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The Baghdad Press Club

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John Burns New York Times
"There really is no neutral ground for journalists in this war."  

The hotels were soon oversubscribed. For a time, news bureaus found shelter in the nicest homes in Baghdad, whose owners had fled before the invasion. The L.A. Times rented a house from the owner of a factory that processed chickens. The Washington Post rented a landscaped villa with crystal cocktail shakers, two barbecue pits, and a pool shaped like a P. The staff threw some pretty memorable parties on hot summer nights, ones that featured not just celebrity guests but cold drinks. These gatherings drew not a little envy from the New York Times, whose house on the Tigris was in a much less fancy neighborhood and whose garish exterior glowed in rainbow hues. (The paper then leased the derelict adjoining property and spiffed it up with a new kitchen, furniture from Indonesia, and a pool.)

No one can pinpoint when things began to turn. But in August, the insurgency had certainly begun to gather speed, staging a grisly attack at the United Nations headquarters and, a few weeks later, an arpeggio of four suicide bombings, including one at the International Red Cross. By the spring of 2004, Iraq was a different country. Radical Shiites, feeling their power, took control of Sadr City, and the American military struggled to gain control of Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold, after insurgents shot and killed four U.S. contractors at one of the city’s main intersections, then hanged two of their bodies from the iron bridge over the Euphrates.

Kidnapping became a cottage industry. To make money, one needed simply to phone in the whereabouts of a Westerner or well-connected Iraqi to a party that wanted one, which in turn ransomed the hostage or sold him to other groups. Suddenly, reporters who moved freely about the streets and lingered in people’s homes were slumped, heads down, in their car seats. Alissa Rubin of the L.A. Times began to wear her abaya even on her way to church; the New York Times’ Robert Worth dyed his eyebrows dark brown and grew a bushy Baathist mustache; Rory Carroll of Britain’s Guardian threw all his belongings in a plastic bag. “The downfall of the Americans was the bag,” he says. “They couldn’t resist having a fancy leather bag to keep their stuff in.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Though I suppose it’s a bit rich for me to be pontificating about my crafty disguise when I was kidnapped myself.”

Reporters also began fudging their identities, an awkward development. “If I was in the streets interviewing someone, and they said, ‘Where are you from?’ I often said I was Canadian,” says Fassihi. “Or a neutral country. In extreme situations, you bend the rules.” (Almost everyone bent the rules. “I always said I was a journalist,” admits Shadid. “But I didn’t always say I was from the Washington Post. ‘Washington’ is not the best reference.”)

Reporters’ parent organizations, meanwhile, began to grapple with a banal but high-stakes question: How were reporters supposed to travel around Baghdad? In armored cars or unarmored? With drivers who do or don’t carry guns? “There’s a school of thought that we should present ourselves assertively as the civilians we are—that we should not wrap ourselves in protective hardware—because by doing so we risk adopting the profile of the occupying forces,” says Burns, the Times bureau chief. “I’ve disagreed with this since the first major suicide bombings in the late summer of 2003.” At that point, the Times began adding to its assembly of armored cars, the first of which an Iraqi staffer drove all the way from Jordan. Burns also checked to see how much it would cost to rent an armored car, rather than to buy more ($80,000 for a remodeled clunker from Bosnia; $300,000 for a late-model BMW). The rental company informed him that one twelve-mile trip to the airport would be $2,400.

Those lovely villas the news bureaus called home now looked painfully vulnerable. Bureau chiefs hired full-time security advisers, generally veterans of the British Special Air Service who had their own intelligence contacts within the city. (In an excellent story about the Baghdad press corps in the New York Review of Books, Orville Schell perfectly described these men as “earthbound air-traffic controllers.”) They recruited armed guards for their compounds, lined the property with sandbags, Mylar-coated the windows. But there were limits to how much they could do. In February 2004, a battered Opal drove slowly by the Washington Post compound, its backseat passenger snapping dozens of photos. The whole bureau relocated to the Hamra Hotel in under 24 hours. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, changed houses to avoid getting shelled—its neighbors had an uncanny way of attracting mortar rounds—and then decided to relocate permanently to the Hamra in September, after two men stopped at a local store and demanded to know why Jews were living in the neighborhood. In October, an Australian reporter was kidnapped just feet from the Hamra’s front door.


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