[Media-watch] Wall Street Journal repoter Fassihi's email to friends - Poynter - 29/09/2004

Julie-ann Davies jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk
Fri Oct 1 23:04:04 BST 2004


WSJ reporter Fassihi's e-mail to friends

9/29/2004 2:58:10 PM

From: [Wall Street Journal reporter] Farnaz Fassihi

Subject: From Baghdad

Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under 
virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a 
chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away 
lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference.

Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those 
reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a 
scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the 
streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, 
can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't 
drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to

scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak 
English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't 
linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, 
feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, 
including a car bomb so near our house that it blew

out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to 
write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees 
stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began. Was it  April 
when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when 
Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr 
City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield 
for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from 
isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most  of Iraq? Despite 
President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam 
it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 
'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the 
United States for decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When asked 'how are thing?' 
they reply: 'the situation is very bad."

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control 
most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the 
country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads 
are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive 
devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, 
kidnappings and beheadings. The situation,

basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war. In four days, 110 people 
died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking 
that the ministry of health -- which was attempting an exercise of public 
transparency by releasing the numbers -- has now stopped disclosing them.

Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

A friend drove thru the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He said young 
men were openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground. They 
melt a shallow hole into the asphalt, dig the explosive, cover it with dirt 
and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals this is 
booby-trapped. He said on the main roads of Sadr City, there were a dozen 
landmines per every ten yards. His car snaked and swirled to avoid driving 
over them. Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi ready to detonate them as 
soon as an American convoy gets near. This is in Shiite land, the population 
that was supposed to love America for liberating Iraq.

For journalists the significant turning point came with the wave of 
abduction and kidnappings. Only two weeks ago we felt safe around Baghdad 
because foreigners were being abducted on the roads and  highways between 
towns. Then came a frantic phone call from a journalist female friend at 11 
p.m. telling me two Italian women had  been abducted from their homes in 
broad daylight. Then the two Americans, who got beheaded this week and the 
Brit, were abducted from their homes in a residential neighborhood. They 
were supplying the entire block with round the clock electricity from their 
generator to win friends. The abductors grabbed one of them at 6 a.m. when 
he came out to switch on the generator; his beheaded body was thrown back 
near the neighborhoods.

The insurgency, we are told, is rampant with no signs of calming down. If 
any thing, it is growing stronger, organized and more sophisticated every 
day. The various elements within it-baathists, criminals, nationalists and 
Al Qaeda-are cooperating and coordinating.

I went to an emergency meeting for foreign correspondents with the military 
and embassy to discuss the kidnappings. We were somberly told our fate would 
largely depend on where we were in the kidnapping chain once it was 
determined we were missing. Here is how it goes: criminal gangs grab you and 
sell you up to Baathists in Fallujah, who will in turn sell you to Al Qaeda. 
In turn, cash and weapons flow the other  way from Al Qaeda to the Baathisst 
to the criminals. My friend Georges, the French journalist snatched on the 
road to Najaf, has been missing for a month with no word on release or 
whether he is still alive.

America's last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi police and National Guard 
units we are spending billions of dollars to train. The cops are being 
murdered by the dozens every day-over 700 to date -- and the insurgents are 
infiltrating their ranks. The problem is so serious that the U.S. military 
has allocated $6 million dollars to buy out 30,000

cops they just trained to get rid of them quietly.

As for reconstruction: firstly it's so unsafe for foreigners to operate that 
almost all projects have come to a halt. After two years, of the $18 billion 
Congress appropriated for Iraq reconstruction only about $1 billion or so 
has been spent and a chuck has now been reallocated for improving security, 
a sign of just how bad things are going here.

Oil dreams? Insurgents disrupt oil flow routinely as a result of sabotage 
and oil prices have hit record high of $49 a barrel. Who did this war 
exactly benefit? Was it worth it? Are we safer  because Saddam is holed up 
and Al Qaeda is running around in Iraq?

Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for 
insecurity. Guess what? They say they'd take security over freedom any day, 
even if it means having a dictator ruler.

I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam Hussein were allowed to 
run for elections he would get the majority of the vote. This is truly sad.

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him about elections 
here. He has been trying to educate the public on the importance of voting. 
He said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be 
an example for the Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a 
model for the region, we have to

salvage Iraq before all is lost."

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us 
on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from 
its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has 
been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it 
can't be put back into a bottle.

The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three months while 
half of the country remains a 'no go zone'-out of the hands of the 
government and the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the other 
half, the disenchanted population is too terrified to show up at polling 
stations. The Sunnis have already said they'd boycott elections, leaving the 
stage open for polarized government of Kurds

and Shiites that will not be deemed as legitimate and will most certainly 
lead to civil war.

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate in the 
Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could to some degree 
elect a leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being 
blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating 
with the Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"


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