Q & A: Asharq Alawsat Newspaper
A terrific interview with Michael was posted today on the website of Asharq Alawsat newspaper.
The interview was conducted while he was in Paris last month.
Q & A with CNN's Michael Ware
By Enaam Kajjah Ji in Paris
Q: How did the idea of going to Iraq emerge?
A: I went to Kurdistan at the beginning of 2003 before the military attack [on Iraq]. I got to Baghdad after the fall of Tikrit in April 2003. I’ve been there for four and a half years.
Q: Do you stay, like your fellow correspondents, in Palestine Hotel?
A: No, I only stayed there for a short while in 2004, but I stayed in other places. I wasn’t a correspondent for CNN at that time.
Q: What were your first impressions of Baghdad?
A: I noticed a big difference between Baghdad and the cities in Kurdistan. I still remember my first tour by car in Baghdad, with a friend, and my fascination with it, the city lights, the life, its population density and its river. The river was so beautiful with restaurants alongside its two banks. Of course, at that time, the situation was relatively calmer. Markets and restaurants were crowded with customers, diners and families that were not afraid to go out at night. Unfortunately, life in Baghdad is no longer like this.
Q: Who were you working for back then?
A: When I was working in the North, I was a freelancer. I corresponded with the press and sent my articles to Time Magazine but I did not film the invasion. I worked on the front lines. There were two fronts, one where Americans and Peshmergah forces fought against Ansar al Islam near Halabja, and a second front against [deposed Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein’s army. In those days, I used to wake up and decide which front to go to. Even before the Americans began the attacks, there were daily battles in the north, some big and some small. Some of them were against the Iraqi army but almost every day, they were against Ansar al Islam. This is why I was very busy during the months that preceded the [American] attack. When the attack began, the first strikes were against Ansar al Islam and the Americans used Tomahawk missiles on sites and camps. When this stage was over, Americans and Peshmergah fighters headed towards Kirkuk and Mosul and of course towards Tikrit. I followed them until we reached Baghdad. I have many fond memories of the time I spent in beautiful Kurdistan. I still have friends there, but my years in Baghdad separated me from them and sent to me to another field to deal with local politicians.
Q: At that time, were you optimistic about what would happen in Iraq?
A: The truth is that I became acquainted with Iraq for the first time through Kurdistan. I will never forget the day when the regime fell in Baghdad and the scenes of Saddam’s statue falling in Paradise Square. I was there in Sulaymaniyah and I saw how the Kurds took to the streets; the celebrations were exceptional and the joy was overwhelming. Whoever saw such a scene could only feel hopeful or feel that good days had finally come. Since I only knew a little bit about Iraq, having never visited it or worked there before and since it was my first experience there, I felt that there was hope on the horizon. At that time I did not know that what followed would be worse.
Q: Was your outlook towards the Iraqi situation a neutral one?
A: I had no choice but to be neutral. Our profession forces us to deal with everyone, good and bad. This is not our personal choice, but rather it is imposed upon us by the historic responsibility entrusted to us. We only have to witness what is happening in front of us and to document it through reporting, audio recordings and photography. However, making judgments is not our job. We must be careful not to include any bias in the news that we transmit.
Q: Was it easy for you to work in Baghdad?
A: Initially, yes. A journalist was able to work quite easily. At that time, I used to write about the looting and I think that the American army did not exercise any control with regards to these crimes. At that time, one was able to wander around Baghdad. We were free to travel between cities, to go to Mosul for example without difficulty. I went for a meal in Fallujah and I tasted its famous kebabs but I don’t think that the restaurant [I visited] is still there today. Even driving at night was safe. I remember that I used to drive my car in Tikrit at 11pm and I would talk to people in the street without any problem. I can say that what saw in 2003 was a completely different country and way of life compared to the current status quo.
Q: Do you fear for your safety?
A: It was, and still is, a war. Everyone is at risk. Even an Iraqi family at home is not safe. A bomb could land on the house or in the neighbourhood at any moment. A car bomb could explode in a market…everyone in Iraq is in danger, whether he is a journalist or not, whether he is an Iraqi or a visitor to the country. The situation was not that grave at the beginning however, unfortunately, it is now deteriorating. Regrettably, I say that this is life in Iraq today.
Q: Did you read articles by your predecessors who had covered previous wars in Iraq for CNN, such as Peter Arnett and Robert Wiener?
A: No, because my experience has not been in this part of the world. In the past, I covered the South Pacific and South-East Asia. I only got to the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks. I visited Pakistan and lived in Afghanistan for one year. When Time Magazine asked me to go to Iraq, I tried to acquaint myself with the situation there. In the past year, I worked in Lebanon when CNN asked me to cover the war there.
Q: What are differences between covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
A: The two cannot be compared and I love Iraq for several reasons. I am sad to say that there was life and vitality in Iraq that I did not find during my previous experience. I was coming from Afghanistan, where people follow the old way of life and life is very difficult, roads are damaged, electricity is cut off and people live in villages in mountains in the absence of education and a middle class. Movement was difficult and everything required a lot of time to be done. When I arrived in Iraq and discovered that the country was rich in education, ideas, debate and infrastructure, I noticed surprising disparities. In Iraq, for example, I wanted to go from one city to another and I looked at the map and I calculated the time needed to reach my destination based on my experience in Afghanistan. I estimated that the trip would take two days but it took only two hours. There are many small observations that I noted in my diary being an “Abu Naji*” who arrived in Iraq for the first time.
*Abu Naji was the name given by Iraqis to British forces of World War II who went to Iraq
Q: But you are Australian and not Abu Naji?
A: Every westerner is Abu Naji. Initially, we were all Abu Naji. It is better than being called Ali Baba. Whenever I visited a looted school, for example, and asked the children about what happened, they simply answered, “Ali Baba was here”.
Q: It is often reported that Western correspondents in Baghdad stay in fortified headquarters and send local reporters and photographers on difficult assignments and wait for them to come back with the news. What is your comment regarding this?
A: In the beginning, such an act was not customary. Foreigners had freedom of movement amongst factions. You can never replace your eyes with someone else’s. When the level of danger and “Moqawama” (resistance) increased, militias and Al Qaeda started targeting foreigners. Thus, foreigners gradually became isolated in places that were guarded and they began to depend on Iraqi journalists for fieldwork. This has allowed them to emerge and develop their skills on the front line in danger. I had lost many Iraqi friends working in journalism. It is a tragic reality that emerged with the difficult conditions existing in the country. As for me, I still have my means of transportation because I have been living in Iraq for several years and I know many people from different parties. If such conditions hamper the work of television cameramen primarily, then I have to say that all my friends who correspond with newspapers and magazines are no longer able to walk in the streets of Baghdad.
Q: Do you live in the Green Zone?
A: No, none of us live there. I know of only two media organizations that are located in the Green Zone. Any other media figure lives in what the US army calls “the Red Zone” i.e. Iraq. Why would I live in the Green Zone? There, you are isolated from real news stories and the Iraqi people.
Q: Have you been able to gain access to Iraqi homes and talk to intellectuals or women for example?
A: Anywhere I go in the city allows me to meet with those kinds of people, either in cafes or restaurants. At any place, you will find exceptional writers, poets, musicians and painters. I used to go to exhibitions and purchase paintings of Iraqi art and hang them in my house. Iraq is blessed and protected with this cultural richness which is one of the most important things that has been destroyed by the war. As you know, anyone who has the ability and opportunity to leave Iraq has already done so.
Q: Have you learnt any Arabic?
A: A little bit...
Q: What of the Iraqi dialect have you learnt?
A: “Schloonak” [meaning how are you]. When I travelled in the region from the Gulf to Lebanon and saluted people using this word, they immediately asked me, “Are you Iraqi?”
Q: Do you intend to continue working in Iraq?
A: Each one of us has paid a price in this war. I am staying because there is no other place to go. I think that I will wake up one morning and say to myself “that’s enough”.
Q: How would you describe this war?
A: It is a catastrophe that will last for generations.