Arnett in Baghdad: Locals Are "Resigned"

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The Information Ministry is furious. They do not believe they will be a target because they are a civilian operation.

There are about a hundred journalists in town, lots of them from the Arab and European media, and only a handful from the U.S.

My belief is that the U.S. Government will not target the Information Ministry, and certainly not while there are about a hundred journalists milling around in the building. Perhaps they will do it at four in the morning.

I will continue to go to the press conferences. Some journalists don't go because they have problems with going there.

There are no minders about when we do our broadcasts. I'm using this hotel phone now and I'm able to talk freely. Iraqi officials may be monitoring what I say in some way, but there is no one in my room. I've never been asked about any conversation in the six weeks that I have been here.

There has been no attempt to monitor what's in a news package I'm putting out. This is unlike the gulf war, when they did impose censorship.

The reason they may be fairly relaxed is that they are not giving us access to anything other than the locations they think are news: civilians affected by the bombing or the news conferences.

At the press conferences we can ask any questions we want, and we do.

We still have minders. National Geographic EXPLORER has been following up on several families. We can visit them if we go with minders. The reality is that the minders are listening to our conversations with them and they (the families) frame their answers to our questions in a way that will not offend the minder.

We are not being allowed to go anywhere near the military or the Republican Guard, and I wouldn't volunteer to do that anyway. We are not seeing any action.

If we can survive the next few weeks I think it will be an interesting journalistic experience. As the war progresses we may have fewer minders and we may well be able to speak to the families again after the war.

Video phones are forbidden. Quite a few of them have been confiscated. The use of satellite phones has been restricted essentially to when we are at the Information Ministry. We need permission to use them outside the Ministry. Live camera reports have to be done from the Ministry.

Shooting pictures is allowed wherever we want to—but with a minder present. We can't just get into a taxi and go somewhere. We need permission. It's always been that way here.

How are you being received by the residents of Baghdad, the ordinary Iraqi people you meet?

There has not been a shred of an indication that I am not wanted here. I move around the city. There are several scores of anti-war protestors in Baghdad, but they're from around the world: Japanese, Turks, Scandinavians. There are also quite a few Americans here, the human shields.

The real animosity towards the U.S. that I have seen is slogans on T-shirts.

There are no Iraqis around the Palestine Hotel. I saw several demonstrations in the city before the bombing started. People were chanting and carrying a lot of anti-American banners. But there was no antagonism directed against us. The population has learned that when journalists go around with cameras they generally record a positive image of the city.

If the military campaign develops and there may be deaths, then it could get dangerous for journalists. But right now…there is no problem.

How does it feel to be in Baghdad now, compared with what it was like during the gulf war?

The big difference this time is that there is a really massive ground force moving towards Baghdad. The gulf war was a different game: intense bombing for the first few nights, then continued bombing in and outside the city for the next 43 days. I traveled around the country in that war, checking out what was going on. Until the ground war started there was no concern other than for the air war.

On this occasion, the battle is coming right towards Baghdad, so as far as I am concerned, the worst is yet to come.

Everyone waited with trepidation for the initial "shock and awe" campaign of last Friday. But on the other hand, the bombs have been aimed at command-and-control targets. So in spite of the tremendous, thunderous and frightening explosions about a half a mile away from our hotel, there hasn't been much bombing in Baghdad since. Most of the bombing now is south of the city.

When the coalition forces try to come into the city we are going to have to look at this on an hour-by-hour basis. The bombing we can handle. We covered that in the gulf war. But this could now be about street fighting and government change, and that makes it a dangerous but also an incredibly exciting story to cover.

Would it be hard for you and the other reporters to leave Baghdad now? We've heard that the roads to Jordan and Syria have become a suicide run. Do you have a contingency plan to leave if you have to?

We have all been through that issue: Do we stay, or do we go? The prospect of shock and awe and dropping 3,000 bombs on the city was naturally frightening for most people. It was an issue that persuaded networks to ask their reporters to leave.

But I have faith in the U.S.'s precision weapons. We discussed it with National Geographic EXPLORER and we felt we could stay. We survived shock and awe. It's the sixth day of the war and I think we're here to stay.

Everyone here has the understanding that if they want to leave at any time they can go. They have an exit strategy and they will be heroes when they leave; it won't be an embarrassment for them. This applies also to the National Geographic team.

But if you are going to make these decisions based on fear, that something terrible will happen, that the Information Ministry will be blown up, then you may as well not be here. I have survived Beirut, Saigon, and Chechnya. Lots of journalists will stay here, and we will get through this one too.

CNN got out without any trouble on Saturday morning. Others are leaving. Would you believe that a couple of days before the war started there were some Americans here as tourists! They left a couple of days ago.

It is dangerous to be on those roads (to Syria and Jordan) because the U.S. and British special forces have been operating in the area, looking for Scud missiles and taking possession of airfields. In the gulf war hundreds of journalists used these roads. Journalists are still coming in here on that road. But it is dangerous and you could get hurt coming in or out on those roads.

Is there a sense there that the war is coming to Baghdad? What is being shown on Iraqi television?

No. What you see on TV is patriotic dirges and statements from the President and leadership and conferences given for the media. They showed the capture of American prisoners and some action that gives the impression that Iraq is fighting back. But they are not giving the impression that this city will be invested by an American occupation. The enormity of occupation has not registered into the heads of a lot of Iraqis I know. They don't understand that American troops will be in their city and that a four-star American general will be in the presidential palace.

Every family in this city has a relative who was injured in the war with Iran or the gulf war, as well as actions since then. This is a city that knows suffering. They have suffered for three decades and they are somewhat immune to it. They are hunkered down in their houses, frightened but used to it in a way.

There is bombing, then the people come out onto the street to buy some food. Then they hunker down again and say that this too will pass, inshallah. It is in God's hands. Whatever happens, God will take care of it. They are resigned, but I don't see fear and pronounced flight from the city at this point.

What kind of stories are you looking to tell in Baghdad?

We came to Baghdad with National Geographic EXPLORER with the idea to do a documentary. They said, "Peter Arnett, go and do this, interview people and give us your insights. We will take it and turn it into an interesting documentary." We did two documentaries and we're working on a third, following families and the situation as it evolves.

MSNBC became interested in us doing more than the EXPLORER documentaries. They asked us to do commentaries and a diary. EXPLORER agreed and now we're doing Peter Arnett's Baghdad Diary.

Then NBC faced the dilemma whether to leave its crew here or not. They decided to take their people out. They asked us if we could cover Baghdad for NBC News. So we're doing that as well, coming up on a regular basis on NBC Today and Tom Brokaw's Nightly News. Essentially, we are plugged into the NBC/MSNBC system, and we're trying to accommodate them.

The days are very long here, and we try to limit what we do to a certain degree. But it's been a blast to be on Tom Brokaw's newscast and the Today show. As a journalist, I'm personally having a blast being able to broadcast like this.

What do you know about the role being played by misinformation or disinformation? There have been reports of a discovery of a chemical weapons factory and confusion about whether Saddam is dead or alive.

That's a good point. I was chilled to hear that in Basra a flour mill factory had been destroyed. In the gulf war there was a lot of controversy when a baby-milk factory was destroyed and the U.S. said it was a chemical factory. It was claimed that Peter Arnett was giving credence to the Iraqi claims. So I had a flashback to that war when I heard about the milk-powder factory in Basra.

I don't think it was disinformation when they said they thought Saddam had been injured. They thought they had got him and they were a little irked when Saddam appeared on TV yesterday. Sources in the Pentagon were quoted as challenging this, saying that it was a tape of an earlier speech by Saddam. But what kind of premonition could Saddam have had to make a speech that referred to fighting in Basra and Umm Qasr? Am I crazy?

When the Iraqis showed pictures of the bodies of American soldiers, the Pentagon immediately said the prisoners had been executed, that they had been interrogated and badly treated. It took quite a while for them to say that maybe they were battlefield casualties and that bodies could have been gathered up and put in a shed.

You can buy the Iraqi side of this story or not, that the prisoners were not interrogated and not executed. But for the U.S. to instantly claim that that there had been executions was jumping the gun a little.

I'm hearing about contact with Iraqi soldiers that have changed out of uniforms into civilian dress or pretending to surrender, portraying them as unfair or unethical fighters. But the Iraqis are fighting in the streets; a guerilla war. They said they were going to attack Americans in every way they could; that they would kill them. "They may come through us, but they will regret it," they said.

Iraqis think it is brave and noble to fight like this, even if this is not what Americans think is brave and noble. It's like the Palestinian suicide bombers.

As I've been talking here there have been three major B-52 strikes. Tariq Aziz (Iraq's deputy prime minister) has described B-52s as weapons of mass destruction. They destroy in ten minutes what Saddam Hussein has built in 30 years. It may have been built in self-glory, but it was destroyed in ten minutes. This is one way of looking at what is a weapon of mass destruction.

What do you think of journalists being embedded with the coalition forces? Do you wish you could be embedded where the action is?

I did this kind of reporting in Vietnam. It's a way to report what's happening on the battlefield, the reality of people being shot at, beyond all the crap and patriotism. The reality of the human issues is what matters. The front-line reporters are recording what's going on. They could be shot at any moment and they want it to be on the record that they are good and accurate reporters.

So many snapshots from the battlefield do create a big picture. It's a great way to cover the war. The more embedded reporters the better. I hope we can continue in this way.

I had my embedded days in Vietnam when I went out with the troops on the helicopters. I was young, agile, and probably stupid. Now I'm 68 and I don't want to compete with the great reporters out there. I'm beyond being embedded.

I think I can handle Baghdad because it is as much a mind game as anything else. Getting along with the Iraqis requires certain skills, a degree of diplomacy and personal relationships. I'm here and I'll stay here. My skills are better used in Baghdad, and even although I'm not as agile I can still move around and try to figure out what's going on.

How are you holding up? What did you pack that you don't need, and what do you need that you didn't pack?

We are all prepared for something that has not happened.

During the gulf war, in the first night of bombing the power went down instantly. The phones were dead and the water supply was destroyed. Suddenly we were in the dark in a hotel that didn't have anything. We had to use bottled water to bathe and shave and we needed cheese and crackers to eat. So right now there are thousands of bottles of water and crates of cheese and crackers with us in the hotel. But so far the utilities have held up and we can still get meals in the restaurant downstairs. We can even sneak out, hop into a taxi and find some decent kebab in restaurants in town. So we have a lot of things we don't need.

We played hotel roulette for three weeks before the bombing started, trying to work out which would be the safest place with the best view. Some organizations have rooms in three or more hotels, paying for extra rooms they don't need—but which might become useful at some point.

We are tired. Baghdad is eight hours ahead of the U.S. We get up early to attend the news conferences and then at 3 in the afternoon the NBC Today show comes on the air, and they're bright and cheerful. NBC Nightly News is on at 2 in the morning our time and Dateline is 7 in the morning. So if you allowed yourself, you can easily work 24 hours a day. And we did that for the first four days. I was really tired. But now I have scheduled myself more reasonably.

But we will rise to the occasion, as all news people do when the story expands. Nonessential things like sleep? Hey, who needs it?

We haven't really discussed with the Iraqi authorities how we will cover this battle when it comes to Baghdad. We need to know about facilities, resources, and access to our own equipment. So we need to do that soon.

I'm really relying on the Iraqi officials to be with us for the first part of the battle. There is a lot of criticism about these minders, but they also have a protective role in parts of town where there are crowds and people who are suspicious. They help us through.

What is the Hotel Palestine like?

Seedy and noisy. I can hear someone in the next room reporting a story to his home office. But we have a great view across the river of the former presidential palace and we were basically about half a mile away from shock and awe. It is the perfect vantage point.

The sandstorm we've experienced is only the second one in the last six weeks. Today the visibility is down to about one block. Right now there is about two inches of sand in the streets outside the hotel. It looks like a snowstorm, but grayish snow.

There is an acrid stench in the air, in part caused by the oil fires,

How do you feel about not reporting for CNN? What are your plans?

I get a perverse pleasure out of being here. CNN dumped me, and I think unfairly. Tailwind was almost a deathblow to my career, no doubt about it. (In 1999 Arnett was fired by CNN after delivering a report that U.S. forces used nerve gas on U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War. The story, dubbed Tailwind, was later determined to be untrue. Arnett defended himself by saying that he was only the story's narrator, rather than the reporter behind the story.) I've known all my life that you cannot afford to make a serious mistake in credibility in journalism. You are dead if you do. I felt that I had to dig myself out after Tailwind and I had to consider how best to redeem myself. That I am here in Baghdad is an irony. I never envisaged myself being in action again like this. It was inconceivable that I would be working with Tom Brokaw and the rest of the guys.

I'm here with National Geographic EXPLORER. They took a chance on me and I'm loyal to them. As long as I'm with EXPLORER I will also always be with MSNBC.

I like working with EXPLORER. It gives me a far better scope as a reporter. These diaries we're doing are a unique and intriguing form of journalism. How can I give up EXPLORER for the daily grind of news?

How will the invasion forces be greeted in Baghdad?

That's a tough question. Iraqi officials are glorying in the fact that so far there has not been an explosion of welcoming the U.S. forces. As they say, the forces have not been welcomed with music and flowers. It might have been a great relief to the Iraqi authorities that this has not happened. In 1991 there was insurrection in the South.

In Baghdad I spent a lot of time prior to the bombing talking to the people. They basically said there was nothing they could do (about an invasion). I asked if they would fight the coalition forces and they said probably not. I think there will be passive acceptance. What choice do they have against the Marines? Will it be like the Palestinians against the Israelis? I don't think so because there is no history like that here.

But if it turns out to be a vicious battle and many people are killed I don't think the people will be happy about an American arrival.

If somehow this can happen without fighting, it is conceivable that the Iraqis in Baghdad, a town of business people and educated folks, will say, "Hey, how are you doing?"

But if there is fighting and people are dead on the streets, I don't think there will be flowers and music.

The last thing the U.S. and Britain wants is this fighting.

If they can destroy the Republican Guard and force some capitulation here, I've got to think that a friendly welcome is in the cards.

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