- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

Covering Iraq

At a recent presentation for journalism students, Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable lamented that the extraordinary costs of covering the war in Iraq were forcing big news organizations to cut back their coverage in other parts of the world.

My own concern, speaking after her, was that the costs of reporting from Iraq are making it difficult for The Washington Times to cover the war at all.

I have said this before: To maintain a full-time news bureau in Baghdad requires a secure, walled compound and a large staff of security guards, drivers and helpers. You have to hire Iraqis not only to go out and do interviews but just to go shopping for dinner.

Every trip out of the compound by an American requires not just one, but two or three cars to keep watch on each other. A one-way trip to the airport in the “rhino,” a heavily armored bus operated by a private security company, costs $3,000.

This is simply beyond our means. So we adopted a strategy of sending a single reporter into Iraq for short stints of six to eight weeks, renting living space with an established organization and contracting for security protection from a private company.

But as security conditions deteriorated, we became more restrictive. On her latest visit, reporter Sharon Behn was told she should not leave the fortified Green Zone at all, except when embedded with American troops.

We have timed our trips to coincide with what promised to be key turning points in the war. We had a reporter there for the election of an interim and then a permanent government, for instance, and for the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis from the Coalition Provisional Authority.

At present, the big story is the progress of the new U.S. strategy known as the “surge,” so we have planned our Iraq travel this year with that in mind.

At the outset, administration officials and commanders in Iraq said they expected to know by late summer whether the new strategy was working or not. According to that timetable, we are about halfway there.

A “midterm report”

Mrs. Behn has just returned from a seven-week stay in Baghdad, during which she was embedded for almost the whole time with front-line military units patrolling some of the toughest neighborhoods in Baghdad.

She was with the soldiers when they climbed out of bed at 2:30 in the morning and followed them through the streets, braving sniper fire, roadside bombs and the risk of ambush as they broke into houses in search of explosives and guns.

Along the way she wrote several spot stories, ranging from a tearful memorial service for a beloved staff sergeant brought down by hostile fire to a light-hearted look at how the soldiers use pranks and humor to maintain their sanity in the face of all the horror.

But all that time, she was filling her notepads with quotes and observations from U.S. officers and enlisted men, Iraqi soldiers and civilians, seeking a sense of how they felt the surge was progressing. The results of that reporting appeared in two long articles last week that amount to a “midterm report” on the surge.

In the articles, Mrs. Behn laid out how the U.S. strategy has changed, how the American forces are operating differently from in the past. But she did not try to pass judgment on whether the surge will succeed; as many people told her, it is still too early for that.

What does come through in her reporting is the enormity of the challenges still ahead and the rapid erosion of faith in the Iraqi government by the Iraqis themselves. Clearly, time to get it right is running out.

Conditions permitting, Mrs. Behn will go back to Iraq for several weeks in August and early September to appraise the surge again. By that time — according to the administration’s own timetable — it should be possible to say whether the strategy is working or not.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide