Covering the Iraqi Insurgency

Article excerpt

Journalists covering the war and fractured peace in Iraq have had to grope for facts in a fog of broken telephone networks, tribal politics, military jargon, and a seething rumour mill. The result has not been a cool, definitive analysis of the conflict (that will be a job for historians in the future), but a very current, patchy composite of fighting, peacemaking, small victories, and large policy reversals as well as blood, sweat, tears, and tragedy. This war has arguably been covered more completely, by more journalists, than any in modern history.

Over time, our reporting has yielded a big picture, like the slow reveal of a photographic print in a bath of developer. But as the details merged into a whole, a crucial blank spot appeared. There was, and is, very little information about what's become known as "the insurgency." The ruthlessness of both its leaders and its fighters have made close contact too dangerous for everyone-obviously the American military and Iraqi security forces, but also western and Arab reporters. Ultimately, it is this blank spot-the failure to see how strong the insurgency would become, or to come to grips with its makeup-that most seriously threatens America's victory in Iraq, and Iraq's own long-term stability.

Rereading my field notes, which date back to before the war, I am reminded how slowly we all woke up to the potential danger of sustained armed resistance. Consider this upbeat entry written in Baghdad not six months after the fall of the city. The first frenzy of looting (one of freedom's "untidy" features, according to US Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld) had abated, and the deadly bombings had not yet begun in earnest.

9 September 2003: American authorities and those Iraqi civil servants who have trickled back to work are reopening schools and hospitals. We don't report often that they have done a good job-but in this case they have. By dint of massive currency imports, they've even set up regular paydays.

In Baghdad, Amarah and Kut grieving and complaining voices are still the loudest: people who have lost family members, jobs and their place in a stable world; those who are afraid thieves will attack their homes and those who are simply outraged by American soldiers patrolling their country.

But there's a descant to this chorus too, and it is just as important.

It comes from people who are delighted with their new regular, and relatively generous, wages. The Coalition Provisional Authority (the American administration in Iraq led by Paul Bremer) is giving a regular salary to every government employee-and there are hundreds of thousands of them, many of them women.

Female civil servants, nurses, and teachers have seen their pay (and buying power-in spite of inflation) rocket up. In some cases, they have had a hundred-fold increase, from three to three hundred dollars a month. In addition, the markets are full of goods that have been unattainable for years because of sanctions.

You should see the head-high piles of satellite dishes stacked on the sidewalk all along the main shopping street in Mansour... Satellite TV-the link with the world-was forbidden for so long. Now, it's the first thing families want to buy.

Then there are electrical appliances, medicine, and cosmetics too. People, especially women, are giddy with choice and opportunity.

This is buying patience for the American occupation. These people have no desire to see the Islamists or former Sadaamites-all basically totalitarians-get control.

I think the peace is far from won, of course, but the war on many fronts is over.

Bustling markets, satellite TV, and optimistic women seduced me, that September day, into believing the country might be settling down to rebuild its future. But in the background, Iraq's violent history was resurfacing. A mere month later I covered one of the very first riots in the area that is now notorious as "the Sunni triangle. …