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Leadership and the Press

Iraqis lack a strong leader to take charge, but the Fourth Estate is alive and well.

4:15 PM, Mar 18, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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Baghdad

AFGHANISTAN IS ONE UP ON IRAQ. A solid national leader, Hamid Karzai, emerged in Afghanistan shortly after the American invasion and ouster of the Taliban in 2001. But Saddam Hussein fell a year ago in Iraq and no clear choice to head the new Iraqi government has become obvious. When one does, it probably won't be Ahmed Chalabi, the former exile who once was close to American officials.

"There's a structural problem," an American official here said. None of the exiles on the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council has a political base among Iraqi citizens. For decades, Saddam's tyranny was so totally crushing that no dissident was allowed to emerge as popular figures.

The official drew a contrast between Iraq and other liberated countries. In South Africa, while Nelson Mandela spent 25 years in jail, he became the chief national hero to blacks. He became South Africa's first president. In Iraq, however, suspected dissidents were killed. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin became a national power through his membership in the Communist party, then led the liberation of the country from Communist control. But members of Saddam's Baath party were cronies and flunkies, not potential leaders of a democratic Iraq. None became an independent power.

As for Chalabi, he has lost favor with both Americans and his fellow members of the governing council. They regard him as unreliable and power hungry. Though a secular Shiite Muslim, he has been courting Shiite religious leaders here in recent weeks. He has also met with Iranian leaders.

Chalabi is said to favor appointing the governing council as the interim Iraqi government when the United States hands over sovereignty on June 30. Other Iraqis want to expand the council considerably, which would diminish the clout of Chalabi's one vote. Some want to name a national executive as well. That wouldn't be Chalabi. An ABC News poll released this week of 2,737 Iraqis found he was the most distrusted leader in Iraq.

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THE NEWLY FREE IRAQI PRESS has become a lot like the American press--pampered and rambunctious. At the convention center inside the Green Zone, home of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Iraqis are given special attention. Often they are given special briefings. On Wednesday, a group of economic advisers first briefed in English for the non-Iraqi press, then briefed again for the Iraqis. And the U.S. government has bought expensive television equipment for Iraqi TV producers, reporters, and camera operators, who listened on earphones to a simultaneous Arabic translation.

There's a good idea behind all this. Iraq is becoming a democracy and a functioning free press is an important part of any free society. Under Saddam Hussein, the media was run by his regime. Journalists worked for Saddam.

The new Iraqi press, like its American counterparts, has become demanding. When Dan Senor, the spokesman for CPA administrator Paul Bremer, recently called on questioners from American or European outlets four or five times in a row, the Iraqis complained they were being discriminated against. Senor later held a private meeting with them to sooth bad feelings.

At another press briefing, an Iraqi reporter had been banned from the event for one reason or another. When the other Iraqi journalists discovered this, they walked out of the briefing in unison.

* * *

IS THE AMERICAN PRESS CORPS in Iraq obsessed with security? I've only been here a few days and I know I am. After all, civilians are being targeted by terrorists. So when I went to a youth service at an American-style evangelical Christian church outside the downtown area last evening, I wore a bullet proof vest. Don't laugh. Some of the press, many CPA officials, and all of the military wear them routinely. Why take a chance?

The question is whether the fixation on security skews the coverage of terrorist attacks here, giving the attacks too much prominence. Maybe, but I'm not so sure. For one thing, sudden violence is always news, especially in a zone of maximum media attention such as liberated Iraq. For another, military and CPA officials take the terrorist threat very seriously and see it as the major impediment to Iraq's emergence as a stable democracy. Finally, the ABC News poll found that "regaining public security" was far and away the top national priority of Iraqis.

Still, to the extent the press creates the impression that terrorist bombings have halted all progress toward a free society in Iraq and that the country is as unstable as it was a year ago--well, then a false impression is being created. And this happens from time to time.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.