Basking in the sun by the Al Hamra Hotel swimming pool, a Spanish journalist complained to me that “all my editors want is blood, blood, blood. No context. No politics.”
Such editors are cruising to be scooped by such local Iraqi blogs as Iraq the Model, which last summer debunked a Los Angeles Times story on the departure of Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer. The Times told its readers that Bremer had fled abruptly, “afraid to look in the eye the people he had ruled for more than a year.” In fact, as Iraq the Model reported, Mr. Bremer before leaving delivered a television address that gave a moving account of his tenure and his hopes for the new all-Iraqi interim government.
The bloggers had heard it, the L.A. Times reporter had not. The paper ultimately had to correct its account, though never acknowledging the indignant Iraqis who caught its snide oversight.
Meet one of those bloggers, Ali Fadhil, a key author of Iraq the Model, perhaps the best known of the blogs, with 7,000 individual visitors a day. Thirty-four years old, a Sunni, Fadhil is a cheerful Baghdad doctor who contributes news and commentary.
Medical students in Iraq use English in their classrooms, so doctors are overrepresented among English-language bloggers, as they are among translators. All of the main contributors to Iraq the Model are young physicians who see a cross-section of Iraqi patients daily and have witnessed, Ali says, a steep improvement in medical services since Saddam was overthrown.
The state no longer is siphoning Oil for Food revenue into presidential palaces and Baath Party coffers. Still resentful toward the United Nations, Ali impugns all attempts to turn Iraq’s election or anything else over to the international body that John Kerry, among others, would like to elevate.
With the summer heat fading, it is refreshing to sit on a veranda of the Al Hamra Hotel in the early evening with Ali and get his views on Iraq’s war. Unlike the Westerner, who is advised not to leave the hotel without a Kevlar protective vest and a pair of bodyguards ($2,000 to $4,000 a day), Ali feels safe going about Baghdad on his own.
“Maybe in a real sense, I am less safe than I was under Saddam. But then I never felt safe. We were always in fear of some bad surprise from the authorities. Now, the threat is different, but it is random (he is thinking of the car bombs). Personally I also feel safer because I am free.”
He is also better off, making about $200 a month instead of the $3 a month doctors earned under the Baathists. Ali is appalled by the terrorists, but not surprised. “We are at war and the enemy is fighting back, so why be surprised about that?” he asks. “Iran, some in Saudi Arabia, all the Islamist groups, and the former Baathists, of course, naturally are funding the fighting. They want to terrorize us before the elections, so things are going to get worse before then. But when terrorists see that the people demand democracy, they will feel they have lost. Many will leave.”
Ali is more worried about the Americans, given John Kerry’s talk of setting an announced timetable for the removal of U.S. troops, and he is dismayed by U.S. commentators and career bureaucrats who say that democracy in Iraq is impossible. “What they really are saying is that we are barbarians. There is some racism in that. They despise Islam and think it cannot reform itself or lead to reform. They think we are so ignorant we need a dictator.”
But “look at what happened in Najaf when the US chased out al Sadr. The media said the people were angry, but they were only angry with al Sadr. They demonstrated against al Sadr and for the [interim] government. There was very little news on that.”
Despite the high tempo of terrorist bombings, Ali sees public satisfaction over the growing role of the Iraqi police and national guard, and he thinks it was right in 2003 to disband the old Iraqi army. Even now there is concern about infiltration by old Baathist elements who, for example, alert terrorists when recruits are lined up outside police stations and thereby vulnerable to attack. Ali also believes that some former Baathists work as interpreters for U.S. media and help to color their stories.
Ali wants to answer those who, like Warren Rodgers on CNN, refer to terrorists merely as “fighters” or “militants.” “That helps the terrorists,” he says.
One of the failures of the coalition after the direct warfare, Ali says, was not setting up a suitable replacement for Saddam’s state television right away. He admits that more Iraqis watch Al-Jazeera than any other TV channel, but he cites as reasons the technological edge and stylistic professionalism of the channel, plus its suspicious access to terrorists. He points hopefully to a new television channel, Al Fayha’a, which comes from the United Arab Emirates. The US-sponsored Al Hurra is “good, but not as attractively presented as Al Jazeera.”
Other bloggers in Iraq include American soldiers like Sgt. Chris Missick, at A Line in the Sand, who regularly assail the Western media’s numbing lack of interest in the anything other than terrorist sabotage. In contrast, there is Christopher Allbritton’s backbiting Back to Iraq. Mr. Allbritton is a Time magazine correspondent who on the side operates the blog. Recently he unsuccessfully sought help in finding a quotation in which President Bush said God told him to attack Iraq.
The Iraqis, though, are more original and interesting. “Riverbend” is a fan of Michael Moore and completely accepts the theories of Fahrenheit 9/11 that have circulated in DVD form in the Middle East. A Family in Baghdad is critical of practically everybody, but its main female contributor nonetheless reports that her attempts to organize a women’s group was informed greatly by a seminar produced by the National Democratic Institute, an American foundation loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party.
The International Republican Institute also is working in Iraq to promote democracy. It moves its training seminars from place to place each day to avoid terrorist detection. Like the NDI, this Republican-linked organization gets U.S. government funding. It not only has helped spur the successful local elections that have taken place in Iraq in the past year, and the creation of affinity groups for political action, but it also has helped Iraqis set up three new public opinion polling organizations with professional standards.
According to Ron St. John of the IRI, the survey organizations are able to send Iraqis out to poll where westerners are not safe and to devise questions that delve beneath the often-conflicted feelings about the Americans and the interim government. Among the findings is confirmation of the major points bloggers have been making: that most Iraqis still smart from the memory of the Baath Party and therefore are wary of anything that calls itself a “party,” and that the interest-based parties represented in the interim government, though they are well funded and relatively well-organized, appeal to only about 15% of potential voters.
The polls suggest that the bloggers are right again when they report that numerous new nonsectarian parties are being organized and may prosper the way new newspapers did a year ago, and then begin a process of mergers and regional alliances. It all is happening with rapidity unusual in any society. Iraq may be terror-ridden, but it also has a relatively well-educated population, extensive mass communications–and the Internet–to abet the process of political organizing.
Most important, polling confirms the bloggers’ contention that 90% of Iraqis want to vote next January and will oppose any delays. Seventy percent say they will vote even if there is violence. The experience of Afghanistan only confirms their determination.
A reporter for NBC in Baghdad tells me he is not interested in the work of the two party foundations. He suspects that “they are sowing seed in ground that is already salted.” He smiles and then allows, “But maybe I am too cynical.”
Maybe he is. And maybe he and the rest of the major media are missing a lot of significant stories.
Bruce Chapman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, is president of Discovery Institute.