What is Left in Iraq

NED PARKER – The war destroyed what little infrastructure Iraq had. And what’s worse, there is no precedent for building it again. 

You entered Iraq very close to the outbreak of hostilities. What thoughts were you thinking as you were entering the combat zone for the first time?

During the war I was an embedded journalist for Agence-France Presse (AFP) news agency, so I was traveling with the US Marines. I remember waiting in the desert for the operations to commence; it was a tense time because everything was so unknown and it was war. I had been around conflict before, but nothing on that scale. I did not know what to expect. I was watching this event unfold before me, and the best I could do was to hope that it would end in a way that was better than what had been before. That is all anyone could hope for.

When you were with the US Marines in Iraq, did you sense that they believed they could achieve the mission goals and emerge successful, if not victorious?

Of course they were very confident in their fighting abilities. The US Marines are one of the best trained forces in the world, and they exude that confidence. As a soldier and a marine, one of the greatest challenges is to go to a war and fight: it is the ultimate test of one’s skills.

Was there a specific type of soldier or Marine fighting in Iraq? 

The forces in Iraq were made up of a broad spectrum of people. The military is comprised of volunteers which means that there are people from all walks of life fighting. These disparate individuals come together to work towards something bigger and grander than themselves.

Switching gears to your experience as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, could you describe your bureau — how was it organized; could you describe your day working, as it were, in an office in a war-zone?

I worked in a few different offices in Baghdad during my time there. The first was for AFP from 2003 to 2005. I left Iraq in 2005 for a year, and when I returned I was running the Baghdad bureau for the Times of London between 2006 and 2007. That office consisted of myself and five or six other people, with a series of “stringers” throughout the country. Finally, from 2007 to 2011, I was with the Los Angeles Times office and bureau chief from 2009-2011. The size of the bureau gradually shrunk. Initially there were three foreign reporters and a staff of five or six Iraqi reporters. By summer 2011, the bureau was down to one foreign reporter and one Iraqi reporter.

Through 2010, the demand for news was quite high. Whether I was working for a European or an American news outlet, in the early years of the conflict, there was an especially huge appetite for stories about violence because the situation was all so new. So my day could quite literally be defined by bombings and explosions, getting to the site of those attacks, and then writing about them. The only time when it was difficult to move around the country was in 2006 during the civil war. At one point during that period I was stopped driving on the street by some militia. They let us go, but they easily could have taken us.  I remember just standing on the road as this was happening, and seeing everyone who was driving by look away, because they were afraid. The main point about working in Iraq is that it is a very unpredictable environment.

By the end of 2007, the situation had relatively improved, which made life much easier for me as a reporter; I could move around the country again. As a reporter, I needed to reach out to as many facets of the population as I could: poor to working class to rich, the middle class, militias, insurgents, artists, intellectuals. A large part of my job is to maintain contacts in these different groups over time. As the war went on and Americans grew tired of the fighting, it was critical to provide more than just explanations of the violence. It was a challenge to write about the experiences of Iraqis and why Americans should care about the country. It seemed important to provide Iraqi perspectives to an American readership, so that they would be able to understand the place and conflict to a greater degree. I had to do my best to find stories that would engage Americans.

You have reported for news agencies from several different countries, most recently as Bureau Chief in Baghdad for the Los Angeles Times. Has the nationality of the agency affected the stories you cover and how you report on controversial events?

 Nationality alone does not influence the types of stories I covered, but also the kind of agency for which I am working. For a wire service I might write three or four stories each day. If I am writing for a daily newspaper, I have a little more time to write a more in-depth piece. Maybe I would do one internet version of a story during the day: it is a far less intense form of labor. I focus more on that one particular project during the day, while the wire service would require me to think about an array of topics. For example, when I was writing for AFP — although it was a French newswire and the French in 2003 were seen as the great European critics of the war — I did not notice any real emphasis on one kind of story over another. I just had to report everything that was happening. Sometimes we would encounter resistance from the US military, but that was the case for all media outlets.

Working with The Times of London and the Los Angeles Times is of course different: The Times is from England and the Los Angeles Times is from the United States. The Times of London was already operating along a contractor-model whereby I was a contractor for them in Baghdad, and there was only one reporter in the country. The LA Times at the same period would always have three or four reporters in Iraq working on different stories. Over time there was a shrinking of financial resources for newspapers across the board. Newspapers today simply cannot invest the same kind of resources that they did in 2003. 

When you entered Iraq in 2003 the country was in disarray following the US invasion. Yet in Foreign Affairs you write that the country is on the verge of becoming a failed state following the US withdrawal today. Has Iraq been a failed state since 2003?

I wrote that Iraq is “something close to a failed state.” There are states failing to varying degrees around the globe and Iraq counts among those. In 2003 Hussein was toppled and there was a state of chaos and anarchy. Then there emerged a bit of an uneasy order, during which time an insurgency starts and the system completely disintegrated by 2006-2007.  After “the surge” in 2007-2008, the Iraqi government asserted itself, there was a fall in violence and the Americans began to pull away. It is necessary to ask one’s self, however, after all the destruction and lawlessness, what kind of state exists today?

The situations in 2003 and 2006 were unique, and likewise the situation today is unique too. It is possible superficially to compare the situation in 2006 to what is happening today and say that the current regime looks alright: there is some order on the street; there are no militias killing whomever they please. But it is necessary to also look at where the country is going, and the actual reality of what is being provided to people. If one does that, it becomes clearer that the government is failing at providing jobs, services, and enough security. When one looks at the broader question of whether the country can hold itself together given its ethnic and religious divisions, the future looks even bleaker. In that sense Iraq is a failing state; it is hard to be confident that Iraq, with its current political system, can persevere. I am fearful of violent disruptions before Iraq can secure its stability. Is the situation improving, or is it just flat-lining? When I say flat-line I mean the opposite of muddling through, referring to the chart in a hospital that is tracking the heartbeat of a patient. And when the heart stops, there is that ominous ringing sound indicating that the patient has lost life. From what I see, Iraq today is flat-lining; political parties and leaders are trying to take control of the political system so they can defeat their enemies by any means. The political players and ordinary people lack faith, in the security forces, judiciary, and independent bodies, like the electoral commission. They question the fairness of the very laws that are supposed to govern them and believe the ones who accumulate the most power will abuse their power. In this atmosphere, it is hard to imagine how Iraq’s current democratic order will survive.  If an authoritarian regime does emerge, its reign will be rocky at best and the general population will continue to suffer from a lack of freedom, killings by armed groups and violence sponsored by the Iraqi government and its security forces.  On the surface, one can point to improvements since 2006, when you start to dig, it becomes apparent how troubled the situation is.

After a decade of democracy promotion, it seems as if US efforts have come to a climax with the withdrawal of troops from the country. What realistic vision should the US have for Iraq’s political landscape within the next decade?

The US government is so wedded in public to the story of Iraq as a success, it fails to confront the Iraqi government on its excesses that threaten the state’s long-term stability.

Going forward, the solutions have to come from the Iraqis. All that America can do, along with other nations and internationalbodies, is to be engaged advising Iraqi leadership. The US cannot turn a blind eye to practices by the Iraqi government that it would consider unacceptable at home. That means it should have a constructive but tough stance on human rights abuses, on the high level of corruption that has become part-and-parcel of the Iraqi government, and the shrinking levels of tolerance of dissent and free speech. Iraqi officials do care that they are seen as responsible players on the international stage.

The recent case of the emo-killings likely by Shiite militia proxies in Baghdad is quite instructive. At first, this incident did not garner a great deal of attention. The interior ministry even issued statements disparaging the emos — who are just young teenagers who are into a certain aspect of western fashion — saying the killings were not of concern. But once the news came out, with international human rights groups taking the lead describing the killings of emos and members of the Iraqi gay community, the US State Department issued a statement against the killings, which is rare for them to do regarding events in Iraq.  Once the story of the killings was aired in the Iraqi and international press, nobody in Iraq wanted to be seen in a bad light.  This story is a good example of why international engagement in Iraq is very important.

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NED PARKER is the 2011-2012 Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad from spring 2009 to August 2011. Previously, he was the chief Baghdad correspondent for The Times of London from 2006 to 2007 and was based in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 as a reporter for Agence France-Presse. This past winter and spring he reported from Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain on the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East.