November 20, 2007

Truth?

A lot of people have commented with questions asking me about the truth about Baghdad. First there is no ever lasting truth in Baghdad. Is this sudden relative calm a lasting change or a lull before the storm? Nobody really knows.

The violence has dropped to levels of 2005, I still wake up to shooting outside the windows and we hear explosions that shake our desks or sometimes are just a distant boom. Now bombs are killing one or two in Baghdad, it has been a long time since they've killed tens or hundreds. Thank God for any moment of peace for Iraqis.

But the future is unsure. In the south the Shiite battle between two historic rivals, the Hakims and the Sadrists, continue. They vie for power and popularity among the Shiite Iraqis.  Diyala is murky for us, but the last I gleaned the villages between Baqouba and Baghdad were a maze of Al Qaida strong-holds. They are encased on one side by the Shiite Mahdi Army-controlled town of Khalis and on the other side the newly anti-Al Qaida elements of the Sunni insurgent group the 1920 Revolution Brigade.

It is unclear what the side effects of the growing former insurgent groups turned concerned citizens will mean for the future of Iraq. Is this reconciliation or a band-aid until the U.S. troops leave. Then both Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs can legally carry arms and the battle may be yet to come. Some of the new-found quiet in Baghdad is related to the cleansing of neighborhoods and the division will last for a long time to come. The blast walls are high and divisive, even when painted with pretty pictures. Trust is gone; trust in your neighbor, your countryman and your government. It will take a long time to recover.

What is the truth? Right now we don't know. No one does, we can only watch and see.


November 16, 2007

Sweet Tooth in Baghdad

In the glass cases of Vanilla bakery, trays of chocolate eclairs, frosted cakes, cheesecakes and pies call out to a sweet tooth like mine. In the back, three pastry chefs in plastic aprons bake and ice and add to the array of sweets to offer, carrying out tray after tray for the showcase. Inside the fridge a cake in the shape of a letter F waits for Farrah to pick up for her birthday.

In the window a three tier wedding cake waits to be bought. The vanilla icing is draped across each layer like the folds of cloth and strings of pearls cascade down. It has always been relatively safer in this neighborhood.

But you can't enjoy the sweets inside the store, or outside on a patio. The bakery has a smart philosophy about business. Everything is carry out. If there are no crowds then they aren't a target and a suicide bomber just wouldn't be interested.


November 11, 2007

Green Zone Blues

I left the office at 9:30 a.m. and returned a little before 7 p.m. You'd think I'd have accomplished a full day of work. But this was for just two appointments. Here's a rundown:

Forty minutes of traffic to the Green Zone is followed by four pedestrian checkpoints. Two are body searches, two are just badge checks.  At one checkpoint pedestrians are asked to walk through a spaceship looking X-ray machine. The elderly Iraqi woman in front of me starts to cry when she is asked to spread her legs and arms and step inside the machine.

"I'm scared," she says between sobs.

When I'm done there a dog sniffs my camera, cell phone and recorder for explosive substances.

Finally at 10:45 I'm inside so I can get bussed from one part of the Green Zone to another for a lunch with General Rick Lynch. He tells us attacks and deaths are dramatically down in his area of operation and two hours later we're done. Once again we're loaded onto a bus and taken back to the Combined Press Information Center.

From there I walk over to the gate that leads to two office buildings. I go into the women's search area where a woman gropes for anything illegal under my clothes and searches through my bag. I forgot to empty my large tote. It's full of notebooks and pens, makeup, a glasses case among other useless items. It takes forever. I turn in my phone, they're not allowed inside the office buildings, and get a visitor's badge. Now I'm on the grounds and I head to the entrance of the building. Once again I have to be searched, my bag is rifled through and I hold up my arms so another woman can check if I have any illicit items under my clothes. This time they take my camera and recorder.

Finally I'm inside. I sit down with Bassam Ridha al Husseini, an advisor to the Prime Minister. We chat over sweet cups of tea and then I'm ready to go. I retrace my steps and pick up my breadcrumbs, my camera and recorder at one gate, my cell phone at another. Once again I'm searched...I guess I could've picked up a suicide vest while visiting the Iraqi official...I don't really get the search on the way out thing. Once that's done I exit the building. It's 4 p.m.

The driver picks me up and we head to a checkpoint that we pass through before we cut across the Green Zone to the gate where we exit to get home. This checkpoint typically takes about 45 minutes, dogs sniff the cars and men and women have mandatory body searches. But before we reach the checkpoint we're told to turn around. One of the dogs sat i.e. the dog smelled explosive residue. Of course this could be because they vehicle passed through an area where a bomb had recently exploded.

For over two hours we wait. The car is checked out and found to be of no harm. The checkpoint opens and people rush to get through.

The sun has set and we nervously exit the Green Zone, unaccustomed to driving on Baghdad's dark roads to come home. A full day out and barely anything accomplished.


November 10, 2007

Return

I've been back in Baghdad a couple days now after more than a month away. Last month six of our female Iraqi reporters, who have risked their lives during the 4-plus years of this war, were honored for their courage by the International Women's Media Foundation. In New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. they told American audiences about the daily dangers of their lives in Iraq both as an Iraqi and as a journalist. Even in the safety of American cities they could not be photographed, could not be revealed for what they are, journalists.

It was an honor to watch them be recognized. So often the Iraqi journalists that work in western bureaus here do not get the credit they deserve. They are our guides through the streets of Iraq and our eyes and ears when we cannot travel their ourselves.

Now I'm back and things seem to have changed. The streets are quieter. But Iraqis are tentative to except the lull in violence. So many are waiting for the next flare up. Today one official told me that security-wise Baghdad is better but life is not better. Unemployment rates are still high, displacement has tripled since January and children are the biggest victims.

I'm glad to be back and I'm sorry I was gone so long. I'm a journalist but I'm human to and I hadn't seen my family for a year.


September 29, 2007

Leaving

I'm leaving Iraq tomorrow for a month. So my blog posts will be few and far between. But I'll be back.

For now I'm thinking about what happened while I was here. Shiites killing Shiites in Karbala, continued sectarian cleansing in the south, west and southwest of Baghdad, the government slowly unraveling as ministers pulled out and the Prime Minister here swearing he would not step down in the face of pressures for him to resign.

It all starts to run together sometimes. But the things that will stay with me over my break are Afrah's tears. I sat in her home this past week to talk about her mother Ghania. Afrah was the woman's favorite among her eight children. Often her sisters would complain that she and Ghania were always together.

Afrah talked about her kindness, Ghania would hide away her favorite foods for her or pick up clothes or trinkets from the market that reminded her of her daughter.

Ghania is gone, killed at the back of a bus by what witnesses said were bullets from Blackwater security guards on Sept. 16 in Nisour square. While they protected Americans Iraqis died, witnesses said.

No one has come to this tiny home in Hurriyah to ask this family what happened. No investigators from the Ministry of Interior or the U.S. Embassy or the joint U.S. and Iraqi commission. No one has asked them about compensation or what this has done to their family.

Ghania died while she held her 27-year-old daughter in her arms in the back of a bus, protecting her from the bullets.

Her family lives in a tiny two-bedroom home where instead of doors, sheets of cloth conceal the rooms from each other and the home from the street. Her poor husband can't think about anything but his loving wife. They spent 40 years together and at night when everyone has gone home he sees her in front of him. No one else can put up with his stubborn personality, she love him, she alone.

He tries to stop his mind and goes to the street in the dead of night and chain-smokes. But his love and need for her has grown since her death. Nothing will be enough to compensate this 67-year-old for his loss.

For Afrah, the image of her mother's body in the back of a pick up truck with two other bodies is engrained in her mind. She wakes up and sleeps with it in her mind.

When her mother died she kissed her and turned to God, "We belong to God and we return to God," she prayed. But I see the pain in Afrah's tears.


September 25, 2007

Why Are You Here?

The young man on television was probably 16 years old. But he looked so young, his face chubby with baby fat, his lips poised in a child's pout.

"Why are you here," the Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al Hashemi, asked.

"I don't know," he said. "They hit me and hit me and hit me until they made me admit to something I haven't done. What can I do?"

Hashemi was visiting the Iraqi prison for juveniles with camera men. He asked them to film.

The Vice President is the only man from the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front left in the government. With his veto power the party hoped his presence would keep pressure on the government to succumb to their demands. The ministers have resigned, the one who refused to was removed from the party. One of their grievances were all the men imprisoned who are innocent, most Sunni Arabs.

The camera panned through a narrow hallway where hundreds of young teen-age boys sat. Those Hashemi spoke to all had visible signs of abuse on their body. One showed acid burns on his back, another lifted his sleeves, and his shirt to show the purple and red bruising all over his body.

It aired on Sharqiya, an Iraqi station that has been banned from having an office in Iraq because it is anti-government.

To the question, "Why are you here?" They all answered "I don't know."


September 24, 2007

TO GO OR NOT TO GO

Every morning in the bureau the staff and I sit together and discuss the plans for the day. Together we read the morning papers then decide on our plan.

Sounds simple enough. It's not.

It goes a little something like this.

"I need to talk to this family for my story," I mention. Easy. Go to the family, talk to them, come back and write a story.

No it's to dangerous, I'm usually told. Every time I leave the bureau as a foreign reporter we map out the route. What neighborhood can we drive through, where can I get out of the car and interview people in my Lebanese accent or whispered English in my translator's ear? There aren't that many places left for me. Everyone knows when a stranger enters the neighborhood. With my dark complexion from my Lebanese roots, I blend better, but now Iraqis don't blend in the parts of the capital they don't belong. Most stick to their neighborhoods and work places, never dallying or wandering through the capital.

A few days ago we decided to drive through Al Nisoor square, near the shopping district of Mansour in Baghdad. Seemed harmless enough, our security advisor raised his eyebrows but gave in to my pleas. I put a scarf over my hair and we headed out in two cars, one to block anyone who might chase us home. I sat with my translator and driver and looked at the place where Blackwater, the private security company that protects U.S. diplomats, is accused of killing 11 civilians. Among those civilians was a family of three: a baby, a mother and a father. The woman was a doctor I found out, a rare commodity in a place where most professionals have fled.

We drove through the square, which actually is a traffic circle. I saw where the convoy would have been driving up the road before turning to go against traffic. The circle was in front of them and we drove around the traffic circle where the cars would've been stopped to let them pass. The same spot where that white car came under fire, burst into flames and a baby died before he lived. The white car they were in is pushed to the side of the road, a burned shadow of itself. Eight people died instantly, the Ministry of Interior spokesman said, three more died in the hospital.

"Can I get down to talk to a few people," I asked.

"No not now," my Iraqi colleague, Mohammed, said. "Something weird is going on."

So I settled for driving through the circle once more to get the description I needed for a future story. Suddently commandos were motioning to each other and running through the roads. I was absorbed in multi-tasking a phone call from my boss and looking out the window at the now infamous intersection.

"Go faster," I heard Mohammed tell the driver. "Let's go."

He spotted the men moving quickly and he rushed us away. Twelve minutes later the commandos found a car bomb. It never detonated.

But you never know when you go out what awaits. Maybe you pass through that same spot where one day earlier everything was fine, but today it's the spot for the almost daily car bombs, mortars or roadside bombs in the capital.

It's a risk you weigh. Sometimes you take it and pray everything will be ok, other days you worry and stay home.

But the burden is always there. What happens if I send a reporter somewhere for a story and they never come back? What happens if I go somewhere and never come back?

Tomorrow we make those decisions again. I hope they are the right ones.


September 21, 2007

Beyond Blackwater

It's Blackwater all the time right now in the news. But as we try to figure out what happened in Al Nisour square, where at least 11 people were killed by Blackwater Security Contractors on Sunday, according to witnesses and the Ministry of Interior, the rest of Iraq is still ticking and still newsworthy.

Today is the day of prayers. For the second week in a row there is no curfew after a year of Friday days spent at home and walking to the mosque during a four hour curfew.

At the Sunni Friday prayers in Baghdad Sheikh Harith al Obaid held up a slip of paper and asked who would be held accountable for the slaying of an entire family in Washash, a neighborhood near the shopping district of Mansour in Baghdad.

Last night Hammoudi Naji, a top Mahdi Army leader in the area, was shot with his cousin and another man as he walked home. Someone had to pay and the Mahdi Army, the militia led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, took revenge. According to police they busted into a home and killed four women. A resident said it was the home of the suspected assassin. When they found no men they killed the women.

At midnight clashes ensued between the militia and the Iraqi Army. By 8 a.m. the neighborhood was locked down.

A Sunni family packed up their things and tried to leave. This was no place for them now.  With their precious belongings in the back of their truck they crept away. But the militia opened fire on their truck and they never made it to a safer place. That is what residents told us.

The Sheikh on Friday led his congregation in prayer. But like every Friday in both Sunni and Shiite mosques across Iraq after thanking God the sermon turns to the blood and politics outside. They ask who will pay for all the blood shed.


September 20, 2007

Important issues

   There has been extreme pressure on the Iraqi parliament to perform. Often they can barely make quorum and many of the lawmakers are still on vacation, two weeks into session. But today they talked about two pressing issues.
   The Committee of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, Hajj, offered up two trips to go to Hajj to each parliament member. Yes, I didn't know about this committee either. Also they are struggling to get the Iraqi soccer team, who won the Asia Cup this year, to come back to Iraq. Most of the team, that united Iraq in joy and pride in their win, live outside Iraq because of the danger. The parliament did the first read of a draft law that grants property to every team member, the admin staff and the Iraqi mission. Hmm, how does this help Iraq?
   A lot of Iraqis wanted the soccer team, national heroes, to take over for the government, in which most Iraqis have lost confidence.
   I'll tell you what no one discussed and what isn't on the agenda, softening the deBaathification law, passing an oil-revenue sharing law, amnesty laws, the problems with Shiite militia infiltration of security ministers and the list goes on. But legislators will go to Hajj, and people who don't live here will get property.
   Laith, an Iraqi reporter here, watched the session on television. It is his dream to go to Hajj, but right now he also dreams about 24-hour electricity, no curfew, safety and air condition.


September 18, 2007

How many have died?

As a journalist it's a question that's so hard to answer. How many have died in these four years due to violence? In 2006 the medical journal, Lancet, estimated that excess deaths in Iraq due to the war were 654,965, 2.5 percent of the population. Iraq Body Count, which tracks civilian deaths, puts the number of documented deaths between 72,596 and 79,187. For a reporter it is difficult to know.

The official numbers differ if you can get them and numbers leaked to us from Iraqi ministries are incomplete pictures. This week a poll by the British market research company, Opinion Research Business, put the number at 1,220,580 deaths that were not natural causes, since the 2003 invasion.

According to the poll one in two households in Baghdad has lost someone. One in two households.

Can you imagine? If you haven't lost someone, than your neighbor has.  The next most deadly provinces were Diyala and Ninewa in the north, notable because both Baghdad and Diyala are inhabited by both Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunni Anbar province, Shiite Karbala in the south and Irbil in Kurdistan were not included in the poll. 

Among those polled 22.002 percent of people had lost at least one person in their household due to a non-natural cause. Five percent of them lost two people, one percent lost three and less than one percent lost four or more.

One thing peaked my interest, nearly half of the people polled who'd lost someone in their household said it was due to a gunshot wound. While the military has touted the drop in car bombs as a major victory, they only account for 20 percent of the deaths. While 48 percent of people were shot and killed. The murder rate implies sectarian violence.

I thought back to a media luncheon with a U.S. General earlier this week. I sat down and the American General asked the media to please change the perception that Sunnis and Shiites were killing each other in Iraq. He asked that when we go back to the United States we try to change that perception.

I couldn't believe it, doesn't he know? Sunnis and Shiites don't necessarily hate each other in Iraq but right now they have no choice but to fear each other. The fear is oppressive in Baghdad. If you're a Shiite and don't agree with the Mahdi Army, there is little you can do. To express your dismay is a death wish.

Sunnis have told me that in the past they didn't question Sunni extremists that controlled their neighborhoods; at least they protected them from Shiite militias. The fear is very real. Our Iraqi staff, both Sunni and Shiite, are friends. But the Sunni man does not visit the Shiite man in his Mahdi Army neighborhood, he knows it could be his end.

Shiites don't stroll through Sunni enclaves of Baghdad and Sunni son-in-laws in and his Shiite in-laws often can't visit each other in this divided city.

I told the General this and he asked me how I could explain some of the Sunni and Shiite marriages he'd come across.

Maybe he could explain to me the high divorce rate among Sunnis and Shiites. They were once common place here and now very few people inter-marry. Maybe he could explain to me why Sunnis map their routes to avoid Shiite neighborhoods and vice versa. Maybe he could explain to me the fear I feel every day for my staff and for myself.

Iraqis are not barbaric and all Sunnis and Shiites don't hate each other, but right now the fear trumps all. No one wants to end up a corpse on the side of the street. This is the reality that we report everyday. This is the reality.


ABOUT THIS BLOG

Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read their stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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