WALKLEY MAGAZINE: The War Chroniclers

Reporting from inside Iraq is tough, but it’s the only way to comprehend the complexity of the situation. Journalists who parachute in from time to time can only hope to capture a fragment of the truth, writes Michael Ware.

[This is an Australian magazine that as far as I can tell
is not available in the US. This is an astonishing and
harrowing look at Michael’s work in Iraq.]

When a man is tortured because of you, something inside slowly dies. An unanswerable, tumorous guilt grows within. It feeds off the self-pitying shame that it was him, and not you; off the feeling you must, somehow, somewhere, atone for this, must conjure the miracle that will repair the part of him that has darkened and drawn away, forever lost. All the while knowing you can't, and that what you feel doesn't really matter.

But you know you'll carry these things with you for the rest of your life. In the first days of February last year, the US military captured a top insurgent commander in north-west Baghdad, an emir, or prince. A large chunk of the capital was his.

Though he worked for what's awkwardly described as an Iraqi nationalist guerrilla organisation, comprised of former military and intelligence officers tinged with only a faint hint of Islamic militancy, he had, through tribal and operational connections, close ties to the al-Qaeda organisation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His arrest sent shivers through the capital's insurgent infrastructure.

Clearly there had been a security breach. An informer had somehow penetrated the ranks, or the Americans had turned an insider. Either way, the wound had to be cauterised. Al-Qaeda assumed responsibility for what was about to become a vicious internal investigation.

I had known this emir since the first months of the invasion in 2003. He'd sat at home, disenfranchised and dishonoured. It wasn't long before he turned to small, ad hoc attacks on passing convoys. As the insurgency lurched forward becoming ever more organised, sophisticated and adept, he moved up the chain. Having known him from the beginning, I moved up with him.

So often he had agreed to meet me when he knew his colleagues frowned upon it, even though I was never allowed to know how to find him. So often he had shielded me from the threats of feral terrorist cells who wanted to kidnap me, or worse. I knew what he did, how brutal a soldier he had become, but he, among others, gave me a precious insight into the inner workings of the insurgency. So when he was taken down, the al-Qaeda interrogators' first thoughts were to blame the journalist.

Luring my fixer who was my conduit to the emir to a meeting with an unrelated group, they trapped and delivered him to a waiting car of al-Qaeda hitmen. He was bundled into their sedan and driven off.

Taken to a small house in obscure farmland outside the city, for five days they tortured him; whipping him with electrical cord, putting electrodes on his genitals, beating him with pipes. At the end of the fifth day they stopped, and he spent three more days naked, chained to a water pipe. On the eighth evening, Valentine's Day, they dressed him, tossed him back in the car, and dumped him off at a busy Baghdad intersection.

It took him an hour to reach my office. He was barely audible and couldn't stop shaking. He couldn't look me in the eye. His body curled in on itself as he sat. In time I asked, "What did they want? What were they asking you about?" His answer was simple: "You, Mick. All the questions were about you. Is he a spy? Is he really a journalist? How do you know who he is?"

For those five days, it turned out, he'd stuck by me, hoping the truth would save him. We later learned the three days he was left waiting allowed the al-Qaeda interrogators to check his story with the long list of insurgent commanders he'd said would vouch for me. Which, thankfully, they did. When my fixer was released he was told, "Go back, keep working, but tell Mick we're watching him."

My experiences in reporting the Iraq war are, admittedly, a little unique. For better or for worse, I have had more access to the insurgency than almost any other Western journalist. That hasn't come without cost. As far as we know, I'm the only Westerner to have been grabbed by Zarqawi's people and to have lived to tell the tale, having been saved by an Iraqi Baathist commander just short of my execution at the hands of Syrian jihadis. As journalist John Martinkus, who was kidnapped minutes after leaving my Baghdad house, would know, that's not something you ever really recover from.

But much of what my staff and I have been through is universal to all those trying desperately to make sense of and report on this long-running insurgent war.

In our first house, back in 2004, one of our senior translators was assassinated by three gunmen with Uzis as he drove around a corner four blocks from the office. Later that year, another of my fixers was arrested in Falluja by a Palestinian battle commander for al-Qaeda; my staffer, sporting the Time i.d. I'd given him, was suspected of knowing too much and seized for investigation. He too was grilled endlessly about me and our magazine while he was beaten.

Through major Baathist insurgent leaders, some of America's most wanted, I made contact with the al-Qaeda command and pleaded for my fixer's release. It couldn't be secured, but his execution was staved off. In time, he was rescued by US Marines when they overran the restive city in November 2004, though they mistook him for an insurgent and threw him in prison at first.

Our house has been pummelled, twice, by car bombs.

Another of our senior translators, whom al-Qaeda had been stalking and visiting his house, once more asking about the magazine, was blown up in his car after refusing to proffer the information they wanted. He barely survived; we flew him to Jordan where his mangled arm was saved by last-ditch surgery, and he has now been granted refugee status in Australia. Most news bureaux in this war-plagued capital could give similar accounts.

It comes as no surprise, at least not to those of us here long enough, to hear the spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the most robust insurgent outfits, tell the al-Jazeera satellite channel that his organisation keeps loose tabs on the journalists, and keeps a passing eye on what we say and write. It's not as if we didn't already know this, but to have it announced, now, for some reason, ratchets up the pressure in the back of our minds just one more turn.

You live with lurking worries about kidnap, mortars, car bombs, the safety of your staff, and how your presence in the midst of this hideous war must eat away at your family. Like a persistent white noise you tune out as much of it as you can, but every now and then it breaks into your daily transmission.

In 2003 we could drive the length and breadth of the country, daytripping to Falluja or Tikrit or to Najaf. By April 2004 we lost the highways as the US military lost control. For much of the year that followed, we spent parts of each week trapped in the very country itself. Our only portal in and out was Baghdad's airport and, several times a week, the airport road was cut by the insurgents. Even if you had a ticket for that day's flight there was no guarantee you were going to be able to use it. And there was no other way out.

By late 2004 we'd lost the capital as well; we couldn't even move from one quarter to the next, we couldn't visit sites or contacts or friends we'd often been to see. Things have changed slightly since then. The airport road is now secured by at least three full battalions of American armour and Iraqi troops.

Yet the city is, by and large, off limits to most journalists. You travel it and visit at your peril, and in nothing less than two-car, often armoured, always armed, convoys. I manage by seeking permission from the dominant insurgent groups before heading to a district and putting myself in their hands. Either way, it makes every venture outside your front gate a matter of great calculation.

While reporting the Iraqi story is now done by what one of my American counterparts dubbed the 'remote control' of Iraqi stringers and makeshift journalists we dispatch to bring us the raw materials of an article, many Western journalists opt occasionally for US military embeds as a way to see the country, even if through a stage-managed prism. That, too, is not without difficulty or risk, as the serious wounding in January of the American ABC's anchorman Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt reminded us.

As with the insurgents, I've been fortunate in my access to the US military. I have been with frontline units, deep in combat, in almost every major battle in Iraq since the war began. I've been in firefights with almost every type of unit the Americans have -- from SEALs, Delta and Green Berets, to airborne, mechanised and armoured units. I've seen great things in the process, and as a result of what I saw a lone sergeant do in a darkened Falluja house one night was asked to give a witness statement to the Pentagon for a Congressional Medal of Honor nomination. Yet these things, too, come at a premium, and not without their scars.

All of these difficulties have seen the international press corps whittled down to the hardiest bare bones. Where once hundreds of journalists combed the country, the entire journalistic community could now fit in a single bus or tram.

It's far too dangerous and punitively expensive for freelancers to operate here, leaving the field almost solely to the large American organisations, most of whom have pared back their staff to the barest essentials. Journalists who 'parachute' in from time to time are increasingly disconnected from a story ever more complex and in need of constant attention, often latching on to mere fragments of the truth. It's the same with some conservative reporters who jet in with the military and never leave its embrace nor stray from its orchestrated vision.

Asserting the authority and expertise to comment on this war is harder earned now than ever before, and fewer than ever can lay claim to it. There's a price to be paid for the insight, and it's not one easily met.

Michael Ware from Brisbane is Time magazine's Baghdad bureau chief.