Frustrations, Challenges of Covering Iraq War

ByTerry Mccarthy

Feb. 22, 2007 — -- Reporting in Iraq has become one of the most challenging and, at times, frustrating jobs in journalism anywhere. We are in the middle of the biggest story in the world today, and yet because of the extreme restrictions on our movement and ability to talk to Iraqis, we are like travelers in a sandstorm trying to make out the vague outline of things around us without being able to see anything clearly.

We will hear reports that some top insurgent leader has been injured, even killed -- but how can we verify the information?

We are usually unable to travel to the location in question, the officials who released the information will not give his name and local people are generally too scared to talk to reporters, even on the phone.

We then hear that some neighborhood is subject to ethnic cleansing by Shiites against Sunnis, or Sunnis against Shiites -- but how can we document this?

If we send a Shiite camera crew they run the risk of being shot by Sunni insurgents, and if we send a Sunni camera crew they face a similar risk from the Shiite death squads. And for those of us who are foreigners reporting in Iraq, we run the risk of being kidnapped or shot by either side.

According to the Iraq Coalition casualty count, 111 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Today, only the very largest news organizations maintain a presence in Baghdad, as the level of security that is necessary is so expensive that smaller media outlets simply cannot afford to base people in Baghdad.

Those journalists who are in Baghdad cannot drive outside the city, and there are many neighborhoods in the city that are now too dangerous to visit. So while in Baghdad, we spend a lot of time inside our heavily guarded compounds, and rely to a large extent on our very brave and loyal Iraqi employees to go out and gather what news they can.

Even locals, however, are at risk, particularly since the upsurge in sectarian killings over the past 12 months: Every Iraqi dreads the question, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" from a man with a gun -- as giving the wrong answer can mean instant death.

To get out of our compound, we have the option of embedding with U.S. troops, but that comes with its own risks, as armored vehicles and even helicopters are increasingly becoming targets for insurgents.

The U.S. military does its best to protect embedded journalists, but the troops have a job to do that carries inherent dangers, and there is simply no way to make it risk-free for anyone who wants to travel with them.

Every story we do, either with or without the U.S. military, involves a detailed series of risk assessments. We are constantly revising our assumptions on which areas of the city are too dangerous to travel to and assessing what the safest routes are, what types of risk we might face, and what our backup plans are if things go wrong.

Perhaps the worst aspect of working as a journalist in Iraq today, however, is observing how the sectarian war is changing people that we have known and worked with, in some cases, for more than four years.

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, when the news organizations poured into Baghdad and hired local translators, fixers, drivers and so on, there was no distinction made between Sunnis and Shiites. Baghdad had long been a relatively secular city with very high rates of intermarriage between the two main Muslim sects.

Today, all of that is changing, and we see our own staff polarizing into Shiite and Sunni groups with distrust and suspicions arising between them, with personal frictions getting sometimes so intense that they get in the way of the work we are all trying to do.

A large number of the correspondents in Baghdad have had experience in other wars -- Afghanistan, Bosnia, Africa, Asia. And every single one I have spoken to agrees this war is the worst they have had to cover.

Terry McCarthy has reported from Iraq roughly 10 times since 2003 and is currently in Baghdad.

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