Report From Iraq: "Fear in the Streets"

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The Iraqis are well aware of their rich history that dates back to the beginnings of human civilization. They know that the wheel, written language, and the first legal system were developed in the early civilizations of the Sumerians and the Babylonians that existed south of Baghdad. They are also proud of Iraq's special place of honor in the Islamic world. The cities of Najaf and Kerbala on the Euphrates River are the holiest places for the millions of Shia Islamic people in Iraq and neighboring countries. Iraq has shared with Egypt the role of leadership of the Arab people. Saddam Hussein has aspired to be the leader of a unified Arab world, a fact that has resulted in his disastrous military adventures in neighboring Iran and Kuwait.

Iraqis pride themselves on their independent spirit. They are a vital people, energetic and free spirited. Iraq is primarily a secular country, meaning that while religion plays a major role in everyone's lives, it is not the state religion as in neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran. Consequently, women are not required to be totally covered and often go about bareheaded. Women are also encouraged to work in all professional fields including medicine, media, and law.

What's the status of education in Iraq?

All Iraqis are required to attend government-provided school until age 14. All subsequent education up to doctorate level is provided free of charge. With such a high literacy rate, there is great interest in foreign culture. American pop music and movies are eagerly enjoyed by younger Iraqis. Almost every Iraqi you meet will express friendship for the American people but will criticize the U.S. government for the policy of sanctions and frequent bombings of their country that have characterized life here during the past decade.

Information is tightly controlled in Iraq and people cannot speak freely. In such an environment, how do you find the truth?

There are many truths in Iraq, as there are in any society. There is the truth of the many students we interviewed at Baghdad universities who pride themselves as being from "the Saddam Generation," those who were born about the time he came to power in 1979. Free education, free health care, and basically free food have enabled them to pursue their dreams of success.

The excesses of Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in the 1990s are barely a memory in the minds of these young careerists. To them, Saddam is a benevolent provider and a charismatic leader. While expressing appreciation for American culture, these students waxed angrily against U.S. policies against their country and the Middle East. These students are also aware, of course, that any war resulting in change of government would close down the universities for months and disrupt their studies and, consequently, their futures. Then there is the truth of the Kurdish and Shia people. Few of them are represented in the Iraqi ruling elite. They clearly want the power denied them for generations. But should this come to pass, there is no guarantee that their governance would differ so much from Saddam Hussein's. They may be tempted to split Iraq into several countries, a possibility feared by her neighbors. There is the truth of the Iraqi opposition located overseas. The spokesmen portray Iraq as a terror-ridden dictatorship ruled at the whim of a cruel and barbarous leader and his family. These spokesmen say Iraq is ripe for rebellion, and that invading American troops will be welcomed with flowers and kisses. The opposition also claims that the Iraqi people are waiting breathlessly to be governed by them.

So, what is the truth? The groups I listed above will respond with predictable answers when you question them. What I mean is, because the future is so rooted in the past in Iraq, you can expect not the truth when you question people here but an attitude. If you ask me about the truth as I see it here, it is that by using the carrot and the stick, coercion and reward, Saddam Hussein and his government have become unchallenged masters of their domain, their existence threatened only by a major military invasion by the world's greatest power, the United States of America.

If Iraq is invaded; will you stay to cover the conflict? If so, why?

I learned in Vietnam that war coverage was an essential ingredient in a democracy. The press's demand for accountability by the government and military leaders that got us into the Vietnam war helped end it much sooner than if we had gone along with the patriotic sloganeering. To be a competent war correspondent you have to believe ardently in the press role in our society.

Covering a war is a dangerous business but not necessarily a deadly one if you play the correspondent and not the soldier. Let the soldier do the fighting and you the reporting. War reporting is difficult today because most countries, particularly the United States, do not allow the media to join the troops in action. Reporters have to rely on briefings, which are often not reliable indicators of what really goes on in the battlefield. During the Gulf War, the Iraqi authorities allowed me to cover the bombing of Baghdad. I was restricted by censorship and by the presence of government officials. But I did manage to give a graphic picture of a city in considerable stress. I presume that those restrictions will apply if war should once again come here.

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Arnett in Baghdad: Locals Are "Resigned"
Reporter Peter Arnett's Baghdad Video Diary
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
In Iraq: Reporter Peter Arnett's View From the Ground
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Report From Iraq: "Fear in the Streets"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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