Iraqi feel-good stories prove elusive
A few days after arriving in Iraq early this year, I followed Army Gen. David H. Petraeus on a walk through a marketplace on the capital’s east side.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq didn’t wear a helmet, and he gently scolded his security detail for encircling him. “I want to get close to people. They need to feel comfortable coming up to me,” he told them.
Boys and girls recognized Petraeus from television, and they moved around him. He talked to them about soccer and their neighborhood, and he turned to me and said, “See, they say they feel safer now.”
The outing, despite its made-for-TV quality, gave me a hopeful feeling. During a tour of Iraq a year earlier, I encountered mostly pessimism among the Iraqis I interviewed. A reader wrote me to say that I was an “Al Qaeda cheerleader” for a story that included quotes from U.S. soldiers troubled about the difficulties of fighting insurgents. Many more asked, “Isn’t there some good news to report?”
The Petraeus appearance was an early indication that I would be able to show there was. Clearly, it seemed, I would be able to move more freely, to interview more candidly. At the time, I couldn’t tell by how much, but Petraeus’ media advisor suggested that I should be able to safely drive to many more sections of the city, interview people openly on the street and linger for an hour or so in homes and businesses.
Over the following weeks, I traveled across Baghdad with private security to write about a man who had allegedly been tortured by a provincial police chief and about errant U.S. military airstrikes that killed civilians. I also was embedded with the military to report on the lack of a legitimate process to resettle displaced Iraqis who returned to their homes and found squatters unwilling to leave.
I gave equal time and attention to reporting what might be called “good news” stories.
One line of inquiry concerned a bank branch in Amiriya, a Sunni Arab neighborhood on the west side of the capital that the American military said was one of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s most important strongholds last year.
When I had visited the district in May, members of the Army unit responsible for the area said they were fighting desperately to open a branch of the state-owned bank. Many of the residents were former civil servants, and without the bank, they couldn’t pick up their pensions.
Over the course of more than a year, the military paid to have the facility rehabilitated, sought to cajole the Finance Ministry into sending a shipment of cash and helped vet the bank’s guards.
“The bank is probably one of the most important things in the neighborhood. Opening it told people the government still cares about you,” Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl said when I called him shortly after he returned to the U.S.
Meanwhile, I learned of another possible story: about a Chinese restaurant that had been opened in Baghdad’s Karada district by three laid-off steelworkers from China’s Hubei province -- the first eatery here to be owned and operated by someone from outside the Middle East in years.
A local Times reporter, Saif Hameed, was so inspired by the willingness of the Chinese to come to Baghdad that he wrote them a welcome letter, which he got translated into Mandarin.
“The fact that you left your families behind and came here lifts my spirit and deserves the greatest respect,” Hameed wrote. “I couldn’t sleep yesterday, no matter how hard I tried, thinking about you and admiring you.”
I visited them and they agreed to a future interview.
Within weeks, I heard back from the military regarding Amiriya. The bank was no longer something the military was willing to highlight.
“The unit operating in the same area as the bank doesn’t categorize the bank operations as a top priority because they don’t directly affect the good of the community of Amiriya,” an Army spokesman, Maj. Mark Cheadle, wrote in an e-mail. “So, the bottom line is they would rather not sponsor an embed or visit for something they don’t deal with on a regular basis.” My request for a follow-up “embed” was denied.
I tried to arrange a visit that would not involve the military, but the neighborhood is surrounded by checkpoints that were judged too dangerous for us to pass. Without being accompanied by soldiers, there was no way for me to tell the story.
Cheadle proposed that I instead write about a videoconference that allowed schoolchildren in Baghdad and Texas to ask questions of each other. I declined.
A few days later, the restaurant employees said they had changed their minds about the interview. They were too scared to raise their profile through a news story. And a Chinese Embassy spokesman said his office had persuaded them to return home, although they were still operating in recent days. “The situation is far too dangerous for them to work here,” the spokesman said.
Because of such fears and the inefficiency that pervades the capital, these “good news” stories evaporated before I could tell them. After only a month in Iraq, I once again left having filed mostly “bad news” stories.