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Confronting Iraq Special Report
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Confronting Iraq:
Live From Baghdad

With Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, Feb. 24, 2003; Noon ET

What is the mood in Baghdad as an expected U.S.-led invasion of Iraq draws ever closer? How are the Iraqi people preparing for war and how is the Iraqi government reacting?

Washington Post Foreign Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran was live from Baghdad's Al Rashid Hotel on Monday, Feb. 24 at Noon ET, to field questions and comments about the scene on the ground in Iraq.

The 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.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Greetings from Baghdad, where it's 8 p.m. It's a pleasure to participate in this live online discussion. I'm sitting in an Internet cafe at the Al-Rasheed Hotel. Over the next hour, I'll do my best to answer your questions about Iraq based on the more than 12 weeks I've spent here since September. Rajiv.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the mood of the Iraqi people, as you have seen? We are receiving conflicting predictions that Iraqis will greet American soldiers waving American flags to reports that civilians are taking arms and are preparing to fight American soldiers. Perhaps a bit of both could happen. What is the dominant feeling towards the United States amongst the Iraqi people?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question--and I have to say it's one of the toughest questions to answer. I've spent weeks trying to understand just how the Iraqi people would react to a possible U.S. invasion. Given that it is very difficult to speak to people without government officials present--and even if I could, people here often are too scared to speak openly--it's almost impossible to feel like you can get candid responses. That said, one Iraqi told me the other day, in a private, whispered comment, that Baghdad would respond in a "half and half" way--that is to say, half the population might welcome U.S. troops while another half might choose to mount some sort of opposition. I know U.S. officials believe American troops will counter only minimal resistance here. That may well be the case. But I tend to think there will be pockets of opposition. How strong those they are is impossible to tell now. But U.S. officials also should not expect lots of people to be lining the streets, waving American flags. Most people probably will be hiding indoors, afraid to express their feelings too openly until they are certain of the new political dynamics.

Kennesaw, Ga.: Published reports here suggest Saddam Hussein plans to withdraw his most reliable troops together with chemical and biological weapons into metropolitan Baghdad when war begins. Use of such weapons in an urban environment would of course be hazardous to allied troops, but these have some ability to protect themselves. Iraqi civilians don't. Is there any concern in Baghdad about the proximity of Saddam's WMD arsenal and the threat it would pose to civilians if war starts?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Since civilians have been told repeatedly by their government that Iraq no longer has any weapons of mass destruction, there's not palpable fear on the streets that biological and chemical weapons the U.S. alleges that Saddam Hussein's still has might be used against civilians. (There's a different level of concern among the journalist crowd here.) There have been published reports that Iraqi has distributed chemical suits to some units of elite troops, but the government insists that was done purely for defensive purposes--to guard themselves against what they say could be an American chemical attack. Most civilians here don't have any WMD protection.

Cairo, Egypt: The rationing system has made Saddam a hero to his citizens, who suffer from the effects of the sanctions. What do they believe will happen to them if and when Saddam is ousted?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's a big concern for people here. Almost every Iraqi receives monthly food rations from the government--and most people are dependent on them to survive. The government says it has distributed several months of advance rations so people will still have enough to eat during a war. But the big concern would occur after the fighting stops. If there is a new government, it could take months, in a best-case scenario, for the U.N. and international aid agencies to set up a food distribution system that would reach all 26 million Iraqis.

Alexandria, Va.: Rajiv - With the Iraqi population's justifiable concerns about openly discussing the present situation with you and other reporters and my guess that the Iraqi government is providing journalists with very little beyond doctrine and propaganda, how much real reportage are you able to undertake?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: This is a big concern for journalists here. All foreign journalists here are assigned government "minders" to accompany them when they are out reporting. It's very difficult to talk to ordinary Iraqis without one's minder present. (Doing so can result in expulsion from the country.) Because government officials are present, people clearly hold back on what they might otherwise say. It's a big frustration. When I write stories that include lots of man-on-the-street comments, I try to remind readers that those statements were made in the presence of a government official.

In addition to being accompanied by minders, requests to travel around the country or interview anyone in an official capacity must be approved by the Information Ministry.

Arlington, Va.: So, is there a "minder" with you now? Do you usually travel with one? I apologize if I have a very distorted view of the country and the tight leash they keep foreign reporters on.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: No minder next to me right now. I'm in the hotel and they don't stick next to us here. But if I was chatting from an Internet center elsewhere in Baghdad--there are several around town--I probably would have to have them with me.

Speaking of the Internet, there is access here--and it's probably the cheapest surfing the in the world: 2,000 dinars for an hour. That's just $1!! Most news sites are accessible but Hotmail and Yahoo mail are blocked. All email must go through government-operated servers.

Baton Rouge, La.: What kind of access do ordinary Iraqis have to outside news sources (Shortwave, Internet, satellite TV, etc.)?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Although the state-run newspapers and television provide only sanitized news, many Iraqis have shortwave radios that they use to tune into the BBC, the Voice of America and Radio Monte Carlo, a French-run Arabic-language news service. People living in big cities with computer proficiency also can visit Internet centers and read online versions of foreign newspapers. The Al-Jazeera Web site is very popular here.

Cumberland, Md.: Are you being observed by Iraqi minders? Do you feel that you are in any way being censored or feel obliged to "be careful" what you write as replies?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The Information Ministry here is very computer saavy. They tend to read the Post's coverage every day--and they don't hesitate to make their disagreements known to me. I'm sure they also read transcripts of Web chats.

Waukesha, Wis.: Have you seen and interviewed any of the western war protesters that have traveled to Iraq to become "protectors." How many of them are there and how are they being deployed?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Funny you should ask about that. I just was talking to two Americans here who intend to be human shields. (I'm writing a story about the human shields that should be in the Post sometime over the next few days.) Since you're from Wisconsin, I should mention that one of the Americans I talked to hails from Milwaukee. He's a 26 year old English teacher who said he grew so frustrated watching Bush administration officials on CNN that he hopped a plane to Italy and joined a convoy of shields. He's among about 200 human shields here right now, although organizers say more are on the way. The first group deployed to a power station on Sunday. Others plans to fan out to hospitals, water-treatment plants and food-storage facilities later this week.

Phoenix, Ariz.: Do you think Iraqi people and government are depending on France, Belgium, Germany, and their friends in the non-aligned movement to extricate them from their predicament? That is, are they hoping these countries will be able to restrain the United States and Britain?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: They certainly are. I think, however, there is a growing realization on the part of the leadership here that even opposition from France, Germany, Russia, etc. won't change Bush's mind. But I think they want to create as much opposition as possible in an effort to increase the political costs to the United States should it decide to invade.

Baton Rouge, La.: A followup question to your comments about internet access. I see that there are some comments in this chat from Cairo. How surprised would you be if, say, a mildly anti-government comment came down the wire from somebody sitting in one of those internet cafes in Baghdad? Would that be a very dangerous thing for an Iraqi to do? (As an aside, do very many Iraqis speak English?)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Your aside first: A surprisingly large number of educated people in Baghdad do speak English. Before the Iraq-Iran war and before the economic sanctions that were imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was a very prosperous country. Lots of middle-class people could afford to travel to Europe for vacations--and many of them were able to send their children there for college. As a consequence, it's not uncommon to run into people who have carry on quite an animated conversation in English.

Now, onto Internet access. I actually would be a little surprised to see a rabid anti-government comment from someone in Baghdad. The Internet connections here are controlled by the government and many here believe it has software that can track what sites people visit. The Internet centers outside large hotels also ask customers to provide their identity cards when they sign in.

Lady Lake, Fla.: Given the resistance to U.S./British desire to move quickly to military action that their governments have shown to this point, how is the treatment of French, German and Russian journalists and nationals different from what you and other American journalists experience on a daily basis?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: At this point, they have not been treating journalists differently based on the countries they are from. I think the Information Ministry still believes it is important for U.S. officials and ordinary Americans to receive news reports from Iraq. They feel that on-the-ground coverage from here, as well as stories that report what government officials say, have been instrumental in building opposition to a war.

Portsmouth, N.H.: Do you see a lot of military preparations in Baghdad at this time? Does it look like the military is actively gearing up for an invasion or is it business a usual?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: There are no visible military preparations on the streets of Baghdad right now. No tanks or anti-aircraft guns can been seen--but as we know from the past, there are lots of hidden air defenses in and around the city. There are reports that significant additional defenses are being stationed around the city.

As for ordinary people, there is still a sense of business as usual here. Most people still go about their daily routine. I was in a market today and there was no sign of panic buying. One reason may be, however, that people lack the money to buy lots of extra food.

Portland, Ore.: If, indeed, Saddam Hussein is prepared to use biological and chemical weapons against U.S. troops, then it seems like there would be some kind of pre-positioning going on to prepare for their deployment near the border or in other key areas. Are inspectors and the U-2 flights on the look out for these types of deployments, and how likely is it that they might be detected?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The U.N. has not commented on what the U-2s have been looking for or what they might have found. (So far there have been three U-2 missions, totaling 17 flight hours.) But I think it's safe to assume they looking for any evidence that alleged chemical and biological weapons are being deployed. It's also likely that fights are looking for any Al-Samoud 2 missiles that inspectors might have missed on their ground inspections. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has ordered Iraq to destroy all of its Al-Samoud 2s by Saturday.

Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Rajiv-
Just a logistics question or two. Where do the foreign journalists eat, stay, play in Baghdad? Are services readily available? Do you cook for yourself ever? Do you have a minder or "fixer" you travel with all the time?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Don't tell my bosses but life here isn't all that bad. The Al-Rasheed, where most hacks stay, is a fairly comfortable place, save for the food. (Running joke here: We've found the biological weapons lab in Iraq. It's in the kitchen of the Al-Rasheed.) But there are plenty of good restaurants here. And some of the television crews have brought small burners that they use for a little home cooking. ABC News, for instance, cooks up some excellent pasta and curries.

Lyme, Conn.: I am concerned for your safety. If I may ask, how safe do you feel?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: For now, I feel plenty safe. In fact, Baghdad is probably one of the world's safer cities in terms of street crime directed against foreigners. But if a war starts, all bets are off. There are concerns about getting hit by bombs, exposure to possible weapons of mass destruction and getting caught in score settling that might occur if the government falls. Foreign journos here are trying to take steps to prepare for these eventualities.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks so much for participating. Sorry I couldn't answer all the questions you posed. My typing fingers are a bit tired and the Internet connection was slow tonight. But I hope to do one of these again soon.

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