The Blog

Live from Baghdad

Watching the anti-American foreign press in action, fixing hotel toilets, and dining out in Kurdistan.

11:00 PM, Mar 23, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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Baghdad

THE IRAQI PRESS CORPS routinely peppers spokesmen for the American military and the Coalition Provisional Authority with loaded questions about why U.S. soldiers are picking on innocent Iraqi citizens. The Spanish reporters here make it clear they're not sympathetic to America's role in Iraq. But nobody in the media covering postwar Iraq can top the Brits for injecting anti-American themes in their questions.

Examples? At a press briefing last Friday, CPA administrator Paul Bremer offered his assessment of progress in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled a year ago. Then a "senior coalition official" took "questions," including three from British reporters.

The fellow from the Guardian in Manchester began this way: "You mentioned the protest today by the journalists being an expression of democracy. But that was an expression of great anger because they feel those men were shot by American troops at a checkpoint. There is widespread resentment and hatred for American troops."

Thanks for that statement of opinion, but what's the question? "How do you explain the fact that there is much less attacks on coalition forces in Basra, Nasaria, and so on where there are non-American troops?" he asked. You can see what he was getting at--that American troops alone are detested by Iraqis and thus attacked more. Of course, the scribbler had to know the truth: American troops are stationed in the most dangerous areas where attacks are far more likely.

Then there was the lady from Reuters. She stated that "resentment" of American soldiers by Iraqis "is coming from civilians being randomly shot at by U.S. soldiers." Another statement without a question. But she did have two queries. "Is there something you'd like to see the military do differently to gain the confidence of the civilians?" The answer was no. "And why has the CPA been resistant to give the amount of civilian casualties?" This is a frequent question that always gets the same answer: The CPA doesn't keep track of civilian casualties.

Just because a Brit works for the American media, he doesn't need to shrink from sticking a hostile statement in a question. So the Brit working for ABC News here declared, "There was no terrorism in Iraq before the United States and the coalition came to Iraq." Really? The official flared at this one, noting Saddam's Iraq was the home of state terrorism. If you're doubtful, the official said, just check out the mass graves at Hilla and Halabja.

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THE FIRST THING I LEARNED when I got to Baghdad was that the Sheraton, where I'm staying, is not the Ritz. It's not even a Sheraton. The hotel was cut loose from the American chain at the time of the Gulf War in 1991, and it shows. My reservation had been made, confirmed and reconfirmed, but when I arrived the desk said it had never heard of me. I got a room, thanks to friends here, but no points on my Sheraton frequent-stay card.

A common problem in the hotel is that the toilet seat is disconnected from the toilet. One journalist here asked to hotel to fix it, and the hotel said it would do so quickly. When the journalist got back to his room, he found that the seat had been carefully put back in place on the toilet. But fastened to it in any way? Nope.

But the Sheraton has one great selling point. It's safe. As many as eight American tanks are parked around the hotel, plus a few armed Humvees. Moreover, there's a well-guarded perimeter that's guarded aggressively by armed civilians. Safety trumps an attached toilet seat.

* * *

MOST AMERICANS will never go to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. I never thought I would, given that it's in a remote part of the world near the borders of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Yet it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been--mountains, rolling green hills, lovely lakes, scenic valleys. Offered a chance to travel to Kurdistan by helicopter with Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq, I jumped at the opportunity. Also on the trip was the Washington Post correspondent in Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

The single most beautiful spot is the internationally known town of Halabja. It looks like a Swiss skiing village. But Halabja is famous for another reason. Sixteen years ago, 5,000 women and children were gassed there by Saddam Hussein's operatives, led by Chemical Ali. An excellent museum commemorates the atrocity. It has a re-creation of what was found after the gas attacks: men and women lying dead and holding their children tightly to try to protect. It is a wrenching experience to tour the museum, a kind of Holocaust Museum for the Kurds.