|Michael Goldfarb sporting a mustache - fitting
in, as much as you can, is an important consideration reporting
In Iraq, the most commonly used Arabic word is Allah, and it seems
the second most commonly used word is Mushkeelah -- problems ...
There is a connection between the two, although I doubt if most
Iraqis understand what it is: Either Allah isn't listening, or the
country is so messed up it is beyond divine help.
The Mushkeelah for a reporter trying to convey what is happening
in Iraq is that no single report or series of reports can encapsulate
the complexity of the situation there.
On the surface it seems as if the Bush Administration has created
the wet dream of radical libertarian ideologues with sinecures
at conservative think tanks. in Washington D.C. Iraq is a place
with no taxes, minimal public services, served by unregulated
free markets where the buyer must always beware and a well-armed
citizenry takes care of its own security.
But to be honest, the American military presence is not what
you might guess from looking at the pictures you see on television.
In the streets of the cities or on the highways running between
them, you won't see a lot of soldiers. My frame of reference for
this is my experience covering Northern Ireland. There were more
troops on the streets of Belfast the first time I went there back
in 1992 than there are on the streets of Baghdad.
I didn't see any foot patrols in Baghdad. Although the one evening
I was out late I got caught in a small traffic jam behind a humvee.
The soldiers in it had stopped a car in the next lane and were
inspecting it. It was hard to see anything else. Then the hummer
moved on. When the traffic began moving again we drove past the
vehicle. Its windows had been smashed in and its driver and passengers
were standing in the streets shouting at passing traffic. It was
a relatively new car and the guys inside were in their early twenties
and looked middle class. My guess is they had been stopped because
the car had no license plate, and the windows had been smashed
in because the young men probably refused to open them when ordered
I worked my way into Iraq gently. I had covered "major
combat operations" from Erbil in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan
and have many friends there. I decided to go there first. I flew
to Diyarbakir in Southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish part of the
country, and then drove the four hours to the border crossing
in Silopi. It is a well-known route to me. The first time I went
there was in 1996. The Iraqi Kurds were fighting each other and
one faction, the KDP, had invited Saddam to send his army over
the cease-fire line to help rout the other faction, the PUK.
As I drove through Silopi that time I saw one of the most surreal
things I've ever seen: an eight-mile long tailback of trucks:
semi's, gas tankers, flatbeds. They were lined up two and sometimes
three abreast waiting to get across the border into Iraq. They
were waiting to get across the border into Iraq. The drivers lived
in the 100 degree heat in their cabs for up to a week at a time
... depending on how inefficient the Turkish officials felt like
being. Gangs were welding extra fuel tanks underneath them. No
matter what goods they were bringing into Iraq they all brought
some black market gas or oil out.
Just before the war started, I was back in Silopi. There were
no trucks ... and the town was eerily empty.
This time when I got to Silopi normal service had been resumed.
The massive queue of trucks stretched for at least six miles.
More interestingly, the trucks were carrying real consumer goods.
A harbinger of what I assumed were better times in Iraq.
I was supposed to stay in Mosul. I had important business there.
The family of my friend, Ahmad Shawkat, lives in Mosul. During
the war, Ahmad was my translator. At the time he was living in
internal political exile in Erbil, an hour's drive away in the
Kurdish safe area. When major combat operations ended he moved
his family back to
Mosul and started a weekly journal of political ideas. He was
murdered in October 2003 by one of his political enemies.
Ahmad was more than a translator. He was my guide to the heart
of his country and culture. I wanted to visit with his people
and pay my respects at his grave.
An American NGO, had been conducting Democracy training in Mosul
and they offered me a place to stay in their group house. A week
before I was due to depart they withdrew the offer for security
reasons. Apparently the man who rented them their house had received
death threats. Because he rented to an American outfit he was
considered a collaborator. He told the NGO to leave.
So I stayed in Erbil. My home away from home in Iraq. Spring
had come early. Everyone was in a positive frame of mind. There
was more money around than I had ever seen. Some of the economy
came via U.S. aid programs, some from exiles returning home. It
is still a poor country. But the first time I had been there Erbil
was African-like in its poverty, now it is more like Ciudad Juarez.
In the Bazaar, the street where the jewelers and goldsmiths
have their shops is crowded with women from the peasant villages
nearby. Gold is still the way people hold their wealth here. Underneath
the long skirts and abayas of the women is worn the equivalent
of your savings passbook. From ankle to ear, gold chains are the
family's security. I went to the jewelry shop owned by the brother
of my driver Sami Abdul Qadir. Fuad is taking 2,000 dollars a
day on average.
Kurdistan is enjoying its best times ever and it can give you
a skewed sense of what's going on in the rest of Iraq. Just drive
over to Mosul or down to Baghdad and things are very different
On the highway down to Baghdad I had my, what's wrong with this
picture?, moment. We were racing along for hour after hour when
it finally hit me. I hadn't seen any U.N. vehicles. In every conflict
zone I've ever worked you see U.N. convoys as well as vehicles
from the Red Cross and all the major relief NGOs. Their absence
and the chaos in Iraq are linked.
I confess I was nervous driving to Baghdad. I needn't have been.
The only dangerous moment came as we entered the outskirts of
the city. We were on a three-lane road coming into town. Traffic
ground to a halt for no particular reason other than there are
too many cars and too little space on the highways for them. Across
a small concrete divider three lanes were leading out of the city.
Those lanes also had crawled to a stop. Immediately opposite us,
on the outbound side, was an American convoy, two semis carrying
construction equipment guarded by three humvees. The convoy was
a sitting duck for anyone with a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher
... and there are thousands of folks who have them. I was a sitting
duck if the RPG missed the convoy, or if it hit someone's fuel
tank and started a conflagration. For five minutes I sat with
Sami wondering if I'd done enough in my professional life to warrant
a small obituary in the New York Times. Then, as traffic jams
are wont to do, for no reason at all we began to move forward.
I was safe.
The biggest Mushkeelah for reporters doing a big documentary
like Fear and Anger, the View from Iraq, is that in the time it
takes to put the piece together, events will make your material
out of date. The day I left the country, the Bush Administration's
man in Baghdad, Paul Bremer picked a fight with Moqtada al-Sadr
by closing down his newspaper. Two days later, the private military
contractors' bodies were mutilated in Fallujah. The U.S. military
found itself in a two front war it could not hope to win ... unless
it was willing to kill everyone in Fallujah and Najaf. Suddenly
it looked like a general uprising was about to happen. I was already
back in London.
In the end I needn't have worried. The general uprising didn't
take place. And, given how well armed Iraqis are, it could have
happened. So my documentary is a record of disillusionment and
pessimism and sadness and anger. It was the mood in the Arab parts
of the country the day the U.S. went into Fallujah and it is the
mood now that the U.S. has pulled back.
If the CPA folks inside the Green Zone had stepped outside to
the streets where I was wandering, gathering the material for
the documentary ... usually the only American around ... perhaps
they would have known better than to go into Fallujah all guns
blazing ... but then again perhaps not.