The Other 98 Percent of Iraq

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This morning’s Column One feature in the Los Angeles Times is a terrific first-person account of life in Baghdad. It is written by an unnamed Iraqi reporter for the paper, and reading almost any random paragraph shows why he had to go unbylined.

I see my neighbors less and less. When I go out, I say hello and that’s it. I fear someone will ask questions about my job working for Americans, which could put me in danger. Even if he had no ill will toward me, he might talk and reveal an identifying detail. We’re afraid of an enemy among us. Someone we don’t know. It’s a cancer.

It’s a revealing look at the unspoken, and unreported, reality behind the news we do get from Iraq. Dexter Filkins, who has done terrific reporting for the New York Times from Iraq, recently said that 98 percent of Iraq, including most of Baghdad, is now off-limits to Western journalists, a startling figure that begs the question of why reports from Iraq don’t include such a disclaimer

Filkin’s talk at Manhattan offices of the Committee to Protect Journalists offered a revealing look behind the scenes of Iraq reporting. Editor & Publisher noted that the Times, employs “45 full-time Kalashnikov-toting security guards to patrol its two blast-wall-enclosed houses—and oversee belt-fed machine-guns on the roofs of the buildings.”

American journalists, [Filkins] said, spend their days piecing together scraps of information from the Iraqi reporters to construct a picture, albeit incomplete, of what life is like these days in the war-torn country. But he says that the work is slow and difficult, and it is hard in such an atmosphere for reporters to nail down specifics. “Five people doing a run-of-the-mill story takes forever,” he said.

Filkins’ reading of the situation overall raises the question of where to Bush administration is getting its optimistic assessments of progress in Iraq:

Most troubling was Filkins’ assessment that the U.S. military may not know much more than the Times does about what life is like on the ground in Iraq. Soldiers barely leave their bases and they don’t interact very much with average Iraqis, he said, so it is hard to say who, if anyone, has an accurate picture of the current situation.

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