“It was the second day of the American offensive against insurgents in Falluja,” wrote Hala Jaber, for the Sunday Times (U.K.), on Nov. 21. “Abu Fatima, a 45-year-old shopkeeper who had joined the Iraqi resistance fighters in the belief that he was defending his city, sensed that he had only a short time to live.”
On the same day, embedded journalist Dexter Filkins of the New York Times had this to say about the Falluja assault. “From the first rockets vaulting out of the city as the marines moved in, the noise and feel of the battle seemed altogether extraordinary; at other times, hardly real at all.”
Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Lasseter wrote the following about the aftermath of the killing of a young Marine Captain on Nov. 13. “They couldn’t lift [Captain] Sims’ body, so they called in Howard, who lugged the squad’s heavy machine gun but whose broad shoulders were sagging from the news. Once Sims was laid on the floor of a Bradley outside, six soldiers and a reporter climbed in, slowly at first, trying not to step on the body. Someone outside yelled at them to cram in, and if they had to step on Sims’ body, do it, god damnit, do it.”
Between the three first-person reports, probably, lies the truth of what is happening in Falluja.
With levels of military confrontation in Iraq still on the rise, embedded reporters are once again America’s eyes and ears on the battlefield. According to Editor and Publisher, all 70 “embed” slots with the First Marine Expeditionary Force were filled by Nov. 3, days before the Falluja assault began. The same Marine force had only 15 embeds in October. “It’s filled up,” the Baghdad Press Liaison Sgt. Eric Grill told E&P. “There are no more slots.”
Despite the surge, battlefield reporting in Iraq is more difficult than ever.
The private correspondence of a Wall Street Journal reporter that zoomed around the Internet in late October – Farnaz Fassihi’s quiet thunderbolt of an email from Iraq –only confirmed what many media watchdogs had long suspected: daily journalism in Iraq is now nearly impossible.
As the war ratchets up, many journalists in Iraq are embedded once again – but not just with the marines. Many are embedded in their hotels, behind thick concrete blast shields and layers of stifling security.
“I am housebound,” Fassihi wrote to her colleagues back in the States. “I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers.”
Fassihi’s desperate account isn’t confined to her alone; it has become common wisdom for Western journalists in Iraq, many of whom have had decades of experience covering war zones.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote in the Oct. 17 issue of the paper “by this summer, every road leading out of Baghdad had become too dangerous to travel. North to Mosul, west to Ramadi, northeast to Baqubah, southeast to Kut, south to Hilla, Karbala, Najaf and Basra –all had turned into ‘red routes’ in the parlance of security specialists, meaning too dangerous.”
“There are stories too numerous to count that we haven’t been able to report” because of the dangers, Chandrasekaran says. “It would be great to have somebody go into Samarra. How many insurgents were killed? Did they go underground? Do the locals feel that their problems have been solved by the U.S. push? But the solution isn’t to embed with the military, because that vantage point gives only one side of the story: The presence of soldiers limits what Iraqis will tell a reporter.”
Much of the confusion has been deliberate. In September, Iraq’s Prime Minister expelled the independent Arabic satellite network al-Jazeera from the country. As its first move in the Falluja offensive, U.S. Marines captured a city hospital, claiming that they wanted to stop “propaganda” (or possibly, almost all news) about civilian casualties from escaping the city. Nearly a month after the battle began, contradictory reports about the strength of insurgent activity in the devastated city continue to filter out of Iraq.
With most of the Western press corps hidden in their hotel rooms, Iraqi stringers –many of them former drivers, translators and Hussein era apparatchiks – have assumed primary responsibility for gathering news from Iraq’s battlefields and urban no-go zones. “The Washington Post’s Baghdad Bureau employs five Iraqis who assist in reporting, as well as four or five stringers in outlying cities who are paid by the job,” writes Jack Shafer in Slate. The stringers have taken the lead role in interviewing both ordinary Iraqis and members of the resistance. Many stringers ask that their names not be used in articles for fear that they will be labeled Western collaborators and targeted for death.
Much of the Western press is openly uncomfortable with the prominent role that the Iraqis themselves are now playing in covering the war. [We’re asking] them to be cub reporters in a very complex time,” Los Angeles Times Baghdad correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells Slate. Ironically, during the battle of Falluja, virtually the only information about Iraqis still inside the city came not from reporters embedded with marines, but from eyewitness Fadhil Badrami, “an Iraqi journalist and resident of Falluja who reports regularly for Reuters and the BBC World Service in Arabic.”
Another Iraqi journalist in Fallujah, Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, verified that U.S. forces deliberately targetted civilians. Trying to flee Falluja just days into the assault, Hussein witnessed “U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people” who tried to escape the city by swimming across the Euphrates River. His account, which included seeing a family of five shot dead, was almost universally ignored by the U.S. press.
As military confrontation in Iraq heats up ahead of U.S.-backed elections in January, Americans hoping for an honest account of events in Iraq will have to hope there are more Iraqis like Badrami and Americans like Tom Lasseter in other Iraqi cities – journalists ready to fill in for reporters who are either too co-opted or sheltered to give a full account of the latest stage of what looks like a long war.