Interviews October 2004

Iraq's Walled City

William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad

One positive thing that might come out of this is elections. It's still possible there will be elections of some kind. I'm very skeptical and pessimistic about the quality of those elections, and also, ultimately, about the meaning of it. It's likely that the elections will amount to little, and will not stop the county's slide into civil war. But it's possible they'll amount to a lot, so let's go for it. What have we got to lose?

I wanted to ask you about the comments made by both Allawi and Bush that there are successes in Iraq, but that the media simply isn't covering those successes. What do you make of that contention?

If anything, the press in Baghdad is not reporting how bad the situation really is. I've observed these daily newspaper reporters closely. Their sympathies are very much with the military. They like the GIs, and for good reason. The U.S. Army has performed really admirably in Iraq. The press realizes that it's been a fairly good performance in a very difficult situation. They're sympathetic toward the guys who are getting shot at right now, and who are doing the shooting. The idea that the press is somehow anti-military is wrong—they're basically pro-military. They're underreporting how grim it is. And the reason they're underreporting it is because it's highly repetitive. It's this constant "mortar, bomb, gunshot" story.

Overall, you seem to be pretty unimpressed by the people who worked in the CPA. But you make a point of singling out some exceptions—"stars," as you called them. What was some of the work these people were doing that impressed you?

The people who were impressive at the CPA were people who were personally impressive. They were smart, capable, well read, well traveled, competent—you name it. People who fully understood the failures of the system around them. But the irony is that you can be very smart, but if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time it doesn't do much good. That's not to take away from the people who were there. I have to admire the willingness of those people to be there. There were a lot of people who went for the wrong reasons. But these smart, competent people had other choices, and were choosing to go to Iraq, typically not for any increase in money—often for less money—and to sit in some boring trailer. They were the ones willing to climb onto this sinking ship, and continue to operate the machinery. Often they didn't know in advance what they were getting into. The smart people figured it out very fast. They realized the catastrophic proportions of the American presence in Iraq, and they didn't respond by saying, "Ok, I leave, I quit, I'm out of here." They stayed on and fought and tried to make things better.

Do you think that these people will leave any kind of legacy in Iraq?

Had they not been there I'm sure things would be much worse than they are. They shot down many of the really stupid proposals. They did leave some sort of hopeful legacy, at least in the short term, of the possibility of elections or of some kind of operational constitutional framework. If in the long term, they did not leave a legacy, that's not their fault. It's the power of history that will have overcome them.

As you prepare to head back to Baghdad, how worried are you about the recent abductions and beheadings of contractors from their homes?

I'm very worried about it. It would be foolish not to be worried about the danger and lack of safety in the streets. It's extremely dangerous to be in Iraq right now for a Westerner not in the Green Zone. Psychologically it's always been difficult coming in and going out. It's like the heat there; it takes about a week after you go in to get used to it again. I would hate to say I'm not worried and then get killed and have people say "What a dummy." I am worried about it, and I take every possible precaution, and it's a tense situation.

When you first went into Iraq, you didn't fly in. Didn't you come in overland?

Yeah, I came in through Turkey and overland from Kurdistan. At the time there was no way to fly in. Government people were coming in on C-130s from Kuwait, but for other people, it was very difficult to do. The road from Oman was extremely dangerous, so the safest way to get into the country was the long way, which was through Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish part of Turkey. The route was Istanbul to Diyarbakir, then from Diyarbakir by taxi to the Iraq border, and then by car or taxi south to Baghdad. Typically it was about a three-day trip from Europe.

Was it dangerous for you to be seen at that time? Were you able to sit up in the front seat, or were you hidden in the back?

When I first went in it was relatively safe. By the time I left, which was by the same route, it was getting really dangerous. Now it's really, really dangerous. Iraqis have no problem doing it. It's a little unsafe for them. But as a Westerner, in a non-convoy, non-militarized car—an individual car—you're taking very serious risks of being kidnapped. When I left the last time going north by that road I had a feeling that it was at the edge of what was an acceptable level of danger. I had some confrontations going north. There was a firefight that erupted to my right at one point, and there were some problems on the road, including exhortations to kill Americans. So it was tense. There were a lot of roadblocks. The roadblocks were frightening and still are because you really don't know whether they're set up by people who can be trusted. Even the new Iraqi security forces are not necessarily to be trusted. Betrayal is a constant concern.

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