Publication date: 20 March 2023
When I crossed the Iraqi border for the first time in March 2003, I was like many of my media colleagues reporting from the front lines of the war: inexperienced but eager, ignorant but curious. I scrambled around trying to educate myself and the readers of the Boston Globe about a country most of us hadn’t thought much about until President George W. Bush decided to invade. Most vivid in my memories of that period is the intense sense of transformation and dislocation I witnessed among Iraqis – and the unforgivable disconnect of American officials from the reality of Iraq.
The US media had done a poor job challenging the Bush administration’s lies and manipulations during the march to war. In Iraq, many of us were personally determined to make amends through honest, critical reporting.
Once the US embarked on a war of choice for which it had blithely refused to prepare, the media lacked the necessary tools to explain Iraq to an ignorant American public. Journalism could not blunt the overwhelming force of official disinformation.
I drove into Iraq with a photographer and a translator. We weren’t embedded with the US military; we camped on roadsides in Umm Qasr and Basra until the day Saddam Hussein fled, and then we sped to Baghdad.
I was woefully uninformed about Iraq and the wider Middle East. I wince today when I re-read my private notes from 2003, full of incorrectly rendered place names, gaping blind spots about recent Iraqi history, and a reflex to explain people’s choices by their sectarian, religious or ethnic affiliations. But unlike many of the US officials I encountered over the course of the next three years of reporting, I was open-minded and interested in piecing together a credible account of Iraq’s transformations.
Unfortunately, the work of journalists did almost nothing to sway the overall narrative in the US. The apparent mendacity, shamelessness and ignorance of the official narrative meant that Americans heard a fantastical account of US heroism, government largesse and technical prowess – a story in which Americans took credit for any success in Iraq and blamed Iraqis for any failings.
Disconnect and lies
What I saw in Iraq in the spring of 2003 was chaotic but not random. All around the country, Iraqis were counting and mourning their dead. With Saddam gone, some sought to finally learn what had become of their disappeared. Others hunted for advantage in the upheaval: they courted contracts with the Americans, looted public buildings, joined new militias. The contours of Iraq’s new order were clear to anyone who was looking, taking shape – often with sectarian inflection – under the leadership of clerics, militiamen, tribal sheikhs, returning well-connected exiles, and the ultrawealthy.
In my early days reporting on Iraq, I learned about the country from English-speaking members of the Saddam-era elite, and from Americans. These sources frequently imparted a rigidly sectarian, and misleading, interpretation of events. Much of the pre-2003 Iraqi elite had their own sectarian biases, often believing themselves to be above the communal fray but facing a new generation of Iraqis who saw themselves above all as Kurdish, Sunni or Shia. The real power lay in the hands of the Americans, who – guided by the flawed views of exiled elites – approached Iraqis strictly as members of religious or sectarian identity groups. As a result, the Americans created a sectarian narrative and then entrenched a sectarian political system for Iraq.
In what is now known as Sadr City – at the time, Saddam City – I visited a man named Adnan Hamid. Although grieving two children who were killed during the invasion, he welcomed the Americans. In a nearby husainiya – a Shia place of worship – I sat with a Sadrist cleric who within days of Saddam’s fall was distributing aid, registering supporters, and planning for the first Arbayeen pilgrimage to Karbala since Saddam had banned this Shia practice in 1977.
But by August 2003, I was meeting with young men who were joining armed resistance against the Americans. They described themselves variously as Ba’athists, Islamists or nationalists. Some were willing to make common cause with anyone who wanted the Americans gone. Others had a sectarian vision.
The real shock came on those afternoons when I wanted a break from the heat and would attend the daily press briefing in the Green Zone. In the air-conditioned auditorium of the Baghdad Convention Centre – where parliament meets today – US officials wove a narrative disconnected from the ambiguous realities my colleagues and I were chronicling in detail.
Outside, in Baghdad, a man told me how his unarmed brother had been shot at point blank in his home by US soldiers, who hid his body behind a refrigerator and hoped they wouldn’t get caught.
Inside the convention centre, the top military spokesman, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, and his civilian counterpart from the occupation authority, Dan Senor, touted what they described as the spread of prosperity and private enterprise.
Outside, in Balad and Samarra, I heard the rage of men who had been dismissed from the Iraqi military and now were expected to submit to US officers and a coterie of unknown Iraqi exiles. One Samarra man told me about the US soldiers who he said had arbitrarily detained him and subjected him to a mock execution, firing a pistol beside his head, before letting him go.
Inside the briefing room, Kimmitt and Senor spoke in chipper tones about how ‘the coalition’ was inexorably securing the country from ‘anti-Iraqi forces’.
Outside, suicide bombers blew up recruits who lined up to join the reconstituted police and national guard. At one such scene, a frustrated vendor salvaged a murdered recruit’s finger from his bowl of falafel mix and wondered why the Americans couldn’t provide security.
Inside, Kimmitt and Senor stared over our heads, at the cameras behind us, and told their real audience – the American viewing public – that Iraq was on the road to autonomy. The Americans refused to use the word ‘occupation’, and followed through on their determination to turn over formal authority in Iraq to an Iraqi government by the summer of 2004, consequences be damned.
Did our stories matter?
As a journalist, I believed that the individual work of a reporter could shift the narrative, and I believed that facts and truth mattered. The collective labour of the press corps in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 is not beyond reproach – not enough of us knew Arabic, and some of our colleagues engaged in embarrassing jingoism. For the most part, however, our efforts were detailed and honourable, and provide an enduring record of what happened in Iraq during those first years after the US invasion. Yet independent reporting did not suffice to shift the narrative in the US, where official spin inalterably shaped public opinion, at times in direct contravention of facts.
During the sweltering summer of 2003, which Iraqis endured with barely any electricity to power air-conditioners or even lights, Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad: ‘For a city that’s not supposed to have power, there’s lights all over the place. It’s like Chicago,’ the US defence secretary said. Rumsfeld’s lie travelled much further than our dispatches that were intended to fact-check the defence secretary.
An Iraqi journalist asked General Kimmitt in February 2004 about the traumatic impact on Iraqi children of the incessant jets and helicopters flying overhead. ‘What we would tell the children of Iraq is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom,’ Kimmitt responded without any evident irony.
The Americans mishandled their occupation as badly on substance as on rhetoric. Security collapsed, insurgencies flared, new and more brazen forms of corruption supplanted the old ways, and Al-Qaeda – hitherto an Iraqi phenomenon only in the fictions of the Bush administration’s operation to find questionable intelligence fitting its narrative – flourished in Anbar, Ninewa and other Iraqi provinces.
In many cases, those prominent in the initial Iraq debacle prospered in its aftermath. Kimmitt, for instance, was promoted in the army and then put in charge of political-military affairs at the State Department. In retirement he has worked as a defence consultant, including advising companies that want to work in Iraq.
It’s clear today that our earnest print dispatches were no match for the US government’s spin machine. My colleagues and I were part of what Karl Rove reportedly dismissed as the ‘reality-based community’. The Bush administration was busy promoting its own realities, which carried the day, at least with the US public.
Bush won the popular vote for the first time in 2004, perhaps because his administration convinced a majority of Americans of the lie that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Even long after the historical record has been thoroughly corrected, a 2015 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found that 42 per cent of Americans still thought, erroneously, that US troops had discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Iraqi reporters did a heroic and thorough job chronicling the country’s politics and ongoing conflict, but they worked with little institutional support for critical journalism. And Iraq’s new leaders, following in the footsteps of the Americans, peddled narratives at times unmoored from reality.
Passing flares of attention
International media attention steadily diminished after the Americans captured Saddam and declared victory. Al-Qaeda attacks and the sectarian civil war of 2006 made it increasingly difficult to report from Iraq. By the time President Barack Obama withdrew the remaining US troops at the end of 2011, few international correspondents were based full-time in Iraq. Many news organizations went so far as to close their bureaus and lay off their Iraqi staff. The pattern repeated itself with the rise of ISIS – there was another spike of interest and a huge mobilization of journalists that subsided shortly after the liberation of Mosul.
Although I long ago lost my idealistic expectation that journalism could change the narrative and check government abuses of power, I still find that journalists provide some of the most reliable and compelling accounts of Iraq’s true state of affairs.
Today, the international press corps that covers Iraq includes a far higher proportion of Arabic speakers, and benefits from local knowledge and context gleaned from a generation of intensive news coverage of the Middle East. Most foreign correspondents know far more about Iraq than I did when I filed my first stories from Umm Qasr in March 2003. Iraqi journalists report from around the country, publishing in Arabic and Kurdish, in the face of frequent threats and violence that have made Iraq one of the consistently most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist.
I am heartened that today a reader or researcher can find credible reporting from Iraq, although in the absence of a major international crisis, funding and resources for Iraq reporting remain insufficient.
And sadly, I no longer expect documentaries and investigative reports to overcome the behemoth of the official narrative. Pernicious sectarian assumptions also persist despite copious journalism and research proving their inadequacies. Public attention only periodically turns to Iraq. For me, one discouraging lesson of the last 20 years is that hard-earned truth makes only a small dent in official misinformation.