Veteran war reporter Peter Arnett, Chief Correspondent for Camera Planet, and Special Correspondent for National Geographic Explorer‘s “Back to Baghdad” joins the MSNBC.com chat room live from the Al Rasheed hotel in Baghdad to talk about the mood in Iraq as the spectre of war with the United States looms once again. Arnett worked with National Geographic explorer on the ”Back to Baghdad” special airing on MSNBC on Sunday, December 8th at 8 p.m. ET and 11 p.m. ET.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Peter Arnett.
For all of the fancy technology involved in making this chat happen, actually getting in touch with you there in Baghdad was a little precarious. What is the state of technology, particularly communications technology there?
Peter Arnett: The Iraqis are allowing a considerable variety of communications equipment into the country. There are various categories of satellite phones they’re letting in, there are of course the video uplinks that you can satellite television images live, and basically it’s been a major change from 11 years ago from the first Gulf War when there was only one kind of satellite phone, the MR sat, it was a very big piece of equipment, and there was only one or two in town. In those days the hotel phone was very limited and the lines were staticy. Communicating before the Gulf War was extremely difficult. Today the phones at the hotel Al Rasheed work pretty well, there’s a press center at the information ministry that has communications equipment, you can fax, you can e-mail, you can phone. It’s just a different ballgame and it’s just much easier to communicate confidentially or discretely than it used to be.
Question from Lost Mike: Are Iraqi officials more media savvy now than they were then and what does that mean in terms of access, censorship and other media manipulations?
Peter Arnett: Iraq has always been off limits in many areas, more so than a western country, so it’s almost impossible to get access to military facilities. Interestingly enough, as these new series of UN inspections have begun, the media has been able to get into military localities after the inspectors have been in because the Iraqis have decreed that news people can go where the inspectors go. So you do get access now to some areas that were totally off limits a few years ago. But overall you have to negotiate with the Iraqis to get anywhere. They argue that the country is in a state of national security because they’ve been at war with the U.S. they say, since January 16, 1991 when the Gulf War started and they feel that they have every right to restrict journalists for security measures.
Having said that, we’ve been here 3-1/2 weeks with the National Geographic Explorer team and we’ve got access to many aspects of society. We’ve interviewed a major sports figure, we’ve been to his house, we’ve watched him play ball, we’ve interviewed a student and went to her home. We’ve been to visit Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister. We’ve been to the old front lines south of Bashra, we’ve seen lots of destroyed tanks which are still there from the first Gulf War. We’ve been to a major refinery in Baghdad, talked to the manager who expressed his fears about future bombings. We’ve been by a huge oil pumping area. So if you’re patient, you can really get access to a considerable amount of what journalists are interested in here. Really, patience is a virtue in Iraq.
Question from Dan Montgomery: Did the Iraqis appreciate the work you did when you were there during the Gulf War and did that make it easier for you to get access to the country this time around? Or did you have to go through the same press approval process everyone else did and if so, what was that process?
Peter Arnett: I have to go through the same press approval as anyone else. I have to apply for a visa wait for it to be approved. When I come in with my team I submit a list of places we’d like to visit and we patiently endeavor to get those approved.
What you have here really is a pecking order. It’s basically first come, first served. So we came in this time, you have NBC, CNN, CBS, a lot of other journalists, they want to go to Bashra, for example. They get to go before we do because it is a pecking order. They’re very fair, the Iraqis, because it’s a competitive media. And the media is quick to complain if some reporter gets a privileged opportunity.
The only area where I guess I have some better access is with the leadership. Usually when I come here I see Tariq Aziz because he knows me, I’ve interviewed him many times, so he will greet me and give me an interview. He’s only allowed an interview with Ted Koppel recently in addition to the one he gave me.
But beyond that I don’t get any more access than anyone else -I would like more, to tell you the honest truth.
Beyond that though, the Iraqi officials do remember that I was here during the Gulf War. They were satisfied with the reporting I did at time, and they’re friendly, but that doesn’t give an immediate or even long term benefits in coverage.
We have to scrap around for coverage with the rest of our colleagues and I don’t mind doing that by the way, I think that that’s what the game is all about.
Question from Natalie Vallaro: Are Iraqis confident that their cooperation with the UN will avert war? Are they at least a little scared?
Question from David: Mr. Arnett are the people of iraq aware of the situation thet are facing if iraq does not comply?
Peter Arnett: We’ve been here 3-1/2 weeks and I get the real impression now that the Iraqi people from senior officials to the man on the street really believe that war is coming. They’re basically resigned to it. Some are angry about it, students we meet are really angry. The intellectuals who support Saddam Hussein -many at the university who are of the Saddam Hussein generation who grew up with him in office. Business people we’ve talked to just hate the idea of their business being dislocated. Some in government service worry about what’s going to happen to their families.
Overall though, when you ask the question, “Do you think that war is coming?” They say yes.
The reason why is they listen to international broadcasts. The Voice of America has a powerful transmitting area here, you can hear it all over the country. They publicize America’s viewpoint.
This morning I heard President George Bush’s voice on a program in Bashra on Voice of America, and he was saying, “I know Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and if they don’t reveal them we’ll take action.” So the Iraqis know that’s the shorthand for war.
Before the first Gulf War, Iraqis believed America was an ally. While they knew their government had invaded Kuwait, they basically thought it would be a negotiated settlement and did not expected to be bombed.
I was here during the bombing, and many Iraqis were really shocked and upset that their ally America could do it.
There are no illusions anymore about America being an ally. There have been sanctions for a decade. America has bombed seriously twice since the Gulf War. Every day or so there are incidents of bombings, one just a few days ago where several people were killed. America is angry, is aggressive against Iraq from their viewpoint -no illusions about the United States. They figure that the U.S. is coming in this time for the kill. They’re unhappy about it, they get angry about it, but I think they’re resigned to it and they’re worried about the future.
Question from daisey: Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan complained Wednesday that the United Nations weapons inspectors are spies. There’s evidence he’s right. Painting a giant bull’s-eye on top of the roof is a strange way to mark a building as inspected.
Question from cookie: Peter Arnett? you mean the “spy”, oops I meant reporter.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Jokes aside, can you talk generally about the mix of paranoia and patriotism and journalistic duty that exists there and how reporters deal with it?
Peter Arnett: Well that is a very big question. I’m amused that during the Gulf War I had a lot of praise and brickbats. I remember one message that CNN received from a gentleman who was convinced that because my eyes were blinking a lot I was flashing messages to the CIA, and he was praising me for doing great work for the country because I was signaling to the CIA! Actually I was dead tired and I was scared and that’s why I was blinking a lot.
Other were convinced that I was simply being a propagandist for Saddam Hussein.
We have a unique period in modern history where technology is allowing the media to go places where the media wouldn’t even think of going in a previous era. The reporters who covered WWI and II wouldn’t want to be in an enemy capital because they couldn’t communicate home. In fact there were American reporters in Berlin and Tokyo, and German reporters in Washington and London, were all interned when the war started because they had nothing to do anyway, so their interns were eventually exchanged for their colleagues. No one even thought of writing anything. The best they could use was a carrier pigeon, and those couldn’t cover the distance.
So today with the technology, governments can have the media transmit information instantly and that’s what the Iraqis figured out in the Gulf War.
Saddam Hussein was the first leader to see the global village as an opportunity to get his viewpoint across in time of crisis, so he allowed CNN to stay and report what was going on to a worldwide audience. Never before in the history of communication has there been such a leap like Ted Turner had done to buy space on 8 satellites that covered all the earth and have a satellite uplinks from around the world give information to the satellites and broadcast it to every country in the world. It was the first time in human history there were live television images going everywhere. And I think every country in the world picked up those images and broadcast them.
The Iraqis knew there was this capability and they used it superbly by having CNN here and eventually others, presenting their view that the war was illegal, they had a right to be in Kuwait and the America was killing civilians. All attitudes that they claimed they could justify.
This kind of reporting naturally brought a backlash from the U.S. government that didn’t want a credible western media in an enemy capital because every war is messy and no government wants the mess to be seen at home.
So they didn’t want CNN or anyone else here. And many Americans and British felt it was unpatriotic to report the other side’s accusations of brutality and civil casualties and so forth. My viewpoint, and it was a view shared by Ted Turner, is that we go into wars knowing we’re going to hurt people. We go into these huge bombing campaigns pretty aware that there will be civilian fallout. We know that the enemy is going to know all about it. We know that the Iraqis are going to know who’s being killed and what’s being bombed. Why can’t the American public or the world public know what the Iraqis know?
Information about civilian causalities is politically embarrassing to a country waging war like the United States. But it is not security information that should be concealed, it’s embarrassing information.
You bomb a baby milk plant or a civilian air raid shelter and you kill a lot of people, it’s embarrassing. But it’s the kind of information that is security and shouldn’t be released. It doesn’t affect American lives, it’s affected Iraqi lives. So that is basically the issue.
Was the reporting from Iraq hurting the war effort? Myself and other journalists didn’t feel that it was, that a country with a democratic tradition like the United States should be able to handle negative information from the war theater.
You had the same thing in Afghanistan where the reports of U.S. accidental bombings on villages and convoys have been criticized by those in the States who say it’s not true. The Pentagon hasn’t really faced up to much at all in Afghanistan. The point is that these things have been going on and we think that the world should know about it.
If you bomb a village and kill a hundred people, why conceal it? Can’t we live with that kind of information? It’s important we have that on record so that those who are doing the bombing become aware of what’s going on and show more care in the future.
I’m not saying these bombings are deliberate at all. I don’t think for a moment that American planes deliberately bomb civilians whether it’s the Iraqi theater or Afghanistan. But if there’s a situation when bombing is going astray, that we tell the bombers about it so that they can improve their aim in the future.
Question from TJS: If we do go to war, we the reporters leave? Seems pretty unsafe to be sticking around. What would stop Sadaam from taking YOU Guys hostage considering there are several American reporters aorund.
Question from yippydoda: Do you ever fear that, if pandemonium breaks out, you will be targeted and killed?
Peter Arnett: My personal view is that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government will not take any reporters hostage. Reporters have been coming here for the whole duration of Saddam Hussein’s presidency. One reporter was accused in 1989 of spying and was executed. It was a lamentable case. It was protested by the international community. It was lamentable and I deplore it. But that was the only case where reporters have been mishandled. I haven’t had any case since the Gulf War of any reporters being ill treated or otherwise held for questioning or abused.
Quite a few reporters have been expelled, I was at one point. But I do not think that after a decade of inviting reporters in and of us getting to know the officials that deal with us in the information ministry that they’re going to hold anyone hostage. That is very unlikely and those who say it, I think are stupid.
In fact, I heard it said on CNN tonight, I won’t tell you who said it. I don’t believe it. I don’t think we’re going to be held hostage.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Are you more or less afraid now since you’ve been through a war there once before?
Peter Arnett: I’ve been covering wars for 40 years, I’ve covered 19 wars. So I don’t look at staying or going as a matter of being afraid. I evaluate it only in terms of how effective can you get a story. Are you working for a news organization that can reach enough people to make it worth the risk staying? So I certainly wouldn’t stay as a tourist here. But I spent my career first with the AP and then with CNN and both of those organizations I thought, had enough access to the international community to make life risking stories worthwhile to cover. Because you were reaching a lot of people and what you were reporting was of real significance.
So I never look at it in terms of what is dangerous or not dangerous. I don’t evaluate the situation in that way.
As to the earlier question of am I frightened in a civil war of being overrun and killed? Sure. We have to be aware of dangers everywhere. I think reporters who decide to stay, if the Iraqis let them stay, have to be prepared to understand this is a life threatening environment. The bombing and then the war that might follow and then the civil unrest… But it’s not as though this is the first war that’s ever introduced those dangerous factors. Since modern journalism was invented in the middle of the 19th century, every war has been covered by journalists. Many journalists have died, but most have lived. There is a hallowed list of journalists who have given their lives to cover stories that reaches right up to the present day in Afghanistan -ten or a dozen covering the story. In Somalia there were journalists brutally beaten to death.
The story is the thing. We feel that it’s important to cover the story. The world should know about these turning points in history -and this will certainly be a turning point in history if the U.S. does come in.
Maybe it’s a little bit like firemen going into a building. A fireman going into a building risks his life, but he knows if he doesn’t put that building out, the whole city may burn. So in a sense, journalists cover wars because they feel the more information they get out about the war, it may be important in, if not historical analysis of the war, it may be important to the eddies and flows of the conflict as it moves on. Maybe what the journalists writes may have some significant effect on the outcome of that conflict.
Question from Janice: We in the U.S. are horrified to hear stories of Saddam hiding his military assets among civilians, but I have read that Saddam has made Iraqi citizens part of the military by arming them. Are they really ready and willing to die for Saddam? People I talk to have a very cocky attitude about Iraqi forces surrendering to CNN cameras again, but as they say, Pride Goeth Before the Fall so I am concerned that the US is not taking the Iraqi people seriously.
Peter Arnett: I love it. I love people who think that war should be fought out in the open and there’s a chivalry about war and how we do it. The U.S. uses B52’s that bomb from 60,000 feet, ok? They’re pretty hard to hit from the ground. So the fact that Saddam puts his tanks among the population, what’s the difference? The U.S. uses cruise missiles that are fired from warships 500 miles away, so you can’t fire back at them. So to suggest that somehow there are rules in war and you shouldn’t fight wars near civilians, c’mon! Baghdad was hit with all kinds of bombs, a civilian air raid shelter killed 380 people, civilians died. If you’re going to have rules let both sides observe them. If Saddam happens to want to fight in the cities, this is a standard aspect of warfare.
Wars are fought in cities. WWII was fought in cities. The war in Somalia, for what it was, was fought in a city. So wars are fought in cities. So no one should be surprised that if Saddam Hussein if faced with an invasion force bigger than what he has, faced with weaponry far beyond the power that anyone has ever seen before, that he’s going to do what he can. He’ll bring his troops into the city maybe and fight that way. But I don’t think that we should be shocked that that goes on.
It is hard to tell whether the Iraqis will be willing to fight. Hitler’s army swept through Europe at the beginning of WWII and every country let them in. France, Holland, everyone. Yet they set themselves up with huge armies and then they didn’t fight, so hell, I don’t know. If the French were unwilling to fight against Hitler… if the Dutch were unwilling to fight against the Germans, who the hell knows??
I don’t know if the Iraqis will fight. I’ll tell you think the average Iraqi parent who is not in the military will try to go with his family to somewhere safe. To suggest that the average Iraqi will go out and throw stones at tanks probably won’t happen. What they’re saying here is that basically there may be a core force of 100,000 Iraqi soldiers dedicated enough to show some resistance. And enough supporters of Saddam who during the initial assault phase, maybe would fight a rearguard action and attack American soldiers at street corners, sort of like what’s happening to the Russians in Chechnya. Would they attack in that way?
Would the U.S. be able to take over all the country, stifle all dissent in the course of a month or two so that every Iraqi is an obedient citizen?
There are millions of guns in this country in people’s backyards. I don’t know if they’d use them or not, but you’ve got to remember one thing: This is an Islamic country and they’re going to be looking at a non-Arab speaking, Christian army coming in to take over their cities in the U.S. attack. They’re going to take over their buildings. I just wonder how long 26 million Islamic followers are going to put up with 200,000 Christian soldiers running their country.
This is something the administration has to consider I suppose. Even though this is a secular country, women are covered, families are very tight. I don’t know if they’ll take too kindly to what is ahead. I don’t know what the U.S. administration is going to do about handling what is going to be a tender situation once the fighting is over.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for chatting with us Mr. Arnett. Before we have to let you go, can you talk to us a bit about the National Geographic Explorer special airing this Sunday on MSNBC?
Peter Arnett: What we’re trying to do in this special, it’s the first of two specials, is try to look at Iraq and to what degree is Iraq built back from the Gulf War that I saw a decade ago?
I watched the destruction of Baghdad, bridges, oil refineries, not only in Baghdad, but throughout the country. Then in the course of visits I’ve watched it come back. So the country built out of abject poverty in the early 90’s to what is seeming prosperity today. It’s not real prosperity but there seems to be optimism among the population. So I try to tap into the reasons for that optimism in this story, to sort of de-personalize Iraq away from Saddam Hussein and really look at a country to 26 million people not unlike anyone else in the world who are trying to get on with their lives.
One aspect of that special is how does Saddam Hussein really do it? Does he rule just by terror and political manipulation or is it something else? And what we say in the special is that no one in Iraq goes hungry because in the oil for food program and by the determination of the Iraqi government agrees that every Iraqi is given enough food to eat.
We look at the university system where all education is free up to the university level. We look at the medical system where all medicine is sort of free. We talk to Iraqi students and others and they try to explain how they fit into Iraqi life today and how they feel their country is special.
That’s basically it. A look at the enemy if you like. A personalized look at what we’re really up against here in terms of people. How do they feel about Iraq? How do they feel about Americans? Things like that.
It’s sort of through my eyes as a reporter here through interviews with me and my interviews with people.
There’s a second one coming up in another month which is more about the cutting edge of the war and how do people feel they’re going to survive the war and live afterwards. But right now the one we’re seeing Sunday is where they are today.
Question from Jasmine: Is Saddam in Iraq?
Peter Arnett: He’s always in Iraq. He’s never out of Iraq. Either that or he’ll be on Larry King live out of Paris. Just kidding.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much, we look forward to see the special this weekend.
Peter Arnett: Nice chatting!