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Live from Baghdad

Caryle Murphy
Washington Post reporter
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 11:00 AM

Iraq is facing a time of opportunity and challenge as its leaders work to develop a new government despite continuing violence and uncertainty. Reporters on the ground have a unique perspective on these events. What is it like to live and report from Iraq's capital? What is daily life like for ordinary Iraqis? How will the changes currently taking place shape the future?

Caryle Murphy, Washington Post reporter currently in Baghdad, was online Wednesday, April 20, at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions about the latest news from Iraq.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Caryle Murphy: Hello everybody. Nice to 'see' you from Baghdad. It's starting to get hot here. Everyone is waiting also for the new government to be formed, which the politicians say could be soon. I'm going straight to your questions now.


Boissise la Bertrand, France: For 105 or so days, the French journalist Florence Aubenas and her driver/guide Hussein Hanoun have been held hostage by parties unknown. It is a huge cause ccelebhere in France, with major demonstrations all over the country, and so far empty promises from the government about progress toward their liberation. "Reporters sans frontieres" and Florence's parents do what they can to keep the pressure up.

Is this a subject that you and fellow journalists talk about down there? Are you aware of the demonstrations and keen interest on behalf of the French public? Do Iraqi media mention it? Any feelings about who took the hostages and what the process of liberation might be? Do you think the French are getting cooperation from coalition authorities? Are you aware of charges that the two French journalists freed some months ago were in fact working for the French intelligences services? Are journalists still generally prisoners of hotel rooms or are things loosening up?

Thanks, and thanks for your courageous presence in Iraq in the interest of the free flow of information.

Caryle Murphy: There is very little public information about French journalist Florence Aubenas and her guide Hussein Hanoun. We have no idea even who is holding her, or what the French government is trying to do to help free her. Kidnapping of Westerners remains a serious threat for everyone here. We live a restricted life because travel around town all has to be for a good reason. Thanks for your appreciation. As for the local press, they do report kidnappings but there has been little mention of Aubenas's situation in recent weeks.


Orleans, Mass.: What is the extent of corruption in Iraq and what is the effect of corruption on Iraq society?

Caryle Murphy: Hello, Orleans' reader. Corruption has become a huge, huge problem in Iraq. It is one of the biggest problems facing the new government. There are reliable reports of corruption at every level of the government. And when the newly elected national Assembly met recently, this was a major point of discussion.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Do you think the insurgents are in decline or are we seeing a natural up and down cycle?

Caryle Murphy: We have seen a slight decline in insurgent activity in Baghdad since the election two months ago. But it seems to be going as strong as ever outside the capital. And no one is ready to call a summer on one swallow. There are fears, depending on how the new government handles the many huge challenges it faces, of an upsurge in the insurgency if the Sunni minority continues to feel disaffected.


Dallas, Tex.: I have been considering some USAID job opportunities in Iraq. My daughter fears for my safety. What I fear more is being isolated in a "Little America" compound unable to travel and get to know average Iraqi citizens. What is the life like for U.S. government officials and contractors? Do they do real work or is it make work to keep busy? What kind of talent do they really need?

Caryle Murphy: USAID people here are very dedicated. They live in trailers inside the green zone, where the biggest threat seems to be a mortar or rocket falling on you. That does not happen every day nor often, but it could. Otherwise, the green zone is pretty safe. Yes, it is true that life there is very isolated. You would probably meet Iraqis every day, but it would be those who work for USAID and they would be a very small subset of the larger society. You definitely would not get much of a taste for what life is like outside the green zone.


Arlington, Va.: We're hearing reports of increased morale of the Iraqi people. What's prompting this and what is the "general" view on the future?

Caryle Murphy: The elections gave the Iraqis a huge increase in morale. As one Iraqi put it, after years and years of criticism, the Iraqis at last were being praised by the world for doing something great: showing the courage to vote. Now, two months later, people seem to still have hopes that in the long run things are going to get better. However, they are also discouraged in the short term by the conditions they still live under: unemployment, electricity cuts, insecurity (car bombs in traffic, eg) and corruption. They know they have a long way to go before life returns to normal.


Chevy Chase, Md.: All we seem to hear about in the U.S. is how people get killed in Iraq, often highly ranked or highly educated people. Will the insurgent tactic of killing potential leaders create a real problem for the future stability of the Iraqi government?

Caryle Murphy: So far, the insurgents are targeting people randomly, although some assassinations do seem to have been done because of a person's education and skills. The car bombs kill anyone who happens to be in traffic that day. That seems to have been what happened to our friend, Marla Ruzicka and her translator Faiz Salim, who were killed by a suicide bomber who apparently was going after a VIP convoy. He detonated behind the convoy, and the car Marla and Faiz were in was hit. It was a huge loss because of Marla and Faiz's work on behalf of Iraqi citizens hurt by armed conflict in Iraq. Her website is www.civicworldwide.org


Washington, D.C.: What's the cost of living like? A loaf of bread, a gallon of
milk, a six-pack of soda? Comparable to the U.S., Middle
East, or that of a third world country?

Caryle Murphy: I don't go out shopping much - another restriction on our travels in Baghdad. But I have been struck by the cheap price of some goods, like electronics and clothes. For example, I got three lipsticks for less than $4. They weren't Revlon, but they do. To be specific to your question, I would say the ordinary goods like bread, milk and rice are less than US. Since the US occupation, many people have gotten raises (if they already had a job with the government, for example) and there is a hot consumer market here, trying to fill pent-up demand.


Charlotte, N.C.: Good morning!

I spent seven months in 2004 as a Federal Technical Assistance Advisor in Baghdad. I worked daily in downtown Baghdad with Iraqis. About halfway through my tour, the insurgency took hold in earnest. My greatest concern at the time was the paralyzing fear the Iraqis had of these insurgents, and their consequent inability to put their collective foot down and demand an end to the violence, especially that pperpetratedagainst their own people. Although all of this is understandable, given the terrible recent history of the Hussein regime, it was disturbing to think that they would just accept this new horror without protest.

Do you see any sign of change on the part of the "man and woman on the street" Iraqi? Are they beginning to take ownership, per se, of their own country? When I was there, we wanted to help in any way we could. But the Iraqi people must claim and protect their own freedom.

Post script: I hope you will take care to stay safe and wear your body armour and Kevlar whenever you should. Thank you for bringing us the news.

Caryle Murphy: Thank you for your good wishes. You know, this complaint that Iraqis are not taking ownership of their country is one I've heard a lot since I came here two months ago. I think it's a real issue. And I think there are reasons. If you have a dictatorship like the one Saddam Hussein ran, people don't feel like they really own their own country. Or even their own neighborhood. For example, setting up a neighborhood watch to keep out criminals? In the old days, you'd probably get arrested. Now, it's such an ingrained idea that it's the police's job - not mine - to keep crime down, that a neighborhood watch group would be hard to start up. It's going to take many years to get ordinary citizens to change their mindset and habits so that they really feel they can do something to affect their own environments. On the other hand, there has been a blossoming of civic associations since the fall of Saddam. They are just learning how to do this. Finally, as to the insurgents, there is fear of course, mainly bbecausethe police and the Americans were so ineffectual in stopping their activities. That's beginning to change as people see the Iraqi police become more active.


London, United Kingdom: Between the 1930's and 1960's the American Jesuits had established in Baghdad a High School and a University. Have you heard of any plans to re-open such educational institutes whether by the Jesuits or by other secular American oorganizations

Caryle Murphy: I know about this Jesuit run school in Baghdad. Many mmid-levelofficials of Saddam's regime and many those who opposed him in exile were ggraduatesof this school. They all remember it fondly. I have not heard that the Jesuits or any other group is trying to reclaim those schools so far.


Huntsville, Ala.: My rather textbook question is regarding how much progress the new Iraqi Prime Minister has made towards forming a new government.

Do you have any idea of its likely composition?

How soon can we expect the new government to emerge?

Caryle Murphy: The new government could be announced anytime within the next week. Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jafari knows it's an urgent matter to get this government up and running. Its composition is going to reflect the election results: The majority of the 30-plus cabinet positions will be go to the predominantly Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of parties itself. the Kurds will get the next largest share and there will be some Sunnis, possibly one Turcoman and one Christian, in the cabinet. Who the Sunnis will be and what posts they get will be the most interesting aspect of the cabinet. Obviously, it is hoped that they will be Sunnis who have some sway with their people and draw them into supporting the government.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why is there such confusion lately over these bodies? There are two separate reports today that 50 bodies were pulled from the Tigris and 19 were found in a stadium. Yet, the U.S. military doesn't seem to confirm this. How hard is this? We're not ttalkingone or two bodies. They're 50 and 19 - it should be pretty obvious, shouldn't it?
Also, although insurgent "activity" might be down, it doesn't seem the number of casualties is. Is the U.S. media and government judging this simply by the number of attacks on U.S. forces? Isn't it insulting for the U.S. media and military to consider an American life more valuable than an Iraqi?

Caryle Murphy: First of all, please let's not jump to conclusions. It's now 7:30 pm and we, here in the WP office in Baghdad, still do not know the full truth of these reports of 50 bodies found in a river. Number one: the phones were out for several hours. Number two: no one at the Ministry of Interior, who runs the police, was answering their phones (after the phones came back). NUmber three: there is no yellow pages, no 411, so no way to get the phone number of the local police in the area where the bodies are found. Senior officials of the govt. tell us they are still checking to get the details right. No one wants a repeat of what happened over the week-end when there was such confusion about the hostage situation in Madain. As for the 19 bodies, we have to wait until we get vverificationfrom someone reliable that it is true. That's why you buy the WP or read us online - you know (I trust) that we've tried to get any info we put out verified to our utmost. That, unfortunately, takes time. The US media, at least not this one, does not consider an Iraqi life less valuable than an American one.


Olney, Md.: Doesn't the killing of innocents like children in suicide bombings make local Muslims rethink their opposition to U.S. forces?

Caryle Murphy: Apparently not. There appears to be a split among the insurgents, between those who do not want to target civilians, and those who will continue to do so just to show that the government here is ineffectual.


Chicago, Ill.: There hasn't been much news regarding Moqtada Al Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Are they still a force to be rreckonedwith or have they lost strength? What do you believe are the chances he and his followers will revolt once again against the Americans /Iraqi government?

Caryle Murphy: Our correspondent Anthony Shadid just did a long story about M. Sadr's Mahdi Army in the south of Iraq. It may still be available on line. Sadr has given indications he and his people will participate in the next election. And tho he officially boycotted the last one, he does have a group of sympathizers of about 25 in the newly elected National Assembly. He's definitely someone who'll be on the political scene for a while..


Austin, Tex.: Do you have any information about current daily Iraqi oil revenues, and if so, what percent of the profits stay in Iraq vs. those going to Western oil companies?

Caryle Murphy: Sorry, I don't have those figures right at hand. But I do know that the current budget of the government is facing a large deficit. Oil exports and refining capabilities are still down, in large part because of the insurgency.


Washington, D. C.: Despite the investment of many American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, we get to see very, very little of what is happening there on our nightly newscasts. Is this because things are so out of control safety concerns prevent reporters from filming daily life throughout the country (e.g.,we are told that even when American officials visit they are moved in and out very quickly), or is this because our government wants to keep the American people ignorant so that if the Administration decides to quit and declare victory the American people will have no basis to think otherwise? Ditto for Afghanistan.

Caryle Murphy: Things are not out of control, but Westerners do face the continued threat of kidnapping. That does restrict our movements, more so for tv people, who have to lug around a camera, than for print people like me, who only need a pen and notebook. (I sometimes forget the pen.) I think you see less on nightly tv news because the story has ups and downs, but those ups and downs are not as dramatic as during the war. There is a lot going on around the country that we have a hard time reporting about (especially good things like schools, hospitals being opened etc) but I think we are able to get a handle on enough that we can give our readers a basis for their own judgement call on US decisions here.


Alexandria, Va.: Is there any truth to reports that the U.S. has re-arrested some former Abu Ghraib detainees who had complained of ill-treatment?

Caryle Murphy: haven't heard that. US military run jails are already full of alleged insurgents, so I think they have their hands full. US military is now holding over 10,000 Iraqis. Picked up because they were suspected of or caught engaged in insurgent activities..


Park City, Utah: This war in Iraq is strangely familiar to another one, when Lyndon Johnson told the country that the "Vietnamese boys will do the fighting." Do you see an increased willingness of the indigenous troops to secure their country? And how can the "activist journalists", according to Tom Delay, hope to accurately report when they cannot go anywhere without armed American troops?

Caryle Murphy: There appears to be increased willingness of some well-trained Iraqi troops to "secure their country," as you put it. There is no shortage of recruits - in large part because of the huge unemployment rate. But it takes time to get a force trained and equipped. I don't know what you mean by 'activist journalist' but for 'action-filled journalists' like myself, I have to be truthful, as I was in a previous message, and repeat that we don't know everything going on in this country because we cannot travel freely and because the phone system is so lousy. But remember, a good number of foreign journalists are still embedding with the US servicemen still here, so they see things happening outside Baghdad. And BTW in Baghdad, we go around without US troops. Any sane driver in Baghdad makes a wide berth around US troop convoys, which are insurgent targets.


Portland, Conn.: The great majority of Iraqi insurgents killed by American troops are Sunni. Do you think that Sistani, Allawi, and the (primarily) Shiite/Kurd National Guard are simply using the U.S. Armed Forces to do their dirty work in their bid for power in Iraq?

Caryle Murphy: A great majority of insurgents killed are Sunni because the insurgency is primarily Sunni. If the insurgents would stop their attacks, they would not be killed.


Arlington, Tex.: I keep hearing in the media that for most folks it isn't safe to stay in any one place in or around Baghdad for too long. (Some say no longer that ten minutes or so.)) What gives? Is it fear of being kidnapped? Mortar attacks? Being robbed?

Caryle Murphy: Fear of being kidnapped. There are criminal gangs who want to capture and sell foreigners to the highest bidder. That's the big danger right now.


Caryle Murphy: My time is up. I am very impressed with your interest and questions. Thank you for making my reporting life more interesting...


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