Reporters on the Job

Boiled Frogs? Before he went to Iraq for the first time last September, staff writer Dan Murphy spoke at the Eisenhower National Security Conference in Washington, an annual series that is well attended by members of the State Department, Department of Defense, and the military. It helped shape his perceptions and coverage of Iraq - which are changing with the flow of events.

I spoke on a panel with other journalists about how the war on terror has changed perceptions of the US in the Muslim world, and how new security challenges are arising in places like Indonesia, a country I lived in for 10 years. I was fortunate enough to make some friends there in the US military whose ongoing contributions to my understanding of US foreign policy have been invaluable.

In the Q&A I mentioned that I'd be heading straight to Iraq, and afterward I was approached by nearly a dozen officers, all concerned that the media in Iraq were overplaying the violence and missing the bigger story of successful reconstruction and improvement. They urged me to be fair about the positive side of the occupation. I've been consistently impressed by not only the idealism, but the erudition of US officers. Their concerns seemed valid. It's no surprise then that my first story from Iraq was a look at the rebirth of Baghdad's night life as security had improved, with a few delightful evenings spent playing backgammon and drinking tea in cafes along the banks of the Tigris.

Normal life was returning, and people felt free to criticize both the deposed Saddam Hussein and the US occupation - a heady new right.

This was in October 2003, and I was surprised by the relative safety and calm I saw on the streets of Baghdad. I think this infused my early coverage. But events since then cannot be overlooked.

A deadly shift

Sporadic suicide attacks, carried out by Sunni jihadists, have killed over 400 people at Iraqi hotels and police stations; the insurgency has continued to gather steam and well over 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in April, which also has been the deadliest month of the war for the US; and conditions for foreigners have deteriorated sharply, with targeted assassinations and kidnappings.

Sitting with a group of friends here a few nights ago, I realized how blasé we'd become about the new conditions. None of us had eaten out in the evening for at least a month. We agreed that the two-hour drive south to Najaf had become too dangerous to attempt. The journalists among us agreed that our work increasingly relied on phone calls to Iraqis on the scene, rather than real reportage of what we could see and touch. And everyone nodded knowingly when two NGO workers said they'd be leaving the country because it has become too dangerous to conduct their reconstruction work here.

In essence, I feel we've become boiled frogs. Toss the frog into boiling water, and he jumps right out again, or at least tries. But put him in lukewarm water and slowly turns up the heat and he barely notices until he's cooked. Rather than overestimate the problems (a common journalistic temptation), I've begun to wonder if we're not understating them, notwithstanding the letters from readers who accuse our paper, and many others, of being Chicken Littles.

To be sure, in a wartime environment like Iraq's there is rarely a constant arc of progress, or descent into chaos. Violence ebbs and flows, incidents flare and then almost inexplicably, vanish. This froggy is leaving on a reporting trip outside Baghdad today - the first trip out of the city in more than a week. It feels safer again.

Or it did, until a few hours ago, when news arrived of three coordinated car-bombings in the southern city of Basra. More worrying, British troops were stoned by local citizens as they moved to secure the scene. Over the past few months, it's become common for average Iraqis to turn on foreigners whenever an attack has occurred - blaming the foreign presence for the lack of security, seemingly more than they do the people carrying out the attacks. Everyone hopes those attacks will be the last, but no one believes it; while coalition spokesmen insist from the podium in Baghdad's Green Zone, an area that most coalition officials rarely leave (and never without heavily armed escorts), that things are better than they seem.

I drove by Al-Beiruti, my favorite Tigris River cafe, a few days ago in the early evening. The stars were twinkling, the air cool and clean. A perfect night for friendly gossip and the clatter of dominoes after a cold, damp and anxious winter. It was empty.

Dan Murphy

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