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Richard Leiby
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War In Iraq:
In the Field

With Richard Leiby and Travis Fox
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Videographer

Friday, March 28, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Washington Post Style reporter Richard Leiby and washingtonpost.com videographer Travis Fox were online live from Kuwait Friday, March 28 at 11 a.m. ET, to share their observations and field questions and comments as the war unfolds.

Travis Fox
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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.

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing. We are here in northern Kuwait, at a farm about 10 miles from the Iraqi border. Night has just fallen after a beautiful day here in the desert. Let's get to some questions.... ---Travis.

washingtonpost.com: Richard, Travis, you've both been in and out of Iraq over the past few days. We've heard reports of limited amounts of humanitarian supplies arriving, but what is the scene there and the mood among Iraqi civilians?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: This is Richard. On the crucial hearts-minds-and-stomachs front, the coalition is making progress slowly. Another Kuwaiti Red Crescent food convoy reached Southern Iraq today, and the Brits finally docked the HMS Gallahad, loaded with humanitarian supplies. The Iraqis appear happy to have the food but some remain worried about interacting with Americans for fear of being hunted down by Baathist Party militia.

Washington, D.C.: You're both "unilaterals" -- you're not embedded as several other journalists are with coalition forces. Now that we're a week into this war, are you happy with being unilaterals or do you wish you'd been embedded?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: I'm quite happy about being unilateral. I've managed to do a variety of stories and I like the flexibility of being unilateral. Embedded reporters are able to be closer to the front lines, but I'm content on being a bit farther back looking at the effects of the war, rather than the war itself. ---Travis

Hollywood, Fla.: Do you believe American media is showing only positive images of war? Do you have access to Arab media? What's the difference?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: Good question. I do have access to Arab media, as well as the BBC and European networks. The coverage by Al-Jazeera is cleared oriented toward its audience, while the BBC strikes me as fair but quite eager to present the "other side." I tune to the BBC, personally. I don't see much American media (except the Post) so I can't comment there. But frankly the embedded media are by no means going to ignore a "negative" story if it breaks -- news is news. The coverage of the grenade attack (fratricide) at the 101 Airborne showed that. -- Richard

Rockville, Md.: Why haven't there been more scenes and descriptions of "happy Iraqis?" Could it be they hate the west more than they hate Saddam? Could counting on "uprisings" be a costly miscalculation?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: I've been to the Iraqi towns of Safwan and Umm Qasr and the people there are far from happy; they don't feel as if they've been "liberated." It might be a bit premature to read too much into these two border towns. There have been reports/rumors that Baath Party members still hold sway there. Yesterday a man did tell me quietly that he's happy that "the Americans have arrived." I think we still need time and probably Basra to fall before we can say how Iraqis feel about all this. ----Travis

Chicago, Ill.: Do you thing the U.S. is doing a good job in getting information to the iraqi citizen? Or the rest of the Middle East? It appears from here that the story isn't getting through.

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: One crucial piece of this war isn't being mentioned much yet, and that is the role of the "soldier-helpers" who have deployed here. They are Marines and Army troops from the Special Operations Civil Affairs commands, here to help "secure the peace" by helping aid get through and working to bring infrastructure support. The vast majority are reservists with high ranks. I met with several of the today. They're doctors, lawyers, managers, teachers, language experts and technical specialists who will apply their skills to rebuilding Iraq and its civil society. They've got good intentions and we hope to cover this component in the future. When Iraqis get to work with Americans on the ground, more hearts and minds will be won. Right now that message doesn't seem to be getting through, though.

Lee's Summit, Mo.: The impression is that Umm Qasr and Safwan are reasonably secured at this time, but is there an underlying fear of snipers or other guerrilla action?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: This is Richard again -- I just answered the previous question, too, but failed to mention it was me.
I haven't been in Umm Qasr since Tuesday, when things seemed entirely settled. (Aside: Umm Qasr means "Mother of a Palace," according to my Arab friends, but the place is just a dusty border town of brick hovels.) As for Safwan, a food convoy was canceled yesterday because of worries about snipers, but I can't confirm whether any shots were fired or whether the Red Crescent was just acting with great caution before taking busloads of reporters into Safwan. Hundreds of reporters went into Safwan today, under British military escort -- and that would indicate the town is secure. The last thing the military wants the world to see is some knucklehead guerilla hitting a bus load of reporters with his RPG.

Sterling, Va.: Since you are unilaterals and move about on your own without troops do you feel that you are taking risks when you go into Iraq knowing there are stilling opposing forces moving in the area?

Are the troops that you do meet in Kuwait or Iraq -- is their morale still fairly high or are the effects of a week of fighting starting to take a toll?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: We are taking risks by going into Iraq, but there are ways to minimize the risks. I don't like to stray too far from the main roads, where there is usually military presence. Common sense things such as traveling in groups and only during daylight we also follow. Many trips into Iraq are organized press events in which we are escorted by military at all times.

In terms of morale, there doesn't seem to be any change. Soldiers I've spoken with are surprised that things are moving as quickly as expected, but I can't say it has effect their morale. I haven't spoken with any troops deep inside Iraq, just on the border and in Kuwait. --Travis

The greatest fear of a sergeant I chatted with today was clear: that Saddam will deploy chemical weapons. He's an elementary school principal in a Civil Affairs unit at Camp Commando -- which is behind the lines in northern Kuwait. But really it's still on the front because Iraqi missiles have reached Kuwait. -- Richard.

Washington, D.C.: Are we sufficiently appreciative of the wonderful ally that Kuwait is, and how will this affect Kuwait's relations with its neighbors longterm? Do you think they all give Kuwait special leeway in its relations with the West following the earlier Gulf War?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: This is Richard. Allow me to convey the impressions of a one Arab journalist I have come to know well. He senses that some Kuwaitis -- no doubt a small group -- are grudgingly starting to see Saddam as someone who has the guts to stand up to the Americans. They may hate him, but as he put it, "We have no heros in the Arab world." The vast majority of Kuwaitis strongly support the American presence here but still there are worries about the impact throughout the Middle East, where wars tend to breed fundamentalism and fanaticism. The journalist cited these examples:
The 1967 war led to the rise of Fatah militancy. The 1982 war led to the rise of Hezbollah. The 1991 Gulf War gave us Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. What will this war bring?

Lee's Summit, Mo.: Travis - What have you done as far as your meals go? Do you eat the rations with the military, or is there a McDonald's around the corner? Do they have cranberries there?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: No cranberries or McDonalds in northern Kuwait. There is however one quickie-mart-type store will supplies up with such things as canned beens, tuna fish and pita bread. Yesterday while in Iraq, we were able to share a military MRE--it wasn't bad! Today was a bit different as the owner of the farm we are staying up is up for the weekend and treated us to a fantastic lunch of grilled beef and salad. ---Travis.

Worcester, Mass.: Clearly this is not going to go as quickly as some thought. Based on your interviews, do you have any sense of how long this will take?

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: This is Richard. I was an optimist going into this war, having met many Iraqi exiles in the States who predicted a cakewalk. As you point out, their impression was wrong. Some here say the strong nationalist streak in Iraqis sparked the people's resolve and resistance. I'm not getting any good access to Iraqis, so I can't really say. Nor can anyone at this point predict how long this will last. Put it another way: I was supposed to fly home today, one month after arriving in Kuwait. I just renewed my visa for six months. That doesn't mean I'll stay that long, but it's anybody's guess.

Richard Leiby and Travis Fox: Well that about wraps it up. Thanks for all your questions, sorry we couldn't get to them all. We'll be back online soon. -- Travis.
Richard: There's an Arabic expression that goes: "Tomorrow we'll have apricots." I hope so. The food at Camp Travis doesn't suit me. Think I'll head back to Camp Hilton. Thanks for your excellent chat material!

© 2003 The Washington Post Company