Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Managing a news bureau in a war zone

I am pleased to post a short email interview with Borzou Daragahi, of the Los Angeles Times.

Borzou Daragahi is a noted journalist who has covered Iraq and Lebanon. He is the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Borzou was a nominated finalist for a 2005 Pulitzer Prize "for his vivid, deeply reported stories on the impact of the Iraq war on citizens and soldiers alike."

His articles have been very useful to this blogger. There are some very interesting points about the younger generation of Iraqi Kurdistan, Hezbollah and Nasrallah's treatment of women in Shiite Lebanon, and what it is like to manage an office in a war zone.

What is it like managing a bureau office in the middle of a war?

It's really a hugely challenging task. We have dozens of Iraqi employees who come in and out of the office every day. They lead dangerous and complicated lives. I am always worried that something might happen to one of them or their loved ones. My presence in Iraq causes constant strain for my loved ones. Day-to-day, there are many different things to juggle -- including finances, security, personnel issues -- before you even begin to get into journalistic questions, like what stories we should be writing. There is always some hassle -- like the military doesn't want to give a reporter an embed, or someone is stuck at a checkpoint -- that force you to stop what you're doing, veer off on some tangent. That said, it has been one of the most professionally satisfying experiences I've had.

In the LA Times published on 9/10/2006, you wrote: "A tour of Hezbollah's state within a state in southern Lebanon reveals a replica of the distinctive institutions and styles of the Islamic Republic's [Iran] ideological machinery, and offers clues to the militant group's powerful hold here."

Does Nasrallah and Hezbollah follow the concept of Valiye-Faqih?

This refers to the concept of guardianship of the jurispudent, the theocratic underpinnings which give the Shiite world's highest ranking cleric -- Iranian supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- near-absolute dominion over the material world. In theory both Hezbollah and Nasrallah abide by the concept. But in practice they're pretty mellow about adhering to the rules set out by their leader. For example, it appears women in Shiite controlled sections of Lebanon dress as they wish, which is not the case in Iran. Nasrallah is an interesting character, and he rarely sprinkles his talk with religious rhetoric ... he's very worldly in his demeanor and talk. Still many secular Shiites and non-Shiites in Lebanon -- even those who kind of like Hezbollah and respect Nasrallah -- worry about who will take over the Hezbollah machinery after Nasrallah leaves, and what it will mean if a "true believer" takes over.

Do you believe Israel's strategy in the recent conflict has strengthened that concept of governance in southern Lebanon?

In general this question remains to be seen, but Israeli destruction of southern Lebanese villages and towns hardly bolsters the authority of the state in those areas. For one thing, it gave non-state actors such as Hezbollah and politically linked charities with ties to Christians, Sunnis and foreign countries the impetus to go into southern Lebanon and start doing good deeds, effectively highlighting the weakness of the central government. For another thing, much of the infrastructure of the state in southern Lebanon -- roads, power lines, municipal buildings -- was damaged or destroyed to varying degrees.

In the LA Times published on 9/4/2006, you reported on Kurdish autonomy and prosperity. I have read, in Azzaman (English) online, that there are demographic shifts into the more secure Kurdish region. In addition to the Kurdish peshmerga, have the Kurds enhanced or augmented security in their region of Iraq? Have they established extra check points?

They have definitely bolstered their overall security infrastructure, including additional checkpoints run by the various security organs.

If they have, could this enhance the Kurdish area's autonomy, perhaps creating a de facto state-within-a-state?

To some degree, Iraqi Kurdistan is already very much a state-within-a-state. It has been for more than a dozen years, since the 1991 Gulf War and the establishment of the Anglo-American-enforced no-fly zone over northern Iraq, which allowed Kurds to carve out their own region, including state-like organs such as ministries of defense, interior, finance, education and public works, as well as intelligence services under the auspices of the main Kurdish political parties. They pay lip service to the Baghdad government only for show. They're keen on keeping trusted Kurds at key posts in Baghdad, such as in the security ministries, if only to keep an eye on what the Iraqi Army and Police are up to. There is an even more pronounced Kurdish sense of autonomy among younger Kurds, most of whom spent very little time outside of Kurdish parts of Iraq and view Arabs in a negative light.

Do you believe, as reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post based on a National Intelligence Estimate, that the conflict in Iraq has increased the overall global threat of terrorism?

Emprically speaking, not just the threat, but the actual number of terrorist attacks has increased substantially since the Iraq invasion

To conclude, I'd like to ask a question you have posed on your own website in your own words.

"I added another close call to a list which includes a car bomb that blew out my hotel windows, death threats to my translator and numerous roadside bombs, and I again put to myself a question that becomes more urgent with each visit to this country since the war two years ago: Should I even be here?"

Have you re-asked that question recently?


I ask that question every day I'm in Iraq. Certainly it's a risk, and not one that I take lightly. But I have been covering Iraq now for a little more than four years, and it seems I'll be covering it -- even if not as bureau chief -- for a few more years to come. It is an important story and one that is essential to understanding what is happening in the Middle East. I feel that reporters that don't make it into Baghdad don't "get" what's happening there, and fail to see the complex dynamics the war has unleashed.

Please feel free to add anything else.

Americans are obsessed with security, terrorism and Islam and view the Middle East through those prisms. But I think the overarching story in the region is globalization: the flood of electronic media images, cheap Asian goods and consumer culture are reshaping values and lives. Even the Islamists and extremists are a result of this process, disoriented and uprooted individuals who are (in the words of The Clash) "all lost in the supermarket" of political ideas.

4 Comments:

Blogger Chuck said...

I have little confidence in news reports from a war zone because of something I saw in 1968 in Vietnam. A reporter paid some grunts to stage a firefight while he, dressed if a flack vest and helmet, ducked down in a firing position and filmed a report.

We have seen in the recent Israel- Hezbolla war numerous instances of staged footage used to condemn Israel.

I want to know what is happening in Iraq as much as anyone else but I want to know the truth, not a sensationalized version.

I don't know what is the best way to get the unvarnished facts out. If the military controls what can be reported they will put their slant on it. If civilians with an agenda controls it they will put out what fits their agenda.

I guess there is no right way but I know there is more going on in Iraq than car bombings and roadside bombs. We are not seeing reports that show the upside and that bothers me.
Chuck

8:10 AM  
Blogger copy editor said...

There is a great deal going on in this war that we don't know about.

What I found interesting in this exchange with Borzou was that he wrote about "dozens" of Iraqi employees in the Baghdad office. That provides a lot of contact between Iraqis and non-Iraqi journalists.

The latest reports, Chuck, are grim. Reuters and an Arabic channel in Iraq have reported close to 2,000 deaths in Baghdad in the month of September despite a broad security campaign.

Reports state that a lot of reconstruction dollars have been spent on the security problem. There are success stories, but there are also great set backs. I'm not certain a situation that complex can be covered as well as anyone would like in a 750 - 900 word story.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

I agree the killing in Iraq is grim but I also keep in mind that the majority of it is between Shia and Sunnis. I don't think anyone can stop it until they have either killed all of one side or they reach an accomedation as to who is the top dog.

If we pulled out of Iraq today the situation between Sunnis and Shites would continue if not get worse. These people have known nothing but hate for each other for centuries and given the Sunnis were cruel masters when Saddam was in power the Shia are going to extract revenge.

I think we should let them have at it and get the mess sorted out faster. It wouldn't take very long and we wouldn't be caught between two sets of religeous fanatics.

Chuck

10:24 AM  
Blogger copy editor said...

We do not have sufficient troops in Baghdad for the operation that started in the summer. The results are most likely bleak for this reason.

Sectarian tensions have a long half-life. Only now is the Provisional IRA fully disarming.

10:30 AM  

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