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Baghdad: The Besieged Press

A look at what reporting conditions for westerners in Iraq are really like, and why journalism there is under siege.

| Tue Mar. 14, 2006 3:00 AM EST
[This piece appears in the April 6, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books. It also appears, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.]

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"Ladies and Gents," the South African pilot matter-of-factly announces over the intercom, "we'll be starting our spiral descent into Baghdad, where the temperature is 19 degrees Celsius." The vast and mesmerizing expanse of sandpapery desert that has been stretching out beneath the plane has ended at the Tigris River. To avoid a dangerous glide path over hostile territory and missiles and automatic weapons fire, the plane banks steeply and then, as if caught in a powerful whirlpool, it plunges, circling downward in a corkscrew pattern.

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Upon arriving in Amman, the main civilian gateway to Baghdad, one already has had the feeling of drawing ever nearer to an atomic reactor in meltdown. Even in Jordan, there is a palpable sense of being in the last concentric circle away from a radioactive ground zero emitting uncontrollable waves of contamination.

Almost nowhere in our homogenized world does crossing an international frontier deliver a traveler to a truly unique land. There is, however, no place in the world like Iraq. Even at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport, one finds hints of this mutant land to come. Affixed to the wall above a baggage carousel is an advertisement for "The AS Beck Company, Bonn, Germany: CERTIFIED ARMORED CARS." The company's logo is a sedan with the crosshairs of an assault rifle's telescopic scope trained on the windshield on the driver's side. "WHEN GOING TO IRAQ, MAKE SURE YOU DRIVE ARMORED!" the ad proclaims cheerfully. At the departure gate, a crimson placard warns against carrying FORBIDDEN ITEMS: "Gun Powder, Golf Clubs, Hand Grenades, Ice Axes, Cattle Prods, Hocket Sticks [sic], Meat Cleavers and Big Guns," making one wonder if "little guns" are OK.

The small Royal Jordanian Fokker F-28-4000, which makes daily trips to Baghdad, sits out on the tarmac away from the jetways as if some airport official feared it might prove to be an airborne IED (improvised explosive device, a US military acronym). Those of us on this hajj to the global epicenter of anti-Western and Islamic sectarian strife are an odd assortment of private security guards, military contractors, U.S. officials, Iraqi businessmen, and journalists; a young man in a sweatshirt announces himself as part of the "Military Police K-9 Corps" (bomb-sniffing dogs).

The Baghdad International Airport terminal is full of armed guards and ringed by armored vehicles. I saw no buses or taxis awaiting arriving passengers. Almost everyone is "met." I am picked up by the New York Times's full-time British security chief, who has come in a miniature motorcade of "hardened," or bomb-proof, cars, escorted by several armed Iraqi guards in constant radio contact with each other.

As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural-urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere.

It starts on the way into Baghdad, the cluttered seven-mile gauntlet which has come to be known as Route Irish after the Fighting 69th "Irish" Brigade of the New York National Guard, which patrolled it after the invasion. Some also now call it Death Road, because so many attacks have occurred along its length. Now largely patrolled by Iraqi forces, it is not quite the firing range it used to be. But it is still the most nerve-racking trip from an airport that any traveler is likely to make.

Although pre-war Iraq had a relatively modern highway system, with multilane roads and overpasses, an occasional clover leaf, and even international standard green and white signs in both Arabic and English, it has been eroded by neglect, fighting, bombings, and tank treads which have ground up curbs and center dividers. Everywhere there is churned-up earth, trash and rubble, loops of razor wire draped with dirty plastic bags, decapitated palm trees, wrecked equipment, broken streetlights, and packs of roaming yellow dogs sniffing at piles of garbage, the perfect places for insurgents wishing to hide cell phone–triggered IEDs to greet the next passing convoy of patrolling American troops. Much of the roadside looks like a combat zone, even when it hasn't been under attack.

Many of Baghdad's main roads are a nightmare of traffic congestion. When American or Iraqi patrols of Humvees mounted with 50-caliber machine guns, M-1 Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pull onto a street, everything slows to a crawl. Signs tied on their tailgates warn in English and Arabic: "DANGER: Stay Back!" Every driver gets the message. Failure to maintain one's distance can draw fire. And so, like a herd of cold and hungry animals fearful of getting too close to a campfire, traffic cringes behind such patrols, while frustrated drivers are left to wait, breathe one another's exhaust, and curse the occupation.

It has not helped that when Saddam Hussein fell, almost all ordinary governmental activities -- such as registering cars and issuing drivers' licenses -- ceased, and thousands of vehicles flooded the market in Iraq from other countries. Traffic lights rarely work since electric power is still sporadic; the only control comes from a few street cops who have been recently posted at key intersections to direct the relentless crush of vehicles. To make matters worse, after several attacks or bombings, the U.S. military or the Iraqi government will often simply prop up a sign in the center of a main artery saying: "HAIFA STREET IS CODE RED! DON'T USE!" Moreover, as the city has become ever more violent and chaotic, people have begun blocking off streets on their own to create safety zones. Since there has been little law enforcement, there is no one to stop this private appropriation of public space.

At first people made themselves feel more secure after the invasion by piling sandbags along streets or in front of their houses and offices. But as suicide bombers began to proliferate and their explosive charges grew larger and more destructive, private defense efforts became more elaborate as well. The advent of the "blast wall" changed the Baghdad landscape.

Developed by the Israelis in order to put up a physical barrier between themselves and the Palestinians, the Iraq version of these segmented walls is constructed out of thousands of portable, twelve-foot-high slabs of steel-reinforced concrete. When stood upright on their pedestals, these "T-walls" look something like giant tombstones, totems perhaps from some long-lost Easter Island culture gone minimalist. When placed together edge-to-edge as "blast walls," they form the gray undulations that have now become Baghdad's most distinguishing feature. And because they proliferated during the administration of L. Paul Bremer III, they became known to some as "Bremer walls."

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