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The Baghdad Press Club

The horror, claustrophobia, and everyday heroism of reporting on the Iraq war.

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Dexter Filkins New York Times
Before he makes his daily rounds, Filkins talks to a security consultant—"to see what neighborhood is bad that day."  

After the fires had gone out and the victims were cleared away, the Iraqi authorities found only the calf of the suicide bomber who drove up to Nabil’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve 2003 and blinded Chris Kraul in his right eye. An eye for a leg—that was the exchange, a monstrously literal variation on the retributive justice described in Exodus and Babylonian law, though eight people inside the restaurant also paid that night with their lives. Why this man had targeted Nabil’s was a mystery, and would remain so even two years later, when Kraul returned to Iraq, though he collected the rumors: The man believed Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was a devoted patron (not true, though he’d eaten there a couple of times); the man had heard that scantily clad Iraqi women belly-danced on the tables (even less true).

Kraul, then a correspondent in the Mexico City bureau of the Los Angeles Times, had just arrived in Iraq a couple of weeks earlier for his second four-week assignment. Journalists didn’t feel daily, hourly intimations of danger back then. They didn’t yet live in compounds entombed by blast walls and barbed wire; they didn’t yet travel in $150,000 armored BMWs. If a bomb went off somewhere, they jumped into their ordinary sedans with a driver and a translator. Reporters drove in and out of the city—to Fallujah, Najaf, even Tikrit, the city that produced Saddam Hussein. “I went to Tikrit two days after Saddam’s capture,” says Kraul. “The worst possible time to go. Yet we were stopping people in the street for your basic reaction story.”

And for lunch and dinner, everyone—journalists, diplomats, foreign-aid workers, contractors—went to Nabil’s to unwind over Turkish beer and chicken brochette. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post until October 2004, once took U.N. weapons inspectors there for a martini dinner (when he discovered the restaurant had no vermouth, his driver fetched a bottle at an Iraqi Airways duty-free shop); the people from NBC made the place their de facto canteen, because their first hotel, the Aike (long since wrecked by a bomb) was just across the road. It seemed a logical spot for the L.A. Times to ring in 2004. “It never occurred to us,” says Kraul, 55, “that there was any real risk.”

Yet Kraul had no illusions about the dangers where he was. Just before the party, a car bomb had gone off as it passed a U.S. Army convoy, killing an 8-year-old, and Kraul had gone immediately to the scene and filed a story about it. Then he and his driver headed off to Nabil’s. They were parking their car on a side street when another car, packed with TNT, came screaming toward them.

The restaurant was flattened that night. It never reopened. For many foreigners, that evening was the last they moved freely about Baghdad. (“No one,” as Chandrasekaran put it, “wanted to risk their lives for a meal.”) In the next few months, the American military lost control of Fallujah and Sadr City, and rebellion spread through the south. Violence toward both Westerners and Iraqi civilians dramatically, uncontrollably began to escalate.

Kraul blacked out for the first five minutes after the explosion. When he came to, he and his two colleagues, also injured, were taken by their translator to a nearby hospital, where they collapsed into folding chairs and waited in the hallway. And that was how Kraul spent the last hours of 2003—bleeding copiously on the concrete floor of a Baghdad hospital, his left hand broken and his head severely concussed, waiting for a doctor to treat his right eye.

There is a kind of journalist who loves a war zone, but only the hardiest of the species can love Iraq. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 69 reporters, producers, and cameramen have died since the conflict began, as have 25 people in their employ (translators, drivers, guards); an additional 41 have been kidnapped, and that number does not include those who’ve been held only briefly, nor does it include those whose disappearances have never been reported at all (generally Iraqi staff, for security purposes).

Unlike in most wars, there are no front lines in Iraq, nor are there clear areas of U.S. control, except the highly fortified Green Zone. Unlike in Vietnam, where reporters retreated to the cities and then flew to areas of strife, the trouble in Iraq has a way of finding journalists—they are dying and being taken hostage mainly in cities, as they were in Beirut in the eighties. But unlike in Beirut, it’s unclear who’s fighting whom, and no group seems to consider the media a particularly useful asset in getting its message out. Quite the contrary. “If you write with any evenhandedness about this war—and, let’s face it, if you are reporting on a suicide bombing, your description is bound to present it as a slaughter—you are at risk of being identified by radical Islamists as a collaborator,” says John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. “God knows we could marshal arguments to the contrary, but I think that’s the assumption. There is really no neutral ground for journalists in this war, at least as far as the insurgents are concerned. Having a notebook and a pen does not afford you an exemption. It can just as easily make you a target.”


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