U.S. Journalists in Baghdad Wait for Fighting

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By: Joe Strupp

Although most of the Western journalists holed up this week inside the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad awaiting a U.S. attack on Iraq weren’t there when the Persian Gulf War started, they can feel its links to the past. Best known as the building where TV journalists telecast the first U.S. bombing strike 12 years ago, the hotel’s violent legacy remains uppermost in the minds of reporters staying there now.

Hoping (perhaps against hope) that military training, both from private companies and the Pentagon, will be enough to protect them, even as they stock up on gas masks and protective clothing, many of the dozens of reporters and photojournalists stationed at the hotel told E&P that they’re excited at the prospect of being in the enemy’s capital when the action begins.

“It is a huge opportunity, but a completely terrifying prospect,” said Ian Fisher, a correspondent for The New York Times who spoke from his fifth-floor room at the Al-Rashid. “A huge topic here is whether to be here or not when the fighting starts. I think most are ambitious and news-hungry for it.” Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, who is on his fourth Baghdad tour since September, agreed: “It is of manifest importance to be here. Many people are intent on staying for the duration.”

Most evenings find reporters gathered at Al-Rashid’s Internet cafe, where they can file stories, check e-mail and the Web, and share tea and Turkish coffee. Although alcohol is permitted in Iraq, unlike neighboring Kuwait, it is not the drink of choice, according to reporters, who also make little use of the hotel’s two pools. On every journalist’s mind, of course, is the pending U.S. attack. “Anybody who says they are not afraid is foolish,” said Bill Glauber of the Chicago Tribune, whose room is down the hall from where three CNN correspondents made history with play-by-play accounts of the 1991 attack. “It is important to be here because you have to witness as best you can.”

Roger Cohen, foreign editor of The New York Times, raised a hidden danger, pointing out that the Iraqi people may be more hostile to the press than they were in 1991 because the U.S. is seeking not merely a rollback from Kuwait but a regime change. “This is a very different kind of war,” he said.

Being able to maintain a news presence in the Iraqi capital city may be tougher than reporters think. Safety concerns, the never-ending tug-of-war for visas, and uncertainty about when an attack will occur have put many plans on a roulette wheel of uncertainty. “It is very fluid,” said Susan Stevenson, deputy managing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which expects to have at least one reporter in Baghdad by this week. “The visa situation makes it very difficult to plan.” Iraq has given few newspapers more than one visa at a time, with a 10-day limit for each. After a visa expires, a renewal must be requested — and can take weeks to approve. Although most of the journalists expect an attack to occur within a month or so, the 10-day limit means they can’t be sure if they’ll be able to remain in the city long enough to cover an invasion. This means that the papers have “to make this up” as they go along, said Andrew Ross, executive foreign and national editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Editor Colin McMahon has been rotating three veteran foreign correspondents in and out of Baghdad since November, with each receiving visa renewals regularly, in an effort to maintain coverage under the visa limits.

Editors at major papers who spoke with E&P said most of their staff slated for Iraq coverage had gone through survival “boot camp” training. They also said — and some reporters confirmed — that no correspondents are being forced to work out of Baghdad. Apparently few, if any, are declining the opportunity when asked, but editors remain concerned about safety in Iraq’s capital.

“My instinct would be to get our people out [of Baghdad] before war starts,” said James Smith, foreign editor of The Boston Globe, which pulled its only Baghdad reporter out Jan. 21 due to a visa expiration, but hopes to have someone return soon. “I’m very anxious about having staffers in Iraq.”

The Wall Street Journal also plans to keep its people away from Baghdad during combat, according to Bill Spindle, the Journal‘s Middle East editor. “It isn’t our story,” he said. “Our instructions to reporters are, ‘If you see shooting, go the other way.'”

Some reporters covering other Persian Gulf locations admit they’d rather stay out of Baghdad if possible. “I would not want to be there when they start the bombing campaign,” said Ron Martz, a Journal-Constitution reporter covering military exercises in Kuwait. “It will be a lot more dangerous in Baghdad.”

But others, such as the Chronicle‘s Robert Collier, who had to leave Iraq two weeks ago due to an expired visa, are frustrated that they have to wait to get back. “I want to be there for the war,” said Collier, who has been reporting from Saudi Arabia in the meantime. “It will be the biggest foreign news story in a decade.”

For most newsroom leaders a decision on keeping reporters or photographers in Baghdad during an attack has yet to be made. “We have to judge the situation as it happens,” said Tom Kent, an Associated Press deputy managing editor who would not disclose how many AP reporters were in Baghdad. “We are always a little careful when telling the movements of our correspondents.” Editors at The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were just as undecided. Each said safety factors had to be known first. “We view that as a continual reassessment,” said Mary Braswell, L.A. Times deputy foreign editor. “The individual on the ground will make the choice.” Post Deputy Foreign Editor David Hoffman agreed: “Safety is still the priority.”

Back in Baghdad, limitations on coverage include using only Iraq-provided interpreters — known as “government minders” — who can often intimidate interview subjects. Talking on satellite phones can be done only at the Ministry of Information, while most hotel phone lines are bugged. As one reporter told E&P during a long-distance interview, “You must be mindful of the questions you are asking.”

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