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Iraq: Live from Baghdad

Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Jackie Spinner, currently based in Baghdad, has been following the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and its affect on both American forces and Iraqis. In Thursday's Post, she detailed the day-to-day life of MPs guarding prisoners at Abu Ghraib: Prison Guards Dispirited by Scandal.

Meanwhile, a car bomb steered to its target by a suicide driver exploded outside an Iraqi security forces recruiting station in downtown Baghdad Thursday, killing at least 35 people and wounding 138 others. Bomb Kills At Least 35 In Baghdad The attack was only the latest in a continuing wave of violence in the weeks leading up to the scheduled handover of authority to Iraqis on June 30.

And Saudi police continued their search today for missing American Paul W. Johnson Jr., as a deadline loomed for the kingdom to release al Qaeda prisoners or see him killed. Intensive Search for Kidnapped American Continues

Spinner was online Friday, June 18 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss her recent reporting about detainee operations and the recent uptick in violence in Iraq.

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.


Jackie Spinner: Hello from Baghdad. With 12 days to go until the official handover of limited authority to the interim Iraqi government, things are anything but quiet here, although there were no major car bombings today or assassinations. An unusual day in the capital city. I've spent a good deal of time the past two weeks at Abu Ghraib prison and at the other U.S. internment facility in the south, called Camp Bucca. It's already late here, so let's get started!


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for taking questions. Do members of the military seem angry at the shifts in Fallujah and Najaf to a local based policing, or are they more relieved?

Jackie Spinner: Military commanders seem just as eager as U.S. policymakers to hand over security and local policing to the Iraqis--once they are ready to take control. Fallujah and Najaf are somewhat different circumstance. The Najaf governor has expressed greater eagerness in taking care of Mogtada Sadr's Mahdi Army himself, which the U.S. and coalition forces seem happy to oblige him to do.


Cleveland, Ohio: American officials on television often state that many of the insurgents are non-Iraqis. Any evidence this is true?

Jackie Spinner: I talked to the commander of the 1st Calvary Division just this week and asked the same question. He said the "insurgents" the the soldiers are detaining are mostly Iraqis. Could it be that they just aren't catching the foreign fighters? It is possible. And if you talk to local Iraqis, they certainly believe that the insurgents are not Iraqis. But I can tell you that only a handful of the detainees in the internment facilities are foreign fighters. I just haven't seen the evidence personally to support that the insurgent base is non-Iraqi.


Toronto, Canada: Gen. Taguba estimated that 60 percent or more of those incarcerated at Abu Ghraib were basically innocent civilians, swept up through roadblocks etc. The Red Cross was saying 90 percent or more were basically innocent. During the last two months a lot of prisoners have been released. Has the 60+ percent that Gen. Taguba talked about been released?

If you have spoken with the guards perhaps you could tell us whether the guards would agree that 60% of their guests were innocent?

Jackie Spinner: I haven't found a detainee yet who has been released from Abu Ghraib yet who believes he deserved to be in prison. But the military does have a system of due process to ensure that it has sufficient evidence to hold detainees--at least as it has been described to me. JAG lawyers review cases coming into the prison and a military review panel considers whether there is sufficient evidence to keep the detainees interned. Are there innocent civilians caught up in sweeps? Certainly. But I can't speak to percentages.


Wilmington, Del.: In the last few weeks, American soldiers have been safer, but Iraqi citizens less safe, than they were in previous months. The obvious (from a distance) explanation for that would be that our soldiers are holed up in their bases, not out there patrolling. How accurate is that explanation? If it is fairly accurate, what, exactly, are we doing there? Are we there just in case? In case of what?

Jackie Spinner: I've been out in Baghdad quite a bit, and I can tell you, I see American troops wherever I go. In fact, it's a source of some discomfort for many Iraqis. They often clear a wide path for a convoy of tanks because they don't want to be anywhere near the troops in case they are attacked. And troops are still being singled out. I think what you are describing are more targeted attacks against Iraqis themselves, particularly at points where civilians interact with the coalition government.


Maryland: Do those living in Baghdad feel that once the hand-over takes place the violence will begin to decrease? Or, should we expect that the attacks will continue, or even increase in frequency?

Jackie Spinner: That is one of the biggest unknowns right now. Some Iraqis are fearful that if the Americans pull back their presence after the end of the month, that things will get more violent. Others feel like it will make the country more safe. We have definitely seen the violence pick up in recent weeks. Today was unusual in that we did not have a significant car bombing or assassination. Military commanders are predicting that things are going to get worse before they get better. The Iraqi people also seem to be preparing for as much. I'm not sure anyone thinks July 1 will bring a magical, sudden end to the violence. This country is going to be unstable for some time to come.


Jersey City, N.J.: Are any Iraqi prisons now Iraqi-run? Are there plans to hand over management of military and/or civilian prisons to the Iraqis?

Jackie Spinner: Yes, part of Abu Ghraib, the "hard sites" where the U.S. soldiers were accused of abusing detainees, those building are controlled by the Iraqis and have been since last month. The prisoners there are accused of Iraqi-on-Iraqi crimes and not crimes against coalition forces. They are being dealt with by the Iraqi criminals courts. The only detainees in U.S. custody or in U.S.-run facilities are those individuals considered to be a "threat" to the occupation government. The U.S. military does not intend to turn over control of its detainees to the Iraqis.


College Park, Md.: What is it like inside Abu Ghriab prison? Is it very dilapidated? Have you spoken with soldiers about the prisoner abuse scandal? What's their response?

Thank you for taking questions.

Jackie Spinner: I spent the night at Abu Ghraib this weekend. Soldiers sleep in converted cells. The buildings are old and crumbling. The holding facility were incoming detainees are kept has a tarp over the shell of its roof. When Saddam emptied Abu Ghraib right before the war last year, many of the departing detainees torched the buildings and otherwise destroyed parts of the grounds. The soldiers who are at Abu Ghraib now came in February and March and so were not caught up in the abuses from last fall. They told me that they are just as shocked by the abuse as the rest of the world. Many have a hard time figuring out how it could have happened.


Rosslyn, Va.: Hypothetical situation for you: After the transfer of power Saddam is returned to Iraq to stand trial for crimes against his own people, he 'escapes' his captives and throws a coup, and takes back control of the Iraqi government. If something like this were to happen (and it is possible), do you think Bush would try to take out Saddam again?

Jackie Spinner: Let me tell you what most Iraqis think will happen. Saddam gets "returned" to the Iraqi people. He is killed immediately. This is one reason that the U.S. is reluctant to turn over Saddam until officials can be assured that the Iraqi people will keep Saddam alive until he can stand trial. I am sure the insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation have your hypothetical in mind but I haven't heard anyone express it as a real possibility.


Falls Church, Va.: Good afternoon. It appears that now insurgents have taken more to attacking Iraqis who are seen as "helping" the coalition by participating in the new Iraqi government. The Post has quoted a few quotes from Iraqis who essentially feel that the coalition is staging these bombings to justify staying in Iraq and stealing their oil. How widespread is this belief among Iraqis, and is the Iraqi government or the coalition doing anything to counteract this view? And is there any sense of a wait-and-see attitude among Iraqis for them to get an idea of what the new government is about (i.e., U.S. puppet vs. government that acts in their interests). Thanks.

Jackie Spinner: I would not say there is widespread belief or concern among the Iraqis that the coalition is staging these bombings. Most Iraqis I talk to believe that terrorists are behind the bombings, whether from inside or outside of Iraq. I would also say that many Iraqis I've talked to are taking that wait-and-see attitude. They hope their new leaders can stay alive long enough to see what they can do.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Jackie, thank you for being the public's eyes and ears over there while enduring conditions that none of us could ever even imagine.

What's the latest on moving the court martials to Kuwait or some other location than Iraq?

Jackie Spinner: Pre-trial hearings start next week for three of the U.S. soldiers accused of beating and humiliating detainees at Abu Ghraib. We expect to see motions for change of venues. But the military is going to be reluctant to do that, given the cost and security of moving witnesses back and forth to another location. The defense laywers will have to argue that it is impossible for their soldiers to get a fair trail here, given what commanders have said about the accused.


West Coast: If the Iraqis chose to house Saddam in a cage, and turned it into a tourist attraction, would the U.S. step in and "correct" the situation?

Jackie Spinner: Saddam will still have Geneva Convention rights even if the Iraqis are responsible for housing him. My guess is that wouldn't happen.


Hartford, Conn.: I really admire the efforts of you and your colleagues, Jackie. Your stories have been incredible. What's your person-on-the-street impression of how Iraqis feel about the impending hand-over. Are they worried? Do they want the US to leave quickly? And what does the hand over mean in terms of the safety of all of the journalists there? (I know that's a lot of questions. Feel free to pick and choose.)

Jackie Spinner: Iraqis are eager for the handover for different reasons. Some simply because they want to run their own country. There is some concern from Iraqis that after June 30 that the U.S. troops will disappear into their bases and violence will get worse. So some Iraqis want to make sure that the U.S. maintains a clear presence even after that "magical" date. I have talked to few people who want the U.S. troops to leave quickly. But most people want some agency again over their own lives.


Washington, D.C.: Saudi tv is reporting that Paul Johnson has been beheaded. Any news on your end.

Jackie Spinner: I'm isolated in Baghdad right now. No news from this end. I'm sure our reporters elsewhere will have the news. Be sure to keep checking washingtpost.com as events unfold.


washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking my question, and for the great reporting you are doing.

Most of the coverage from Iraq lately has understandably focused on the prison abuse and violence. Can you comment on whether the Iraqi citizens are feeling positive about their future? Is there a sense that the current situation and their lives will improve (or have improved)? There seems to be little reporting lately on this aspect of the conflict.

Thank you.

Jackie Spinner: I asked our young translator, Bassam, that question the other day. He said, give it 13 years. Then he thinks Iraq will be stable. As for daily improvements, people here have stopped believing in promises. They will see it when they see it.


Lakeland, Fla.: Are you able to travel around Baghdad? If so, how freely? Also, how have the reconstruction projects been affected? Is any progress being made?

Jackie Spinner: We minimize our travel around Baghdad and rely on our Iraqi staff to report in situations where it is unsafe for Western journalists. Perhaps my friends at post.com can call up the op-ed piece that ran a few weeks ago, the one by the foreign editor, Phil Bennett. There is no doubt that reconstruction has been impacted. It has not stopped.


Washington, D.C.: It seems like most of Iraqis are unemployed and most of these chaotic car bombings and terror are caused by those who are committing these acts out of desperation. Don't you think the U.S. should consider hiring local Iraqis to help with the reconstruction process rather than hiring an Iraqi here in the U.S. who worked in a pizzeria for $90,000 a year to go and translate overseas. If you break this $90,000 down and hire local Iraqis, for this amount you will be able to get some locals who are always on the streets, aggravated with the situation and who could plot bomb attacks off the streets. It is imperative that the U.S. considers hiring locals as opposed to importing U.S. citizens to aid in the reconstruction process. Please give me your thoughts on this.

Jackie Spinner: One of the requirements that the U.S. used to award U.S.-funded reconstruction contractgs is that the companies had to hire Iraqis.


San Diego, Calif.: The media constantly harps on all of the bad in Iraq. Is there anything good to report (i.e., rebuilding of schools, freedom to speak, etc.)? Why is the media so fixated on the negative? Do you and fellow journalists ever see anything positive or do you feed off of each others negativity?

Jackie Spinner: That's a fair question. I think our coverage perhaps reflects the sentiments of the Iraqis themselves. It is hard to feel positive about the future when you are scared that if you leave your house you might get killed. People are--and not just the media--consumed by the violence that has consumed this country. We do not ignore good news when we find out. And I think if you look at the entire body of journalism that has come out of Iraq, when security was better, we were reporting about gains made in reconstruction. That has just become more difficult as the security situation has worsened. People involved in reconstruction will tell you that it's hard for them to focus on their jobs because of it as well.


Laurel, Md.: Would you say Iraq is fundamentally stable, although with a high rate of terror attacks; or on the brink of anarchy or civil war only prevented by the fact that the U.S. military is in charge?

Jackie Spinner: The leaders of the new government are clear targets for assassination. As are leaders of the U.S.-led coalitions. Soldiers. Journalists. Iraqis. Is Iraq on the brink of anarchy or civil war? I don't know. But I'm not sure you will find anyone here who thinks this country is stable.


Los Angeles, Calif.: What's your take on the latest dancing in the streets in Baghdad? I read that it marked an escalation of anti-occupation sentiments, as the other spontaneous celebrations at bombing sites were in Sunni
Triangle cities, and this one was in Baghdad itself?

Jackie Spinner: Baghdad has been the epi-center of violence for many months now.


Toronto, Canada: Specialist Graner was photographed posing with an Iraqi who died in custody. Like prisoner "triple-x" he too had never been officially registered. This allowed his corpse to be taken out of the prison, on a stretcher, and dumped, without filling out any paperwork -- as if he had never existed.

Has he been identified? Have his next of kin been informed? How common was this practice? Is his death included among the three dozen or so suspicious deaths that are being re-examined? Thanks.

Jackie Spinner: I do not not if he has been identified yet. I know he has not been identified to the media.


Woodbridge, Va.: Who is in charge of doing the everyday things like garbage pick up, mail delivery, newspaper delivery, pot hole repair, etc. Are these things being done? Is electricity and phone service reliable? I would think the populace would be less unfriendly if their every day lives were stablized. I think ordinary people would just like to be able to do the ordinary things that make life worth living. Right now it seems the U.S. just represents chaos and repression.

Jackie Spinner: There is no garbage pick up, mail delivery, newspaper delivery or pot-hold repair. Electricity is more evenly distributed since last year but it is still a source of irritation and frustration for many Iraqis. Those in charge of reconstruction efforts here would agree with you, that if some of these basic quality of life issues were addressed that people would feel more stable. The problem is how you address those issues when security is what it is. It has been very difficult.


Bowie, Md.: Have you asked regular Iraqis if they thought Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11; or if the attacks were justified?

Jackie Spinner: Regular Iraqis I've talked to do not believe the 9-11 connection.


Washington, D.C.: Last week's article by the Post reporter whose car was under attack was horrifying -- how do you and the other reporters based in Iraq handle the day-to-day business of being in the midst of a war zone, one where it seems the safety zone of being a member of the press is disappearing?

Jackie Spinner: That safety zone for reporters does not exist here. I greatly admire the courage of my colleague, Dan Williams, who survived that attempt on his life. And his driver who kept a steady hand on the wheel. We make calculated risks and decisions to get to the story so we can get it to you. We all want to come safely. We also recognize what is at stake here and we must be here to hold these two nations accountable.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Thanks for taking the time to answer questions!

What have you seen as the biggest trend in Baghdad since you arrived? Has there been a noticeable shift in opinion as the date for the handoff nears? Or, is it still even too early for much clarity?

Jackie Spinner: As the date for handoff nears there has been a noticeable uptick in violence, and that is what has impacted public opinion more than anything. Nobody knows for certain what this date--this formal exchange--will actually bring. We may see no difference other than we flip the page in our calendars. People are anxious to see what will happen.


Jackie Spinner: Thank you all for checking in live here from Baghdad. I am sorry I could not get to more of your questions. Good night from our end.


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