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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 guerrilla 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 Baathist 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?"
see also the following report in the WP
Growing Pessimism on Iraq
Doubts Increase Within U.S. Security Agencies
By Dana Priest and Thomas E. Ricks
September 29, 2004
A growing number of career professionals within national security agencies believe that the situation in Iraq is much worse, and the path to success much more tenuous, than is being expressed in public by top Bush administration officials, according to former and current government officials and assessments over the past year by intelligence officials at the CIA and the departments of State and Defense.
While President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others have delivered optimistic public appraisals, officials who fight the Iraqi insurgency and study it at the CIA and the State Department and within the Army officer corps believe the rebellion is deeper and more widespread than is being publicly acknowledged, officials say.
People at the CIA "are mad at the policy in Iraq because it's a disaster, and they're digging the hole deeper and deeper and deeper," said one former intelligence officer who maintains contact with CIA officials. "There's no obvious way to fix it. The best we can hope for is a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments."
"Things are definitely not improving," said one U.S. government official who reads the intelligence analyses on Iraq.
"It is getting worse," agreed an Army staff officer who served in Iraq and stays in touch with comrades in Baghdad through e-mail. "It just seems there is a lot of pessimism flowing out of theater now. There are things going on that are unbelievable to me. They have infiltrators conducting attacks in the Green Zone. That was not the case a year ago."
This weekend, in a rare departure from the positive talking points used by administration spokesmen, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged that the insurgency is strengthening and that anti-Americanism in the Middle East is increasing. "Yes, it's getting worse," he said of the insurgency on ABC's "This Week." At the same time, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that "we will fight our way through the elections." Abizaid said he believes Iraq is still winnable once a new political order and the Iraqi security force is in place.
Powell's admission and Abizaid's sobering warning came days after the public disclosure of a National Intelligence Council (NIC) assessment, completed in July, that gave a dramatically different outlook than the administration's and represented a consensus at the CIA and the State and Defense departments.
In the best-case scenario, the NIC said, Iraq could be expected to achieve a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months. In the worst case, it could dissolve into civil war.
The July assessment was similar to one produced before the war and another in late 2003 that also were more pessimistic in tone than the administration's portrayal of the resistance to the U.S. occupation, according to senior administration officials. "All say they expect things to get worse," one former official said.
One official involved in evaluating the July document said the NIC, which advises the director of central intelligence, decided not to include a more rosy scenario "because it looked so unreal."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, and other White House spokesmen, called the intelligence assessment the work of "pessimists and naysayers" after its outlines were disclosed by the New York Times.
President Bush called the assessment a guess, which drew the consternation of many intelligence officials. "The CIA laid out several scenarios," Bush said on Sept. 21. "It said that life could by lousy. Life could be okay. Life could be better. And they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."
Two days later, Bush reworded his response. "I used an unfortunate word, 'guess.' I should have used 'estimate.' "
"And the CIA came and said, 'This is a possibility, this is a possibility, and this is a possibility,' " Bush continued. "But what's important for the American people to hear is reality. And the reality's right here in the form of the prime minister. And he is explaining what is happening on the ground. That's the best report."
Rumsfeld, who once dismissed the insurgents as "dead-enders," still offers a positive portrayal of prospects and progress in Iraq but has begun to temper his optimism in public. "The path towards liberty is not smooth there; it never has been," he said before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "And my personal view is that a fair assessment requires some patience and some perspective."
This week, conservative columnist Robet D. Novak criticized the CIA and Paul Pillar, a national intelligence officer on the NIC who supervised the preparation of the assessment. Novak said comments Pillar made about Iraq during a private dinner in California showed that he and others at the CIA are at war with the president. Recent and current intelligence officials interviewed over the last two days dispute that view.
"Pillar is the ultimate professional," said Daniel Byman, an intelligence expert and Georgetown University professor who has worked with Pillar. "If anything, he's too soft-spoken."
"I'm not surprised if people in the administration were put on the defensive," said one CIA official, who like many others interviewed would speak only anonymously, either because they don't have official authorization to speak or because they worry about ramifications of criticizing top administration officials. "We weren't trying to make them look bad, we're just trying to give them information. Of course, we're telling them something they don't want to hear."
As for a war between the CIA and White House, said one intelligence expert with contacts at the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, "There's a real war going on here that's not just" the CIA against the administration on Iraq "but the State Department and the military" as well.
National security officials acknowledge that the upcoming presidential election also seems to have distorted the public debate on Iraq.
"Everyone says Iraq certainly has turned out to be more intense than expected, especially the intensity of nationalism on the part of the Iraqi people," said Steven Metz, chairman of the regional strategy and planning department at the U.S. Army War College. But, he added, "I don't think the political discourse that we're in the middle of accurately reflects anything. There's a supercharged debate on both sides, a movement to out-state each side."
Reports from Iraq have made one Army staff officer question whether adequate progress is being made there.
"They keep telling us that Iraqi security forces are the exit strategy, but what I hear from the ground is that they aren't working," he said. "There's a feeling that Iraqi security forces are in cahoots with the insurgents and the general public to get the occupiers out."
He added: "I hope I'm wrong."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Robin Wright contributed to this report.
Copyright WP 2004
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