Baghdad Confidential

Strung-out stringers.

| Mon Jul. 16, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Before Abdul goes to work for Reuters, his employer since late 2005, he climbs onto his roof. He does this every morning—looks right, looks left, and if there are any cars parked on his street in western Baghdad that he doesn't recognize, he waits to leave. He can't have anyone follow him, because if it's discovered that he helps foreign journalists—American journalists—he's liable to be marked as a traitor and killed.

It's happened before. In 2004, Selwan Abdelghani Medhi al-Niemi, a freelance translator for Voice of America, was murdered, along with his mother and four-year-old daughter. His wife, also a translator, received a message shortly thereafter warning that since she consorted with "infidels," her "turn will come soon, God willing." She fled the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 19 Iraqis working for U.S. and other foreign news outlets have been killed since the beginning of the war. Since 2004, about three times as many local reporters have been killed as the foreign reporters they assist.

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As he drives to Reuters' office, Abdul (not his real name) checks and rechecks his rearview mirror and fields calls from his wife seeking reassurance that he's not being followed. He takes the risk—having given up his job as a lawyer to become a reporter—because he knows virtually no news would come out of Iraq if it weren't for him and his peers. Conditions have become so dire that Western journalists spend almost all of their time in fortified compounds near the east bank of the Tigris. Key reportorial duties—liaising with local authorities, sniffing around neighborhoods for stories, finding people to interview for "man on the street" pieces, attending Friday prayers in Sadr City—are left to local stringers, like Abdul.

This imbues him with an almost religious sense of mission. "My wife has begged me to quit my job and even to leave Iraq," Abdul says. "But I told her that every day tens of Iraqis are being killed for no reason, and they will be forgotten otherwise. To die as a journalist, I would know that I was killed while I was reporting the truth. I would die proud."

When I ask him what he can report that Western correspondents can't, he turns quiet. "Being a foreign journalist here," he finally says, "It's just like committing suicide."

That's only a slight exaggeration: Borzou Daragahi, the former Los Angeles Times Baghdad bureau chief, says he can easily count 20 times when he thought he was going to die. And every reporter who's spent time in Iraq has had close calls with ieds or insurgents. For that reason, and for financial ones, too—even a shoestring bureau costs more than $1 million a year—most news organizations have chosen to cut back or eliminate the large operations they fielded at the beginning of the war.

No official tally of reporters on the ground exists, but a head count of American print correspondents, not including wire service scribes or freelancers, caps out at around 20. McClatchy has cut its American reporting staff in half, the Boston Globe has folded its bureau altogether, the Washington Post doesn't have nearly the presence it once did (although the paper wouldn't confirm exactly how many remain), and the number of embeds—more than 200 at a high point in early 2005—was down to 48 by mid-April of this year. Edward Wong, who has covered the war since 2003 for the New York Times, describes the Western press corps in Iraq as "a skeleton crew."

The correspondents who do remain, however, blanch at being called "hotel journalists"—a term they think connotes laziness, when it takes tremendous effort just to conduct a simple interview. A Western reporter must send out a stringer to set up a meeting, then coordinate with security advisers—Centurion, one of the most popular security consultancies among news organizations, charges up to $5,000 a week per adviser—who chart out the safest routes and the risks involved. If the trip is deemed safe enough, the reporter will leave the compound escorted by bodyguards and sometimes a chase car.

The precautions don't end there. After paying $140,000 for an armored car, National Public Radio reporters dinged and scuffed it up so it would resemble the other clunkers on the road. Nancy Youssef, former Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy, had her female translator tie their hijabs in the same fashion so they would look like sisters. Some reporters attempt to self-tan (most end up a radioactive orange) and dye their hair black (most end up with something closer to purple).

And yet, news operations still wouldn't be able to file stories if not for their local correspondents—a fact they don't seem eager to publicize. With the exception of Reuters (which Abdul speaks well of), nine of the nation's biggest news organizations either ignored my request to speak to a local reporter or told me they wouldn't put me in touch with one for security reasons—even those whose stringers' names regularly appear in print. In early May a local journalist who seemed excited to talk to me was notified by his superiors that he couldn't. I asked if he knew any other stringer who could. The next day, he wrote, "I approached a number of my friends who work for American media outlets, but unfortunately their companies follow the same policy of ours and HONESTLY I DON'T KNOW WHY." A former Iraqi reporter for a major U.S. newspaper told me that the paper's Baghdad bureau chief emailed his whole staff forbidding them to speak with me. He thinks he knows the reason: "I didn't want to say it first, but I can't hide it anymore," he wrote. "I am sick of them hiding [behind] the bravery of the Iraqi staff who go out and do the reporting while the American journalists...hide behind their compound's blast walls and then get the credit."

If the news organizations are evasive about the use of Iraqi stringers, the military is sometimes openly hostile to them, says Abdul. Whenever he approaches a spot where U.S. forces have been attacked, he says, soldiers start yelling at him and sometimes even draw their guns to prevent him from covering the scene. In 2005, U.S. soldiers shot and killed Reuters soundman Waleed Khaled while he was trying to cover the shooting of two Iraqi policemen; bullets went through his U.S. Army press badge. U.S. forces then detained and interrogated his wounded coworker, cameraman Haider Khadem, for three days due to "inconsistencies in his story." Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, the head of the U.S. military's Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, admits that he doesn't like stringers' increased role in media operations: He's suspicious of their allegiances and thinks they feed "the symbiotic relationship between violence and the media."

"In many cases, there's no way these guys could operate out there in this environment without the tacit agreement of the insurgents and terrorist groups they're covering," he told me. "They cover the violence because that's what the enemy there wants."

Abdul, for his part, won't allow himself to dwell on these obstacles for long. He endures the violence and the bullying, his wife's frantic phone calls and her pleas for a safer life, and he raises himself up onto his roof every morning because he's afraid of what would happen if he didn't. "Yes, it is hazardous to work here as a journalist," he says. "But the mounting deaths, they just encourage us not to quit. If we do, we'll lose our self-respect, and also our country."