Inside Story

In the red zone

Australian journalist Martin Chulov tells Peter Clarke about the challenges of reporting from Iraq and the preparations for January’s election

Peter Clarke 9 November 2009 6886 words

Schoolgirls cross a street after heavy rainfall, in the Fadl neighborhood of Baghdad, late last month. Hadi Mizban/AP Photo

WHILE Afghanistan has been centre stage, with its deeply flawed presidential election and the vexed debate about sending in more US troops, Iraq has lost its status as an almost daily source of major news stories, despite elections due in January and the recent bomb attacks on government buildings. But this complex and riven country remains a crucial part of the Middle East’s seemingly unsolvable jigsaw puzzle.

Journalism is fundamentally challenging in Iraq. Personal safety is an obvious issue, and verifying the accuracy of information and providing authentic, informed analysis of events and personalities stretches even the most experienced and assiduous journalists. Martin Chulov is an Australian who has spent the last four years in some of the Middle East’s hottest trouble spots. Now, from his station in Baghdad as a correspondent for the Guardian, he updates on the latest developments in Iraq and reflects on how different his current life is from being a reporter in Sydney, London or New York.

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Because the sound quality from Baghdad was variable, we have added an edited transcript of this interview, below. After the interview was recorded the Iraqi legislature agreed on a formula to include the city of Kirkuk in the January 2010 national election, which is now likely to take place on 21 January.


: Another horrific bombing in Baghdad, killing and injuring many and destroying more government buildings, has propelled Iraq back into the news headlines briefly. But compared to the daily diet of Iraqi news in years past, this still deeply troubled country has largely fallen off the news radar. National elections are scheduled for January, if the Iraqi parliament can finally reach agreement on the legislation that would underpin electoral legitimacy. And, of course, the withdrawal of US troops to their bases has made a significant difference to the political, social and security climate there. But what are the current trends for an improved future in Iraq, despite the complex web of tribal, ethnic and sectarian loyalties and conflicts? Martin Chulov is an Australian journalist who has become something of a veteran in covering and analysing Middle East events and politics over the last four years or so. He is now on duty in Baghdad as a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. Martin, welcome to Inside Story.

Martin Chulov: Hello Peter.

PC: Since Barack Obama took over as president of the United States, there’s been a really big shift in terms of the news coverage of Iraq specifically – clearly, Afghanistan is centre stage at the moment. Can we just step back and put on the wide lens for a moment to give us some context for this conversation. Looking back over those twelve months, what has been the shift in dynamics in Iraq itself?

MC: Well, I think since June 30, in particular, the Americans have withdrawn to their bases… and that means that we’re not seeing them on Iraq’s streets at all, unless they’re being escorted around by Iraqis themselves. So we don’t have the pervasive presence of the Americans on the city streets here. But looking beyond that, their role and their relevance has gradually diminished in the last six months in particular. They are now looking at an exit strategy: they’re winding back the 120,000 troops that they do have here; their diplomatic efforts have also scaled back. They are consolidating, and not as robust or proactive as they were during the previous administration… We are seeing a lot of micro works still being done in the provinces – reconstructions, a lot of water projects and small sewerage or public service projects – but we don’t see the Americans playing a heavy hand in this society as we did, throughout the last six years. So we do have the Iraqis taking control of the levers of power here, to the best of their means at the moment, [and] they still do play a pretty strong consultative role with the Americans. But Iraq seems to be theirs for all intents and purposes at the moment…

PC: Martin, that’s an enormous move really, when we think about it – the withdrawal of the United States troops from the cities themselves back to the bases? As that happened around about three or four months ago, what was the immediate change in atmosphere? A lot of people discussed whether the Iraqis would be able to maintain the security – and we’ll talk about the bombings in just a moment – but what was that immediate shift in the general security atmosphere and the atmosphere generally in Baghdad and beyond?

MC: There was a sense that the Iraqis had reclaimed what was theirs and that they were now masters of their own destiny. So there was a general euphoria at the time, both on the street level and also within the administrative level. The cabinet or the ministers, most of the bureaucrats, were quite happy to talk about how Iraq had regained sovereignty after so many years of not just an American occupation but also thirty years of brutal dictatorship under Saddam, in which there was no respect for the rule of law whatsoever… It was all top down and people didn’t have the right to assert themselves as Iraqi citizens. So we got to the end of that point, ostensibly, in the middle of 2009 and there was a pretty significant euphoria spreading around this town, spreading around this country. And, also, a will for the Americans to leave and not just to move back to their bases and sit there, but to leave for good. I mean it had been a very, very difficult period and this was seen to be the starting point of something new.

PC: I was intrigued to hear you use that term, just being “an Iraqi citizen.” The impression we get here, of course, in our little grabs on the nightly news is that sectarian tensions are still very deep and very problematic and, of course, there are lots of other tensions within Islam itself… So can you sit there today and tell us that there is, as you experience it, a clearcut sense of being an Iraqi citizen? Or, do all those other loyalties play a much bigger role?

MC: It’s a very good question, a question that all of us wrestle with, from the top down, from the American diplomatic efforts here, from the Iraqis themselves. But I must say that looking from society from the grassroots level up it is difficult to see a sense of Iraqi nationalism riding above the tribal, sectarian and clan loyalties that we do see around the country. It is fair to say that the sectarian tensions that exploded into outright civil war in 2006 are not as strong now. But they are still there; there are still some very powerful undercurrents here… The loyalty to the tribes is paramount. It is very much a tribal society. It is still split in the government along sectarian lines, although Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is contesting the next election looking for a cross-sectarian base. But we have seen throughout the ages in Iraq the time-worn adage of “safety in numbers,” and people do look for safety within the tribes, within their sects and within their areas of Iraq. It’s still pretty geographic-centric: the Shiites are in the south and the Sunnis are pretty much in the centre and the Kurds have the north. There isn’t a lot of mixing. In Baghdad there was a sectarian cleansing going on throughout 2006, 2007, and lots of mixed areas were vacated, or certainly whoever had the power base in that area, whether it be the Sunnis or the Shiites, their opposite would have left. Now we are starting to see them come back to these mixed suburbs and there are some reconciliation processes going on right throughout the community.

Is that going to translate into a rising sense of Iraqi nationalism? At the moment it’s very difficult to see that and if you look at this electoral process at the moment – the run-up to the election which is due to be held on January 16 – there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that we can see of people looking to embrace this election as Iraqis. The sectarian lines are pretty strong and pretty entrenched and it does look as though we will head to the election with people looking to boost their power base and their sect, rather than their country.

PC: Early on, of course, or much earlier on, Martin, there was quite a bit of discussion about the potential for a federal system within the nation of Iraq, with the Kurds to the north and you’ve already mentioned those broad geographical divisions between the Shiites and the Sunnis. Is that still on the agenda, the possibility of something like that?

MC: No, it’s not being talked about at the moment and there really isn’t any will for a federal system that we can see from the central government in Baghdad. There is a fear that that may lead to a further push for partitioning the country. If that was to happen there would be enormous instability in Iraq and it just would not be something that the Iraqi administration would support, and nor would its neighbours. If Iraq was to partition along sectarian lines, there would be absolute chaos in the heart of the Middle East…

PC: I notice the latest news indicated that the parliament still hasn’t nailed down the legislation for these looming elections in January. What are the key sticking points here? I notice mention of the way the ballot paper may be laid out and, of course, Kirkuk is in a very difficult area and that seems to be playing into the difficulties around the election as well…

MC: The key sticking point, as you say, is Kirkuk, what to do with Kirkuk. Now Kirkuk has long been contested; the Kurds, the Turkmen, and the Arabs have all laid claim to this strategically important city in northern Iraq, which is just above a massive subterranean lake and is very important in providing future revenues for the Iraqi economy, which is doing very, very poorly and oil is its meal ticket. So Kirkuk – for the reasons of oil and also for other reasons that go back throughout the ages – is strategically important to all sides. Kirkuk was not part of the provincial elections, but there is a significant push from the central government to include it in the national elections for the new prime minister and the new government, in January.

People are pushing on one hand for the right to elect individual citizens. On the other hand, there is a push to elect a party block. There doesn’t seem to be any agreement, from any side at the moment, on how that is going to move forward, because over the last fifty years, since the last time there was a census, the demographics have changed significantly. There’s been claim and counter claim, by all sides, of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs being shipped in by various politicians or militias to make up the numbers. The fact is we don’t have a reliable census in Kirkuk or reliable demographics to actually let us know, who is there and what the demographics are now. So the push at the moment is to try and work out a formula to satisfy all sides and include Kirkuk in the poll and accept the results of the election as legitimate, if it is in fact held. It is very, very hard to see how we are going to see a resolution on that.

The electoral law, which was due to be introduced into parliament, and enacted, has been delayed three weeks now, and there is growing talk in Baghdad that the election may be delayed. If that happened that would be a setback. But Kirkuk is a very, very thorny issue that is going to need a lot of work over a number of years to make any side happy.

PC: You mentioned earlier Prime Minister Maliki’s move to broaden his base to reach for a much broader coalition. But will the Sunnis be involved in the election this time after boycotting the last one?

MC: They are showing no signs of boycotting this one. Indeed, they are campaigning actively and looking to see where the lists end up and whether they can, in fact, make a push to regain ground that was lost in 2003 when Baathists were ousted, and was further lost when the Sunnies actually boycotted in 2005. I think there is a view in retrospect that that wasn’t terribly wise: it was an act of protest because they were thinking that if they did contest that election then that would just legitimise what they thought were unjust losses in 2003. However, this time they do appear to be contesting. They do know that their way to return to the power base here is through cross-sectarian support, rather than standing alone as a bloc…

PC: Is an Iraqi general election campaign anything like we experience here in Australia, or the United States? Or even in Iran when they had their elections – they were rather western style elections with debates, live television debates, etc. Does it go anything like that in Iraq?

MC: We do see the town hall meetings that we’d be used to. We do see the grassroots rallies, and prime ministers and senior figures wandering on through like conquering heroes amongst a sea of flags and banners and chants. And we do see some public discourse, and cabinet ministers putting themselves up on television for, I guess, a grilling – although by our standards it wouldn’t be considered so. Society here is still very differential, and it’s not all that easy to take on a senior player, somebody who is considered to have power and patronage. It’s not that easy to criticise or to take them on in an interview setting if you are an Iraqi. But, that said, there is a broad exchange of ideas. There is a semi-democratic model, or at least the semblance of it, that we could recognise and people do campaign on the things that citizens want – and that is delivering services, such us sewerage, roads… and cleaning up the smaller areas. I guess the local MPs do play a role and they do campaign for the support of citizens in certain areas. So, yes, it is a process that we would be familiar with. It’s perhaps not as rigorous and not as transparent as we would be familiar with.

PC: Martin, I have very little idea really of just what state the local Iraqi media has reached at this stage… Of course, here in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, there is this great discussion around journalism at the moment and the involvement of social media. I’m not sure how much social media plays a role there in the local Iraqi media. But just what standing does the local Iraqi media have at the moment, and to what extent are they playing a significant role in the campaign?

MC: There are plenty of media outlets here and there are plenty of journalists. What we do see unambiguously is that media outlets are aligned with certain political blocs… and there doesn’t appear to be too many commentators, or too many television stations or newspapers or radio stations, that are neutral or can be seen to be giving an independent or even semi-independent look at all sides. The official government station here, Iraqiya, does not criticise the government at all. There are opposition television stations and newspapers here which don’t give the government a voice. So there is a robust media industry, although they don’t examine as forensically as many of us would like the shortcomings, the failings, or even the successes of their adversaries. Journalism here has a way to go, but there is an enthusiasm for it. News coverage is eagerly sought. On a public radio level, I mean there are talkback callers, and people are free to criticise their local mayor or their local governor if things aren’t happening in that area and things actually do start to work. In terms of citizen journalism or social media, we don’t see any twitter or blogs or various things hitting the agenda. But the old style talkback, or citizen participation on television or radio, still does play a role and in many cases, an important role.

PC: You mention an absence of a forensic sense of inquiry. Just so we get a better idea of that, Martin, what sort of coverage across those various outlets, media outlets and from various journalistic outlets, did you see there after the most recent bombing?

MC: That clearly raised significant questions about (a) the competence and (b) the loyalty of the security forces. It’s not easy, you would have thought, to get four huge bombs, four truck bombs, into the heart of Baghdad within three months and to destroy three government ministries and the [offices of the] Baghdad governorate. Not surprisingly there were some very significant questions asked about how this could happen and government ministers [and] government officials were called to account by media outlets to explain themselves, and so they should have. I mean this is just something that in our society we would have noticed some dramatic ramifications. However, on the government television station, Iraqiya, we didn’t see any criticism of the government itself. What we did see is yet another attempt at blaming the neighbours, blaming Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It’s quite common in Iraq after a bombing like this, which does cause some acute embarrassment for the government, some acute shame as well, to put somebody out on the television confessing to committing these crimes and naming people who he claims to have backed them. [After] the August bombs, which destroyed the foreign and finance ministries, we saw that happen within a day, and the government then held that up as proof that Baathists in exile in Syria were backing things and that then becomes the narrative that is pushed for the next six weeks or so. And after the bombs in late October we saw something similar. Putting people up like that isn’t necessarily convincing and the government doesn’t do a great job of presenting its case. However, huge events like that, flash points that do have the potential to change the political landscape here, are heavily scrutinised by most sides, not all sides, and the citizenship here does feel free to criticise the government and to put their names to their criticism. So there are some positive signs there, and there is a degree of scrutiny. It’s just not as extensive as it is in more developed societies.

PC: We read today in our news here that there’ve been some pretty widespread arrests in connection with the most recent bombing. How do you read those arrests? What’s the significance of those particular arrests amongst so many from the security forces?

MC: I think my initial reading from that would be that many of them are face savers, they are not being accused of direct participation, or facilitating the bombings. I think as it happened in August, they are accused of being lax at their checkpoints and not being professional enough to actually stop these devices coming into the city… They’d driven from the northern city, from fifty kilometres north, and they’d passed a number of checkpoints with forged documents to get to the green zone. So it must be said that it was a reasonably clever sort of a set-up to pass these checkpoints, and it wasn’t as if it was a concrete mixer driving on through, which had been used to blow things up in the past. So the militants that use these sorts of bombings they do learn and they do evolve and they do make things difficult for people who are looking to find them. But after the August bombs there was a decree across Baghdad that no trucks carrying anything more than one ton could move around the city at all between 6 am and 4 pm in the afternoon. Now these bombings happened at 10.30 in the morning. One of the bombs outside the governorate, contained in a minivan, did a lot of damage but nothing as extensive as the justice ministry just further up the road, which was blown up by a water tanker. Rather than carrying it in a big container, this was a tanker, carrying portable water ostensibly, that was filled with ammonium nitrate. So it is not easy to detect these things if they go to such lengths to disguise them. But there are and there have been some pretty strict security protocols, and people do have to pay a price, I guess, in some sense, for these things happening. But so far we haven’t seen any of the sixty-odd people that were rounded up as part of a sweep being accused of being part of any conspiracy. It is more so that they are lackadaisical in their duties.

PC: Can we put a slightly harsher spotlight on Prime Minister Maliki himself? He is not a figure that we know much about here in Australia, as you’d understand, he’s a bit of a shadowy figure to us in many ways I think. But he has survived in that role for quite a number of years. Introduce us more to his political abilities and his capacities perhaps, Martin, to win this next election. How clever is he as a politician?

MC: This election will answer that instructively. Over the last three and a half years that he’s been in power, he’s also been a shadowy figure here. We don’t have a lot of access to him, we try, but as a western media corps here we don’t see him a great deal. He does stick to the set pieces. He does do a lot of work outside Iraq, and he does do a lot of work in trying to build coalitions and build alliances to keep himself in power. I mean it’s not easy to claim power here and to hang on to it. And, he did have some very heavy patronage from 2006 onwards, during an incredibly difficult period in Iraq, from the last American administration and the embassy here. So there is a perception that he was propped up during that time. I mean, he had a wavering, I guess you could say, relationship with the Bush administration who initially backed him, then started to drift away from him. By the end of their time, they were backing him again, largely because at that point the security situation in Baghdad and across Iraq had started to stabilise.

So he is somebody that the Americans have invested their trust and invested their faith in. He is somebody that the Iraqis have started to do so as well. We saw during the provincial elections in January his political bloc did very well. But we don’t see any great evidence at this point, of him leading this nation out of the mire that it’s been over the past six years. He has claimed, and rightly, that Iraq can only start to advance once security is brought into the society at all levels. That’s why he had pushed so hard on saying that Baghdad was now a safer place than it ever was. That is why he has felt it so harshly when four enormous bombs that had levelled government institutions had proven that his security gains were perhaps illusory.

But in terms of whether this prime minister is somebody who can go on to make his mark in this society, it really is difficult to say. He doesn’t have a great deal of charisma. When he moves around town here, he moves around in massive convoys and roads are shut for four or five hours before he’s moved. So it is not as though he is doing many street walks or allowing an audience to regular citizens, and the security situation, I guess, dictates that – that he does have to stay inside the green zone and run the business of state from a sanctuary. There are the criticisms that he doesn’t know the society as well as he should as a leader. But there are also some factors that make that almost inevitable for now. I wish I could give you a more comprehensive psychological assessment of the man. But the fact is that we don’t know him, and many Iraqis don’t know him either.

PC: Of course, talking about the election, talking about Maliki and the very shaky security situation as it continues, it’s not hard to imagine, Martin, is it, that as the election gets closer if they do manage to nail down that legislation, that there could be more bombings and the election could be a very fraught period indeed. Do you anticipate that there could be more of that sort of violence leading up to the election?

MC: I think we all anticipate that there will be some more bombings. I guess ironically there aren’t too many government ministries left to blow up, that certainly people can access. Most of the rest appear to be within the green zone or within very safe areas that it’s very hard to reach. There is a will amongst the Sunni insurgents and perhaps the Baathists who back them – perhaps, I say, because we haven’t seen anything to prove it; there is evidence to suggest it, but not prove it – but there is a campaign, by Sunnis in general, to destabilise the government by delegitimising some of its claimed security gains. That is going to be an important strategy in the lead up to the elections. So there is an anticipation, a wide anticipation, that we will see more violence here.

What we are not seeing is the sectarian stuff that we saw throughout 2006 and 2007. The dreadful slayings, the rounding up of people at the checkpoints… So the sectarian stuff has not flared up again, and indeed the Shiite militia… have remained stood down since early 2008. We don’t see them on the streets they don’t run checkpoints. The checkpoints all seem to be run by the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police these days, which does give a degree of confidence. While we anticipate more bombings, more uncertainty and more fear in the streets, not to the extent that the brutal civil war of 2006–2007 that led so many Iraqis to leave the country, will flare up again. We do think that there is a lid on that for now and it is unlikely to be removed before the poll.

PC: Martin, they are all very intriguing aspects and you’ve already given me a lot more information than I had before we started this conversation, but do you mind just giving us a sense of what it’s like there, just to be there as a human being. You alluded a moment ago, to the Iraqi society and I’m assuming that’s a multilayered and complex society. But how would you, in just a few words, summarise your experience of the Iraqi society as of today? What’s it like for the average Iraqi with their family, perhaps working, perhaps going to university, etc etc? What changes have you seen and how would you describe it today?

MC: Over the last two years, despite the extreme violence we see from time to time, we have seen on the streets of Baghdad a better atmosphere, I guess you could say. I mean, you look around and you see new shops with new European goods, or copies of European goods that are imported from China, opening up everywhere. There is a bit of money to spend. We do see families taking their children to public areas now and having picnics. We didn’t see that two years ago. It’s certainly something that has brought a renewed sense of normality to Baghdad now. So despite the bombings, despite the almost daily bombings in the capital, the small magnet bombs put under cars, the government checkpoints attacked, people are trying to live what they would say would be a normal life. That is, that they will go to the shops, they will go to shopping malls and they will go to parks.

That said, we’re still seeing an enormous number of kidnappings now, mostly for ransoms. Anyone who is wealthy and has children will be targeted and there are still kidnappings going on every day here and ransoms are paid very, very regularly, so there is still no great confidence or no newfound respect for the rule of law here. It’s still pretty much a jungle in some aspects. Iraqi families do have to put up with this and do have to accept this as the norm for now – that even though they can do the things that you and I would take for granted, go to the shops, go to the parks, there is still a real risk and people are looking over their shoulders here. So it is a society that isn’t normal. It’s a society that’s gone through a lot over thirty-five years – or more than that: we had three decades of Saddam, we had two wars, we had twelve years of sanctions and six years of occupation. So it’s not as though it’s had a great deal of opportunity to develop a robust sort of society… It does have a long way to go, but people are starting to assert their rights and actually do pleasant things, or do things that they enjoy. I guess, in part, despite looking around and seeing such a bleak landscape on many levels, it is refreshing to see that people are resilient here.

PC: You as a journalist, as a western journalist there, trying to live your own life day by day, but also doing your job as a professional, what’s it like for you? For example, Martin, where are you right now? Are you in a secure area or are you just out there in the jungle, as you describe it?

MC: We are in an area just south of the green zone, in what’s called the red zone, and we’re in an area which is protected by Peshmerga soldiers. Peshmerga is the Kurdish military. They control our precinct in Baghdad in which the President lives, he has a palace here, President Talabani, who is a Kurd, so they are responsible for security here. We live in house inside their zone. So, we are in pretty good shape. We can get around. In this area we don’t run any sort of a risk of being kidnapped or blown up, although rockets do go over our head on a daily basis on the way to the green zone. But when we do get out and about – today we are going to Fallujah, which is 60 kilometres out of town – we do have to be very, very careful. It is still not normal to see western reporters or anyone western who isn’t military or embassy driving around Iraq. So we limit our time on the ground.

I want to make sure that I can reflect what’s going on in Iraqi society as well as I possibly can and not just bunker down and expect some people to come to me. So we do look, we do go, we do travel and we do observe as much as we can. But we always do have to maintain some security protocols. Despite the fact that Iraq has improved on many levels, it is lethal there in the shadows and if we’re not careful we could end up in some trouble. So the balance is not putting ourselves too much in harm’s way but, by the same token, always being in a position to reflect how this very, very important part of Middle Eastern history is tracking. As you said when we started the conversation, the interest in the story, or in Iraq, has started to wane over the last year or so, but I guess we see our role as journalists as almost duty bound just to keep it in the public domain and not just to let it slip away into obscurity but to report this story as a legacy. How is it tracking, I mean there were so many expectations, so much money spent. But, it is an important period to actually reflect, or to report or to chronicle on how it is actually doing now.

PC: As you describe that I’m just trying to use my imagination as a journalist to try and think through how you do that job? I understand some of the things you are saying. It sounds like, Martin, you have to really bring together those very bedrock skills as a journalist, but you also have to be very analytical. You have to bring together what you see as an eye witness with your background knowledge, etc. So do you agree with me that, it does differ fundamentally in many ways from being a journalist here in Australia, or in Canberra, or in London, or in the United States? It is fundamentally a different sort of job there, isn’t it?

MC: Very much so. I guess any foreign beat you need to know the context of your patch in order to reflect what’s going on now. But the Middle East in particular is so multi-layered and so much perspective and context is needed here before you can even start to add value as a journalist. That does involve some analytical skills, some interpretative skills, but also in essence of being able to pick your mark. It’s being able to pick that anecdote or pick that story or issue which is going to reflect a broader trend and to be able to cast that in the right way and to attract the interest of your foreign desk, who have a lot of competing stories for limited spaces. So it’s just a matter of really getting across it at such a forensic, multi-layered level and then being in a position to use that knowledge that you build up to infuse into anything that you do write. But Iraq is a society that is rich with anecdotes, rich with human suffering, human tragedy and, in some cases, great human success stories. So, it is a colourful place still. It is somewhere that once you do get out of that and you pick your mark carefully, you can quite often get a reward in terms of the work that you are able to produce. So it’s a very, very difficult society in which to operate in as a reporter. There are so many variables here and it’s very, very tiring. But by the same token, when you do put in the effort you usually do get a result and sometimes you can make contribution which does make it worthwhile.

PC: In a rather phlegmatic Australian way a few moments ago, you mentioned the rockets going over into the green zone, etc, and that you are in a reasonably secure situation there with the Kurdish troops, but I have to ask you, Martin, how you deal day by day as a human being, as well as a journalist, with that level of threat and that level of risk and seeing violence and experiencing violence either directly or vicariously? Is there a psychological first aid dimension to all this?

MC: I think that some of it may account for why this place is so tiring. We do six weeks rotations in here and four weeks out, and by the end of the six weeks you’re utterly exhausted and it’s not just because of the heat or because of the harsh climate. A lot of it is because psychologically you are confronted all the time by some pretty harsh things and some evil things as well… As I said earlier, we can’t bunker down. Sometimes you do have to take a risk and you do get out in the streets. What we all have feared for many, many years and is less of a threat now is being kidnapped and that would be a terrible ordeal that none of us actually want to go through. We have had some experiences, some kidnapping experience here, and its something that we don’t want to repeat. So we don’t have the risk from being lifted at illegal checkpoints or even by Iraqi police or soldiers – although soldiers always are less of a risk than the police. So there is that dimension, that you are looking over your shoulder the whole time. But, you do also become semi immune to it. When rockets go over your head here, you know that they are not aimed at your house, they are being aimed at the Americans and they are in a very fortified embassy compound there, so they can look after themselves. The journalists in Iraq haven’t been targeted, not the western journalists, for the last eighteen months or so. So that would tend to be a pretty reasonable trend, you would hope.

But, as I said, it’s not an easy place and you do feel drained by it and on a daily basis you are seeing things that I guess as a reporter back in Australia would sicken you. I think sometimes when you do sit down to draw breath you wonder how you’re getting through it all and what have you become. Maybe the sights of human legs and human hands and dead babies don’t affect you as they once would. I guess theses are questions we all wrestle with during our quieter periods. But they don’t sort of dissuade you from just getting on with the job.

PC: Martin, as a final question, further down the track you won’t be in Iraq you may be somewhere else. You may be in London, or the United States, or some other locale as a foreign correspondent where things aren’t as violent, the whole dynamic is totally different. How have you changed as a human and as a journalist? Do you feel there’s been a shift inside you in some ways because of what you’ve just described as the day-by-day strictures and the challenges of being a journalist in Iraq and in Baghdad. Do you think when you come to the fluffy trivial stories in the future, that you’ll be a little less patient with all that?

MC: I think it will be very difficult for me to head back to Australia now and be a roundsman on a newspaper. I think I’ve been in the Middle East for four years now and right around from Gaza to Jerusalem to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, so I’ve done a reasonable period I guess at ground zero of a lot of what’s good and bad about the world. It’s a very confronting place. It’s a very tough school, the Middle East. You get scrutinised intensely here and you learn a lot, too. This has been a flashpoint throughout the past eight years or so… and the experience that you get from a society like this is something that it would be difficult to translate or difficult to parlay into returning to what was your old job in Australia. So I think you use this experience, for all its dangers, for all its risks, for all its difficulties, as something which gives you very rich and very valuable context on how the world actually works, or how this part of the world works and its knock-on effects elsewhere. So would it be difficult for me to write softer stories in downtown Manhattan or the city of London? No it wouldn’t. But I think I would always like to use the experience that I do have to add value in other ways. So if I moved on to another job, or another post, I think that everything that I’ve been able to do here throughout the last four years, will be pretty valuable and will set me up to perform a decent role elsewhere.

PC: Martin, I think when we watch the news at night, or hear the news, or chase it up online, we take for granted a lot of what goes into creating these stories, and the constant pressure on you as a foreign correspondent and your colleagues. We appreciate the time you spent with us today on Inside Story. Thank you very much.

MC: You’re welcome, Peter. Thank you.