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[casi] Riverbendblog: Worried in Baghdad...

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Worried in Baghdad...

Aqila Al-Hashimi was buried today in the holy city of
Najaf, in the south. Her funeral procession was
astounding. Rumor has it that she was supposed to be
made Iraq’s ambassadress to the UN. There are still no
leads to her attackers’ identities… somehow people
seem to think that Al-Chalabi and gang are behind this
attack just like they suspect he might have been
behind the Jordanian Embassy attack. Al-Chalabi claims
it’s Saddam, which is the easy thing to do- pretend
that the only figures vying for power are the
Governing Council, currently headed by Al-Chalabi, and
Saddam and ignore the fundamentalists and any
inter-Council hostilities, rivalries and bitterness
between members.

What is particularly disturbing is that the UN is
pulling out some of its staff for security reasons…
they pulled out a third tonight and others will be
leaving in the next few days. Things are getting more
and more frightening. My heart sinks every time the UN
pulls out because that was how we used to gauge the
political situation in the past: the UN is pulling
out- we’re getting bombed.

Someone brought this to my attention… it’s an
interesting piece on some of the companies
facilitating the whole shady contract affair in Iraq.
The original piece is published by The Guardian
Unlimited and discusses contracts, the Bush
administration and how Salem Al-Chalabi, Ahmad
Al-Chalabi’s nephew fits into the whole situation-
Friends of the family

There’s a shorter, equally good version of the same on
Joshua Marshall’s site that is worth reading- Talking
Points Memo.

- posted by river @ 3:00 AM

Freedom of the Press

Apparently our leader of the moment, Al-Chalabi, isn’t
pleased with the two leading news networks in the
region. I can’t really blame him… he has had some of
his worst interviews on Al-Arabia and Al-Jazeera. He
always ends up looking smug like he’s just done
something evil, or conniving like he’s planning
something evil. When is he going to learn that there
is no network in this wide world that has the
technology or capacity to make him look good?

A few days ago, Intifadh Qambar, Ahmad Al-Chalabi’s
sidekick, was on-screen, shifty-eyed and stuttering,
claiming that the two major Arab news networks,
Al-Arabia and Al-Jazeera, were ‘encouraging
terrorism’. It gives me chills to hear someone like
Qambar talk about terrorism. He sits behind the
microphones looking like a would-be mafia king in his
pin-striped suits, slicked-back hair and arrogant
smile. He seems to have forgotten that the INC, a few
months back, were a constant source of terror on the
streets of Baghdad while they were ‘confiscating’ cars
at gunpoint.

The allegations are purportedly based on the fact that
the two news networks have been showing ‘masked men in
black’ as resistors to occupation. This, apparently,
promotes terrorism. The truth is that Al-Jazeera and
Al-Arabia have been black-listed since May, when the
first attacks against the troops started getting some
real publicity. They were also covering some of the
not-so-successful raids that had been carried out by
the troops, and the indignant families or victims who
suffered them.

Back in May, though, there was no Governing Council
and the CPA evidently realized that expelling, or
banning, the two major Arabic news networks would look
less than diplomatic. They were ‘warned’. Their
reporters were yelled at, detained, barred from press
conferences, expelled from news sites, and sometimes
beaten. The Governing Council have fewer scruples
about looking good.

Our media frenzy began in April. Almost immediately
after the occupation, political parties began
sprouting up everywhere. There were the standard
parties that everyone knew- Al-Daawa, SCIRI, INC and
PUK- and there were the not-so-famous ones that
suddenly found the political vacuum too tempting to
pass up. Suddenly, they were all over Baghdad. They
scoped out the best areas and took over schools,
shops, mosques, recreational clubs, houses and
bureaus. The ones who were ahead of the game got to
the printing presses, set up headquarters, and
instantly began churning out semi-political newspapers
that discussed everything from the ‘liberation’ to
Jennifer Lopez’s engagement ring.

We would purchase several papers at a time, awed by
the sudden torrent of newsprint. Some of them were
silly, some of them were amusing and some of them were
serious, polished, and constructive; all of them were
pushing a specific political agenda. It was confusing
and difficult, at first, to decide which newspapers
could be taken seriously and which ones were vying for
the coveted position of the best scandal paper in
Iraq. Regardless of their productivity, their
crossword puzzle or their horoscopes, they all ended
up either on the floor or on the coffee table, under
platters of hot rice, flat bread and ‘marga’.

I don’t know if it’s done in other parts of the Arab
world, but when Iraqis don’t feel like gathering
around a dinner table, they have a cozier meal on the
coffee table in the living room or gathered in a
circle on the floor. The table, or ground, is spread
with newspapers to keep it clean and the food is set
up sort of like an open buffet.

During July and August, when it was particularly hot,
we ate on the floor. Houses and apartments in Iraq are
rarely ever carpeted during the summer. At the first
signs of heat, people roll up their Persian rugs and
carpeting and store them away in mothballs for at
least 5 months. So before lunch or dinner, we mop the
tile floor in the living room with cold, clean water,
let it dry and set up the newspapers on the ground.
The floor is hard, but cool and somehow the food
tastes better and the conversation is lighter.

As plates and forks clash and arms cross to pass a
particular food, I keep my eye on the papers. It has
become a habit to scan the bold headings under the
platters for something interesting. I remember reading
the details of UN resolution 1483 for the first time
while absently serving rice and ‘bamia’- an okra dish
loved by all Iraqis irrespective of religion or
ethnicity. It’s funny how although we get most of our
information from the internet, the television or the
radio, I still associate the smell of a newspaper
with… news. When all is said and done, there are just
some things you’re not going to get anywhere but an
Iraqi newspaper (like the fact that SARS came from a
comet that hit Earth a couple of years ago- I’ll wager
no one has read *that*).

This media free-for-all lasted for about two months.
Then, some newspapers were ‘warned’ that some of their
political content was unacceptable- especially when
discussing occupation forces. One or two papers were
actually shut down, while others were made to retract
some of what they had written. The news channels
followed suit. The CPA came out with a list of things
that weren’t to be discussed- including the number of
casualties, the number of attacks on the Coalition and
other specifics. And we all began giving each other
knowing looks- it’s only ‘freedom of the press’ when
you have good things to say... Iraqis know all about

Then the Governing Council came along and they weren’t
at all comfortable with the media. They have their own
channel where we hear long-winded descriptions of the
wonderful things they are doing for us and how
appropriately grateful we should be, but that
apparently isn’t enough.

So now, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia are suspended for two
weeks from covering the official press conferences
held by the CPA and the Puppet Council… which is
really no loss- they are becoming predictable. The
real news is happening around us.

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