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Outlook: Goodbye Baghdad

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2004; 1:00 PM

In Sunday's Outlook section, The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who has just completed an 18-month stint as the paper's Baghdad bureau chief, reflects on his time in Iraq and how much has changed. By the time he left, people he once chatted with casually over kebabs could no longer meet with him because of deteriorating security situation and the danger posed by insurgents. His road map began to collect dust as more and more routes became too perilous to pass. And as he was packing his bags and bidding goodbye over the phone to a sheik he used to be able to visit, Chandrasekaran thought about the many opportunities the United States has missed during his time there and wondered whether the situation could have been different.

Chandrasekaran was online Monday, Oct. 18, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his article, Iraq's Barbed Realities.


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.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Greetings everyone. It's great to be able to chat with you once again. As many of you know, I've just returned from a two-year tour in Iraq. It's nice to be back in Washington. I'm relishing the ability to drive anywhere I want, to go on long walks and to eat meals that don't include hummous. Fire away with your questions. Hopefully I'll be a little faster with my replies this time since I'm not relying on a satellite phone from Baghdad.

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Fairfax, Va.: Thank you for being the eyes and ears for the American people for two years and putting your own life on the line. I read with great interest your article.

Does your article in naming your liaison and, especially the picture, in any way put Hassnawi in danger from the insurgents?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Very good question. In most cases, I would not have quoted a Fallujah resident by name saying some of the things that Sheik Khamis said to me, but he's an influential tribal leader who has thousands of tribesmen who will protect him. I specifically asked Khamis whether he wanted to be quoted by name and he said he had no objections. Men like Khamis, in many cases, enjoy a relative degree of safety from the insurgents because the killing of a tribal leader would undoubtedly unleash massive reltaliation from members of his tribe. The insurgents, crazy as they may often be, don't want to deal with that.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Good afternoon, Mr. Chandrasekaran. I admire your writing. Two questions if I may:

First, could you talk about what you observed with respect to the relation between the U.S. military and CPA civilians in Iraq? The impression I get is that military officers -- often quite junior ones -- were frequently left to handle difficult civil affairs issues on their own with scant training and inadequate resources, while CPA officials who might have helped at least with the resources remained in Baghdad. Is this fair?

Second, is there an Iraq book project in your future? I'd like to think so.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello there Kennesaw. Good question. Civilians working for the CPA (the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was the U.S.-led occupation administration led by L. Paul Bremer) and military officers stationed in the Green Zone told me that they had never seen civil-military relations as bad as they were in Baghdad. The military guys regarded the CPA types as isolated and out-of-touch in the Green Zone. The civilians believed the military had let them down by not doing enough to combat the insurgency. Military officers complained that they were forced to deal with reconstruction (what little of it was actually going on) and governance (setting up city councils and such) because the civilians were too slow in getting out to the provinces. By all accounts, the relationship between Bremer and the top U.S. general in Iraq during the occupation, Ricardo Sanchez, was very strained.

As for the book, I do hope to write one. I'm taking a year-long leave of absence from The Post starting in December. If all goes well, look for it in bookstores in early 2006.

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New York, N.Y.: Simple question. Is a democratic Iraq possible?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: But a good question. Yes, I do believe a democratic Iraq is possible. There are, however, several qualifiers.

What kind of democracy are we talking about? It's not going to be a Western-style democracy, for sure. If there is no outside manipulation, it is likely that Shiite Islamists will dominate a democratic government. There are efforts by secular Iraqi politicians, including the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, with help from the United States, to create a big-tent list of largely secular candidates to run in the national elections currently scheduled for January. But it remains unclear whether the two largest Shiite parties, both of which are dominated by Islamists, will join that list. If they don't and strike out on their own, they could grab a large share of Iraq's Shiite majority. Over the longer term, it seems likely that Islamist figures--both Shiite and Sunni--will enjoy broad popular support. A large Islamist role may be a limits on women's rights and a greater role of religion in government, but it does not necessarily mean that they will reduce ties with the United States. We should keep in mind that the two largest Shiite Islamist parties, SCIRI and Dawa, worked with the U.S. government to overthrow Saddam Hussein's government. Leaders of SCIRI and Dawa served on the Governing Council and are now part of the interim government.

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Stratford, Conn.: There has been much criticism that the press has focused on the problems in Iraq rather than the successes. However, people in the media have stated that free and open access throughout Iraq is dangerous if not deadly and that the current position of the Bush administration is providing a misleading rosy picture of a deteriorating situation. Where do you think the truth of the matter lies?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: It's not like there was a file of good news stories on my desk that I refused to open. In my time as The Post's Baghdad bureau chief, I was committed to being as fair as possible, to exposing our readers to the good and the bad. But it's not as simple as the critics make it out to me.

First off, there are only so many time we can write about children getting immunized or schools getting renovated. Sure, there are other reconstruction projects going on--and we do cover them. A colleague of mine was recently knee-deep in sewage in Sadr City to write about how the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division has been trying to improve sanitation there. But we also have to keep in mind that our reconstruction efforts are only addressing a small fraction of Iraq's needs. The projects currently underway are a far cry from the ambituous agenda the CPA outlined last year. And they're only having a modest impact. Despite all the work that's been done in the health-care sector, hospitals in Iraq remain in abysmal condition. When we write about reconstruction projects, we have to keep things in context.

Second, there is the question of mobility. It's the old "if a tree falls in the forest . . ." phenomenon: If it's too unsafe to travel outside Baghdad on our own, how can we write about the good things that are happening elsewhere in the country? Sure, we travel with the military, in convoys and helicopters, but that's often very time consuming and difficult to arrange. We try to do it as much as we can, but it does require a significant time commitment. If we could zip everywhere in the country in our own cars, would you be reading and seeing more reports about positive developments? Probably.

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Texas: I realize this is probably an impossible question, but what do you imagine most US military people in Iraq would think of your article? Do you think many of them would just see it as an example of another journalist over-emphasizing the negative? Or would they tend to agree with you?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I've heard from a few military personnel in Iraq. It's been split down the middle. Some agreed with me that more should have been done to put Iraqis to work, to reconstruct the country and to reach out to tribal leaders. Others accused me of harping on the negative and suggested that people like Sheik Khamis should have done more to fight the insurgents in their midst.

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Mountain View, Calif.: I wanted to ask you about the state of a free press in Iraq. Shortly after the overthrow of Saddamm there were dozens of newspapers and magazines that were being published. Now I hear nothing about the press. Also, what is the take of the press and the people of Allawi's government?

Thanks.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: There is a very vibrant print media in Iraq. There also is a new talk radio station in Baghdad that is very popular as well as a new private television channel (that airs lots of reality shows). One of the biggest changes since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has been a flowering of independent media. Although many of the largest newspapers in Baghdad are connected to political parties, there are several that are independent and critical of the interim government. Although I don't read Arabic, I did get the major papers translated for me every day. My sense is that there is a balance of views in the media. There certainly is no shortage of critical articles and commentary pieces about Allawi's government, although polls and man-on-the-street interviews indicate that a majority people do generally support the interim government.

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Dothan, Ala.: Like you, I spent most of the past year in Iraq, but as an active duty soldier. While many people speak of our various "accomplishments," my feeling was and remains that the security siutation deteriorated daily, that people were increasingly opposed to our presence and that we had failed to deliver much in the way of tangible improvements in the average person's daily life. Given the the fatalities and high rates of injury we as troops suffered, I became quite discouraged. My question: do you think there is any way the current U.S. strategy can succeed?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I don't want to prescribe policy here, but I do think the U.S. government is on the right track in terms of speeding up the training of Iraqi security forces. There also needs to be an even more aggressive effort to spend the reconstruction funds that have been earmarked for Iraq. To date, only a small percentage of the $18.4 billion approved by Congress has actually been spent.

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Ellicott City, Md.: So who is taking over for you in Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The excellent Karl Vick is taking the helm through the end of the year. Watch this space for further developments.

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Germantown, Md.: Rajiv,

Why is that during your reporting from Iraq there was very little, if any, reports on the casualties being faced by ordinary Iraqis? For example, The Washington Post has never reported on the total number of Iraqi civilains killed.

Lastly, the coverage by the British news outlets, both print and boradcast (BBC), have more on the ground coverage of what is happening to the ordinary Iraqi on the street. What do you think is the reason for US media and their reporters not providing the same "real on the ground" coverage?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. It's very difficult to track Iraqi civilian casualties. Although Iraq's Health Ministry does compile statistics, those records are incomplete and often inaccurate. In many cases, they're based on reports from local hospitals and estimates from police officials, which can be wildly inaccurate. But I do agree with you that it is an issue to which the media does need to devote more attention.

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Arlington, Va.: Given the current situation with insurgency on the rise , do you think its possible to have elections in January as planned?

What steps do you think the administration should take to curtail insurgency?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: At present, there appears to be strong support among Iraqis for holding elections in January. Some people I talked to before leaving said that they recognized that the elections likely would be bloody but that delaying them would be even worse. Others, however, said there was no way they would take the risk of waiting in front of a polling station. It's clear that much work remains to be done before elections can be held, including voter registration, that could pose unexpected complications. Most importantly, though, aggressive need to be taken to ensure that residents of Sunni-dominated will have a chance to participate in the elections. If elections are held in just some parts of the country, in the Shiite dominated south and the Kurdish far north but not in many Sunni-dominated cities in central Iraq, it will intensify Sunni anger. The elections should accomplish just the opposite: They need to give Iraq's once-powerful minority Sunnis a seat at the table. That's the best way to attack a root cause of the insurgency.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Rajiv,

It became a daily joke in our home whenever we saw an article with a Rajiv Chandrasekaran byline. The joke? Here's another report on something positive out of Iraq.

Honestly without fail, I NEVER saw anything positive about the situation in Iraq. I am not saying negative things happened and continue to happen and will continue to happen but in the name of balance, is it too great of a request to maybe have one story on a school opening, a woman who goes to work, a mechanic who owns a shop, etc.

Certainly the reality of the situation cannot be overlooked but doesn't it also include a positive aspect now and then?

Considering how long you have spent in Iraq it just remains interesting how you never filed a positive story on some aspect of Iraq.

Congratulations on making it back safely and thank you for listening to my question.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I take exception to your characterization of my work. I've written several stories people might deem "positive." For instance, take a look at this story I did last fall about the reflooding of Iraq's southern marsh lands....

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Malden, Mass.: I recently read the e-mail by the Wall Street Journal reporter on the conditions in Iraq and was wondering if you agree on how bad the conditions are?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: So I don't run afoul of my editors, who don't want us to express our personal opinions on such matters, let me just say that I haven't met or talked to a single reporter who has spent any meaningful time in Iraq who disagrees with what she wrote.

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washingtonpost.com: A Gift from God' Renews a Village, (Post, Oct. 11, 2003)

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Reykjavik, Iceland: In August, I think, Paul Wolfowitz said before Congress that international journalists (he was probably referring to American journalists) didn´t know what was going on in Iraq because they never left their hotels in Baghdad (indicating that actually, everything was moving in the right direction in Iraq and you guys were only reporting negatives). Later he backtracked a little. How upsetting were his comments to you guys in Baghdad and how ironic is it that his comments have now become reality (judging from your article)?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I was annoyed, to say the least. Had Wolfowitz not apologized, I was planning to send him a letter inviting him to stay with me for a week and experience how life in Iraq is like for an American who doesn't have the huge security bubble that surrounds a senior Pentagon official.

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Bethesda, Md.: How are civil-military relations now with Ambassador Negroponte and General Casey?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Much, much improved. I hear that the two men get along quite well (much better than Bremer and Sanchez) and there is a lot of coordination and communication between them.

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San francisco, Calif. : Hey Rajiv! What will you miss most about Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: What I'm going to miss most are the wonderful Iraqis who work for The Post in Baghdad. They are the true heroes of our operation there. They have demonstrated incredible bravery, dedication and intelligence. They take huge risks by working for an American news organization, but they believe in a free media and a free Iraq and they want the world to know what's really happening in their country. They are our eyes and ears and without them we'd be flailing around in the corridors of our hotel. I salute them.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I see that I've blown past my allotted time. It's been great hearing from so many of you. I'm sorry I didn't have time to take all of your questions. Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute to this discussion.

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