What a Top Reporter in Baghdad Really Thinks About the War
By Greg Mitchell
Readers of any nailbiting story from Iraq in a major mainstream newspaper must often wonder what the dispassionate reporter really thinks about the chaotic situation there, and what he or she might be saying in private letters or in conversations with friends back home.
Now, at least in the case of Wall Street Journal correspondent Farnaz Fassihi, we know.
A lengthy letter from Baghdad she recently sent to friends “has rapidly become a global chain mail,” Fassihi told Jim Romenesko on Wednesday [September 22] after it was finally posted at the Poynter Institute’s Web site. She confirmed writing the letter.
“Iraqis say that thanks to America they got freedom in exchange for insecurity,” Fassihi wrote (among much else) in the letter. “Guess what? They say they’d take security over freedom any day, even if it means having a dictator ruler.” And: “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.”
After she confirmed writing the letter, Paul Steiger, editor of the Wall Street Journal, stood up for her, telling the New York Post that her “private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness.”
Fassihi, 32, covered the 9/11 terror attacks in New York for the The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. and has also worked for the Providence Journal.
The reporter’s letter opens with this revelation: “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.... 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.”
Fassihi observed that the insurgency had spread “from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq.” The Iraqi government, she wrote, “doesn’t control most Iraqi cities.... 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, Fassihi wrote, “the significant turning point came with the wave of abductions 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....
“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.
“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 Baathists 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.”
And what of America’s “hope for a quick exit”? Fassihi noted that “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....
“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?
“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....”
Making clear what can only, at best, appear between lines in her published dispatches, Fassihi concluded, “One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it’s hard to imagine what if anything 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.”
Greg Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of Editor and Publisher and the author of seven books on politics and history.
—Editor and Publisher, September 29, 2000