By Monroe Price
Joseph and Sadie Danciger Professor of Law and Director,
Howard M. Squadron Program in Law, Media and Society
In March 2004, I spent a week in Baghdad, within the protected Green Zone, the location of Saddam’s palaces and the Coalition Provisional Administration (CPA). I was helping to draft an order establishing an Iraqi version of the Federal Communications Commission and an Iraqi public service broadcaster. For the previous nine months, as part of the activities of the Squadron Program in Law, Media and Society, I had been working with nongovernment organizations in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Middle East on postconflict media issues. Now, at the invitation of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I had a chance to work with officials on the ground.
Here are some notes from my diary of those days:
I'm suddenly leaving for Iraq, and my flight is booked from Brize Norton, the RAF base in the Cotswolds. We land in Akrokitri, in Crete, on another RAF base and transfer to a Hercules. It looks like a movie or stage set. Soldiers line the walls and center, strapped into makeshift seats, with light cargo and baggage stacked up like a Christo sculpture. We’re on the Herc because it has antimissile protection, and we fly into Basra with all lights off. (There’s a magical moment when the lights inside turn from white to blue, and then, 20 minutes before landing, plunge into darkness.)
At the Baghdad airport I was picked up by the Control Risk Group, an armored vehicle with two ex-special forces men. Paul, the driver and “vehicle commander,” was on the radio and phone the whole time and told me he would “direct my actions” if necessary. Evidence of the war is on all sides, with slight destruction as well as a reorganization of spaces for the vast needs of the occupation forces. On the way in, the landscaping along the road was dramatically modified to reduce potential locations for sniper positions.
Most of the time, I’m in the office of the Media Development Team (MDT). It’s a windowless, cheerless office about 30 by 40 feet, with six desks, computers, and the inevitable electric heater for tea. The head of the team is Simon Haselock, a retired British Marine who was involved in media policy in Bosnia and was a media commissioner in Kosovo. Almost everyone talks about lack of communication. The Media Development Team certainly underscores this. It’s very self-contained and its history includes struggling against various bureaucracies contained in the Green Zone. This seems to be one of the really big elements here: clustered, noninteracting sectors, with different goals.
I slept at the “Embassy Estates,” the compound established by the CPA largely for US civilian personnel. The place is a kind of trailer park, accommodating 500 to 1,000 people in trailer-like modules, about 24 by 6 feet. They resemble austere college dorm rooms: two single beds, two plastic garden chairs, linens, closets. Each “unit” has two modules joined by a common bath. (This morning I was unable to conquer the simple task of turning off the water and had to get Simon to help figure it out). A sign in the bathroom lists rules imposed by the Coalition, including “No cohabitation except among married couples.”
The entire residential compound is surrounded by barriers. First there are bins loaded with dirt; next are concrete blocks about five meters high; and inside there are 10-foot-high piles of sandbags. Outside there are Ghurkas brought to Iraq by the contracting firm in charge of security.
I met with Hassan Fattah, the young American-Iraqi editor of an English-language newspaper called Iraq Today. Fattah went to Berkeley and to Columbia School of Journalism, and came to Baghdad in May 2003. He has large goals and a small reservoir of assets. He has recruited a staff of about 10 young Iraqis who write in English and has published 36 issues of his paper. But he’s run out of money. The “publisher” is a British company that either has no funds or isn’t putting more in. The issue now is how to keep Fattah and his team alive. Simon wants him to become a “news agency” for Iraq, especially because one of the MDT objectives is to have such a news agency.
On a Tuesday morning, I made my first visit to Hussein’s palace where the administrator and the CPA are housed. It was like a major motion picture set, with massive numbers of people milling throughout. It looks virtually unblemished. One walks, after an anteroom with gold and red upholstered furniture, into a grand court, with a mural of Saddam covered up by a five-footsquare blue tarpaulin. On the left is the entrance to Ambassador Paul Bremer’s suite. Notwithstanding enormous security upon entry, a special arch-metal detector is in the middle of the court, looking like some magical entrance to this holy of holies.
I had a longish talk with Kristin Whiting, who’s been at the Palace for two weeks as the lieutenant of Dorrance Smith—sent by the President to “straighten out” the Iraq Media Network, which was reeling under the failure of a $100 million contract that produced little in the way of studios, etc. Whiting, a very striking, anchorperson type, was Diane Sawyer’s assistant and worked for National Geographic Television as well. She said she was now trying to get Iraqi personnel to think more like American reporters and produce some equivalent of Good Morning America—conveniently named Good Morning Iraq.
I was at the palace with Simon for my first meeting with government contractors, a group called Bearing Point. They have a small army of consultants to assist with things like institutional development. They are tasked with helping the new Media Regulatory Commission get off the ground. One really important task Simon gave them was to come up with a document justifying a higher salary for the new director general of the Commission. Also present at this meeting, which felt remain entirely like Washington except for the veiled Iraqi woman sitting in a corner, were two lawyers seconded to the CPA by their law firms.
I almost always ate dinner at the cafeteria run by a subsidiary of Halliburton in the Al Rasheed. It was very American. A typical dinner: meatballs and spaghetti, cole slaw, a brownie, and a scoop of ice cream. One evening’s discussion was about the new residential quarters for the British personnel here. They were ordered to move from the trailers at Embassy Estates to a newly created residential space under a carpark near the Convention Center. The Brits decided their people should stay “under hard cover” so that mortars can’t pierce the roof. There’s currently a contest for the name of the new place: Bonker Bunkers, Fawlty Towers, and many, many more. Hundreds of e-mails have been sent for the cause. This kind of amusement is what keeps people from boredom in the Green Zone.
One night, Simon and I were invited by Shakir Samir, chair of the Media Committee and one of the 15 members of the Iraqi Governing Council, to his house for dinner. We were picked up at the 14th of July Bridge near the edge of the Green Zone by Samir and his driver in their protected SUV. We were whisked along what seemed to be a virtually closed highway to another compound— in a residential part of the city for high officials of the Council. The compound is closed off by a wall and an intimidating gate with a gun-mounted tank inside. There are 41 houses in the Zone—all rather beautiful, quite modern, California-type ranch houses. These were the houses of the Baathist power structure under Hussein and—probably on purpose—they were spared from bombing and seized for the new elite.
Samir invited a group of Iraqis—all expatriates—to join us. The highlight of the evening was a long debate between Shamir and a young woman, an assistant to Colin Powell, who had come to Kuwait three months before the war to prepare to be part of the civil government after Hussein’s regime fell.
Samir and the young American official had a debate. She asked, almost naively, whether there were things the Coalition had done wrong that allowed things to remain in crisis. In a way, Samir was politely and respectfully criticizing the Coalition. He argued—as have many—that the Coalition had virtually lost the peace in the time since April 3, 2003—a year ago. Samir said that the CPA, against the wishes of the Iraqi Governing Council, made key decisions that lost an enormous amount of time at the beginning. Iraqis were asking why after the ’91 Gulf War, Saddam got basic services going again in three months, while the Coalition had totally failed to date. According to Samir, Saddam paid the proper amounts of money, got the best engineers and others, and held them to a high standard of performance. In short, there was more direction and a sense of priority. Even now, Samir said, turning to a different point, the CPA, against the wishes of the Governing Council, was strengthening local groups, potentially weakening the power of the center.
That Monday afternoon, Siyamend Othman, who was to become the first director general of the new Media Regulatory Commission, took Simon and me to lunch at an open-air restaurant about 20 minutes from downtown Baghdad. We walked to the entrance of the Green Zone and got into Othman’s car and drove through Baghdad— scarred more by poverty and disintegration, it seemed to me, than by bombing. We passed the Palestine Hotel where many journalists had stayed and which was hit by US forces, passed the circle where the taken-down statue of Saddam has already been replaced by a more benign and allegorical sculpture, passed small stands selling fruit and cigarettes, and passed many nondescript buildings.
The site for lunch was green and park-like. The restaurant was adjacent to a grove of palm trees not far from the Tigris. There was a water wheel, sculptures made of abandoned clay pots and urns, a pool where carp (a famous Baghdad dish) were kept for grilling. Here there was a hint of an older, more café-populated Baghdad. Othman told us that this was a favorite place for Coalition officials in the more open days after the end of the ’91 war. He told of people who come today with their security guards, and are warned by the owner that they cannot come if they are too obvious about their security. I noticed that when I went to the bathroom, one of the waiters watched me to make sure I didn’t stray too far.
Wednesday morning at 4:10, I heard a slight whooshing overhead and then a loud blast—not nearby. It was a mortar. A moment later, a compound-wide siren sounded, exactly like one from World War II. A canned voice came through the night air saying, “Stay covered. Stay covered.” Five minutes later, the mechanical voice was heard saying, “All clear. All clear: Keep protective gear nearby.” I was uncertain of the function of the siren, since there was nothing one could do but stay in one’s bed. Simon used the moment to explain the function of the eight-foot sandbag walls that surround and snake through the trailer camp. These were to obviate any lateral impact of a landed mortar. The only way we could get hurt, he reassured me, was if a mortar came directly through the roof of our trailer.
There’s a kind of ennui and desperation, and I feel it among our little Media Development Team. There’s depression, too, because the members of the Media Team have now been here seven months, because the food is awful, because there are no wives or lovers near, because the situation is dicey, because optimism can carry one only so far. It is interesting that not only Simon but most of his small staff are military and this is like another campaign, with billets, and kits, and the complexities of tiny details and logistics.
One evening, we go to one of two Chinese restaurants in the Green Zone. There are about 10 plastic garden tables, and the place was filled with young men and women soldiers with their M-16s propped up next to them or leaning on the walls. While we had pretty delicious Chinese food and French wine, there was a steady stream of helicopters—Medivacs we think—grinding overhead to the heliport of the nearby hospital. Our experts thought that this meant some heavy casualties somewhere. It had all the absurdity of a MASH episode: Iraq, Chinese food, helicopters overhead.
After a week, it’s my turn to leave, but it is not easy to get a flight out of Baghdad. I have to wait a day or two and fly via Basra to Kuwait. There, I spend time in a huge US base, a rotation point for those going home and the new troops coming in. I’m shuttled to the Kuwait Hilton, have a luxurious evening of swim, bath, and dinner and, the next morning, fly directly home to New York.
CODA: I wrote these notes in March 2003. As this issue goes to press in November 2004, things have changed a lot but in many ways are the same. Violence intensified. The CPA vanished, to be replaced by ambassadors. The fate of the infant public service broadcaster and the independence of the new regulatory agency are still matters to be fought over in the complexity of postwar Iraq.
Professor Price has coedited and published the Iraq Media Development Newsletter, www.stanhopecentre.org. He was involved in developing a framework for media policy in post-conflict Iraq (Internews.org). He is visiting this year at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.