, has an even darker view. “There is no peace, there is no reconstruction, there is no rebuilding to write about,” he said, over lunch at his employer’s compound. “I have only seen the reconstruction of the Green Zone, and that is for the Americans.” An amiable matter-of-fact guy, Assad was an accountant and an English teacher before the war, and has worked for a handful of European and American publications, beginning with a Danish newspaper just before the war began. He said he would like to go back to being an accountant—preferably in the United States—but for the moment, his work as a journalist pays better.

Of the Iraqi stringers I met, Assad might be the exception in that he doesn’t necessarily see his future in journalism. Despite the danger, the secrecy, the frustration at both the muddled U.S. occupation and the desire for more autonomy in their work, most of the stringers seemed intent on sticking with their new careers, even if that means leaving Iraq. Yousif and Ahmed both told me they had come to see journalism as the only way to properly tell the story of their country, and both are applying for journalism scholarships overseas.

For now, neither would consider working for Iraqi publications, which they dismiss as little more than mouthpieces for specific political or religious groups. Yousif said he would like to start his own magazine in Iraq one day, using the tools he has learned from Western journalists, while Ahmed takes a more expansive view. “I think journalism that is independent and objective can promote democracy and can promote a solid political standing in Iraq,” he said. “If we can obtain these conditions, I would work for an Iraqi publication. That’s the main target for me, to work for such a place.”

Even Salih, who goes to work every day knowing that people want to kill him, said journalism is the only way he can help the world understand what is happening to his country. But he is frustrated by the danger, and by what he says is the lack of interest on the part of American and Iraqi officials in investigating the crime and corruption that pervades so much of postwar Iraq. In a startling statement, he said that even under Saddam, if a journalist wrote something accusatory about a government official, the allegations would be investigated. “You used to be able to write about, say, smuggling, but now if you do, you may be killed,” he told me. “Is that the right way to tell the truth in this country? The American forces are supporting such people as Jassam Jabara, and when stories like mine run, they never investigate, and these guys are becoming worse—they’re becoming untouchables.”

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Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.

TOP IMAGE: Portraits of Iraqi press killed at war, Baghdad, April 5, 2007; Photo by Akram Saleh/Getty Images