- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 2005

Iraq’s election

Even the most hard-bitten reporters, soured by months of covering one miserable act of carnage after another, had a different tone in their copy from Iraq last Sunday.

In this paper and in those of our competitors, on the wires and on the Web sites, the stories were full of smiles and sunshine, of people waving their ink-stained fingers in the air, of citizens exhilarated by the opportunity to freely choose their own leaders.

Free elections always bring out something special in a population, especially when it is happening for the first time. I recall taking dictation from a reporter covering Namibia’s first election in 1989, when long lines of voters snaked for miles through the desert, beginning hours before the polls opened.

The fall of communism brought the gift of democracy to many more countries, where again the voters embraced it with great enthusiasm. Black South Africans have now enjoyed it three times.

But for the Iraqis last Sunday — at least in Baghdad — there was something else going on. After months of cowering in their homes in fear, unwilling to let their children go to school or even to shop because of terrorist attacks, it suddenly felt safe to go out in the streets.

I say “felt” safe because 44 persons were killed, most of them at polling stations. But with every available policeman, soldier and national guardsman on duty and with the streets full of other citizens, the odds seemed pretty good. A critical mass was reached so that people were willing to take the chance, and the day took on the nature of a festival.

For the reporters too, it was as if a cloud had lifted. For months they had been unable to leave their hotels without large security details, moving about in heavily armored cars, arranging surreptitious meetings in parking lots just to interview election officials.

Suddenly they could walk in the streets among ordinary Iraqis. And the Iraqis, shaking off their fears if only for a day, were willing to speak about their dreams for their country.

A short-lived feeling

Our photographer Maya Alleruzzo, especially, was ebullient. Before Sunday she had been unable to appear virtually anywhere with a camera. Iraqis who were willing to escort reporter Sharon Behn on interviews refused to have her along. She was reduced to trying to snatch shots through the windows of an armored SUV.

But on election day, she could walk in the streets with her camera, photograph voters while they were being interviewed for our stories, and feel for the first time in weeks like she was doing her job. “It was a wonderful day” she bubbled in a electronic instant message.

That happy sense of security appears to have been short-lived, unfortunately. The insurgents and terrorists have killed dozens more people in the past week, and on Friday an Italian reporter, Giuliana Sgrena, was kidnapped while interviewing refugees at a mosque.

It appeared she had broken most of the informal rules followed by the other reporters in Baghdad — such as don’t go out without security guards and certainly don’t stay in one place very long. I have to wonder whether she was still infected with the liberating sense of safety from election day.

In any case, it was a sobering reminder to the rest of us that Iraq is still the most difficult and dangerous reporting assignment on earth.

I will sleep a little better tonight because Miss Behn and Miss Alleruzzo are due to leave the country for home today — not because the story is no longer interesting but because they are out of money. All those security guards are expensive.

Freelancer Borzou Daragahi, exhausted after a three-month stint in which he did some outstanding work, has also gone. He left on Friday for a few weeks of rest and recuperation at his home in Tehran.

But Mitch Prothero, another excellent young reporter who recently left United Press International to go freelance, is now established in Baghdad and hopefully will begin filing stories to us this week.

And as we have done from the beginning, we will fill the gaps with the work of the wire agencies, whose too-often anonymous reporters are always there, laboring to bring the story to the world.

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

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