An Interview with Lara Marlowe, Foreign Correspondent for the Irish Times
For 12 years Lara Marlowe, as foreign correspondent for the Irish Times, has covered events from Algeria and Serbia to Iraq and the wider Middle East as well as providing regular reports on events from France where she is based.
Since 2003 she has offered a consistently critical account of the Iraq war and occupation. Hers is one of the few voices to challenge the mainstream narrative at a time when many of her colleagues were and still are turning a blind eye to the sorts of realities that she has brought to attention.
This critical account does not go unnoticed by those in the profession less concerned with journalistic standards. She has been derided for writing what are wilfully misdescribed as ‘bad news stories’:
“Prime Time’s Mark Little is now so well informed on Middle East politics that we no longer have to depend on doomy dirges from Lara Marlowe.” (‘Rising parade: compliments, complaints and sheer boredom’, Eoghan Harris, Irish Independent, 23rd April 2006)
“I’ve been reading Lara Marlowe in the Irish Times. On her travels in Iraq, she has found no one with a good word to say about those pesky Americans. Think about how much better things could be if we could bring back Saddam.” (‘Damn sad with no Saddam’, Padraic MacKiernan, Irish Independent, October 12th 2003)
“[T]he doom and gloom blackout of the Irish Times foreign pages hogged by Lara Marlowe and Conor O’Clery.” (‘Mr Myers overboard!’, Gwen Halley, Irish Independent, April 25th 2004)
Thankfully, these ad hominem criticisms have not curbed Marlowe’s willingness to counter the dominant myths of that conflict and even put her own personal safety in jeopardy in an effort to find the true story of Iraq. We are grateful to Lara Marlowe for this discussion of media coverage of the war.
(LM – Lara Marlowe, MB – MediaBite, David Manning and Miriam Cotton)
MB: How did you become foreign correspondent for the Irish Times?
LM: I started with The Irish Times in 1996, but I have been a journalist since 1981. I resigned from my previous post as Beirut Bureau Chief for Time magazine, from where I covered the whole Arab world, to work for the Irish Times. I resigned on principle, because my editors were pro-Israeli and were reluctant to print anything critical of Israel. I resigned following the Qana massacre on the 18th April 1996. It’s a long story, and I am guessing you would rather talk about Iraq rather than Lebanon and Time magazine.
MB: How many times have you been to Iraq now?
LM: Something like 20 times. I first went for Time magazine in the aftermath of the 1991 war and I returned repeatedly throughout the 1990’s. The first time I went for the Irish Times was in 1998, when President Clinton attacked Iraq with cruise missiles, and Kofi Annan went to Baghdad to try to avert war. I arrived about 3 days before the bombardment began in 2003, and stayed for 6 weeks. I have returned 6 times since then.
MB: Presumably in your recent trip there you were forced to go ’embedded’, is that right?
LM: No, I wasn’t forced to do anything. I wanted to do a story about the Sunni militia that the Americans are now backing called the ‘Sons of Iraq’, and which was originally called ‘Sahwa’ or ‘Awakening‘. I requested to do a one day embed with the Americans so I could do that story, but I was there for a week and only embedded for one of those days.
MB: Were many of your colleagues there at the time embedded?
LM: The only embedded journalists I came across were in the accreditation service inside the Green Zone. There was a Newsweek journalist I met on the way home who said he had travelled embedded. But I probably wouldn’t encounter journalists who are fully embedded, as they are usually flown into Kuwait and helicoptered directly into the Green Zone. They are hermetically sealed in; they are transferred in and out of the green zone in a ‘Rhino’, which is a large armoured bus, or they are helicoptered to a unit and they then spend their whole stay within the unit. The unit I went with that day were stationed in Baghdad. I had to go into the Green Zone to meet them, put on my flak jacket and helmet, as required by US regulations, and then drive out with them. They took me back to the Green Zone at the end of the day.
MB: So what is life like outside the Green Zone in comparison to five years ago?
LM: It is much worse than it was in the aftermath of the bombardment. During the bombardment it was obviously pretty grim, with explosions happening all the time, but in May 2003 when George Bush declared ‘Mission Accomplished‘, things were chaotic, there was looting and arson and those sorts of things going on. Despite this many people were still quite hopeful. Initially there was a huge influx of consumer goods, in Karada, which is a main shopping area, there were thousands of refrigerators and stoves and all kinds of appliances and toys out on the pavement. There was also a huge influx of cars – everyone was driving new cars. There was a lot of food in the markets. Compared to then it’s much worse now.
Electricity is a barometer of living conditions in Baghdad. During and after the bombardment people were not getting a lot of electricity, perhaps 3 to 4 hours a day. Now it’s only 1 hour a day. Nothing has been rebuilt; there are ruins on every city block – both from the bombardment in 2003 and the fighting that has occurred since then. The telephones don’t work, it can take hours to get through and even then you only have a one in ten or twenty chance of getting through to the number. The traffic jams are horrendous, as traffic is regularly stopped for military convoys. Iraqi and US personalities moving around in armoured 4×4 convoys literally push everyone else off the road. So it can take hours to go two or three kilometres.
Everything is horribly expensive and unemployment is very high. I haven’t seen any realistic estimates, but I would say unemployment is running at 40-50%. Practically everyone I met asked me if I could get them a job. The general atmosphere is not pleasant; I think I called it ‘rip-off-Iraq’ in one of my stories. It is a sort of dog eat dog, survival of the fittest atmosphere – a very, very hard life for the people there. Corruption is also rampant; people are constantly forced to pay bribes.
MB: Is this still forcing people out of Iraq? It’s reported that people are returning to Iraq as their savings have run out, but are there still people leaving?
LM: I interviewed the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Baghdad and he said that the latest refugees were created by the fighting in Basra and Sadr City between March and May. They had about 4,000 families displaced from Sadr City. The majority of those have gone back now that that fighting has subsided. At the moment they are not seeing any new refugees. That said, 1 in 6 Iraqis — one sixth of the population — are either internally displaced or refugees abroad, which is the highest proportion in the world right now. There were a small trickle of Iraqis who went back since last summer. I met a number of Sunni Muslims who had returned from Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Amman, basically because they had, as you say, run out of money, and were ill-treated by the host nation.
MB: When they are returning, are they being forced to return to ethnically and religiously segregated communities?
MB: So that is reinforcing the situation that led to their departure in the first place?
LM: In a sense it’s similar to what happened in the former Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing is immoral and it is a war crime, but at the same time, as long as the Sunnis were living in Shia neighbourhoods or vice versa, and people were knocking on their doors and telling them to get out, there was a situation of immediate conflict. That has more or less stopped now, due in part to the so called ‘surge’ in US forces who mainly came to Baghdad – about 30,000 troops, and who are actually beginning to leave now. The ethnic cleansing has been done, so when there are no more Sunni or Shia in your neighbourhood, there are no more people to drive out. A lot of people are living with relatives, there are a lot of squatters. One of the difficulties the Iraqi government and the Americans are having in trying to help people get back to their homes is that there are refugees from other conflicts or places living in the homes of the people who were driven out, so it’s a huge mess.
MB: One of the things we wanted to discuss, and you mentioned it there in using the phrase ‘the so called surge’. The sort of language Washington puts into the public arena, terms like ‘surge’ would more accurately be described as an escalation, since it was a long term increase in occupying troops. Other terms like ‘war on terror’ and ‘operation Iraqi freedom’ – do you think journalists should use these terms even though they are obviously designed for a specific propaganda purpose?
LM: I use quotation marks whenever I use them, and I rarely use them. Certainly ‘war on terror’ and ‘operation Iraqi freedom’ should be put within quotation marks, and ‘surge’ too. It was a big influx in US troops and it did make a huge difference. The question it poses for me is that if they were capable of doing this for a year, which is what they did, a lot of the people planning the war — and I am not saying the war was a good idea, I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, I was against the invasion from the very beginning — but if they were going to do it, they should have planned the aftermath better and they should have put in enough troops. People like Colin Powell and many of the military planners were saying ‘you are not putting in enough troops’, that they were incapable of fulfilling any of the obligations of an occupying power under the Geneva Conventions, which include maintaining law and order. So this so called ‘surge’ enabled them to separate the Sunni and Shia who were killing each other, and to build these T-walls, and while it is morally questionable to build walls between communities — one thinks of Berlin, one thinks of the Israeli wall in the occupied territories — in terms of the last year it was the lesser of evils as it did stem the bloodshed.
MB: At the same time, the US were undertaking their own bloodshed against certain groups, with bombing raids etc.
LM: Yes, they are still killing civilians. Somewhere between one hundred thousand and one million Iraqis have been killed because of the invasion. It’s certainly hundreds of thousands in my opinion. The US is responsible for those deaths inasmuch as it undertook this ill-advised invasion. But in terms of the numbers of Iraqis killed, there are probably more being killed by Al Qaeda and the various militias and sectarian violence, than by US forces. The last day I kept track was Friday, three days ago, there were 35 or 36 people killed by 3 suicide bombings. Now that’s a typical day, and people are saying security is getting much better. There was a time when 35 killed in bombings would have been a huge story; now it’s one or two lines in a wire agency release. It doesn’t get much attention anymore. Even though these are still high casualties. My point was that all of those people killed on Friday were Iraqi, including the bombers.
I used the term ‘hermetically sealed’ which is exactly what the Americans try to do. If you see their bases, they are very heavily fortified. They only travel around in armoured vehicles, in numbers, with 50 calibre machine guns. It’s very hard for the insurgents to get them. They make extensive use of IED’s or roadside bombs, which are responsible for approximately 40% of US casualties. So most of the fighting is anarchy, chaos, and suicide bombings. And of course you have the liberal use of gunfire and bombing by the Americans. There was a case about 10 days ago where a US helicopter fired on a car and killed, if I am not mistaken, 8 members of the same family including a number of children. Now those incidents happen far too often. The Americans claim the car had “shown hostile intent”, that they had reason to believe there were Al Qaeda militants in it. The local police chief said it was just a family fleeing from fighting. So obviously that type of violence still happens too. Also there is a lot of crime, robberies, murders, and kidnappings. Most of the kidnappings these days are committed for ransom, by mafia style banditry. But the situation is improving, at least temporarily. I saw Iraqi police on the streets in Baghdad, which you didn’t see in the past. Law and order in Iraq leaves a lot to be desired though.
MB: Going back to your comments on the number of Iraqis killed. During the MediaBite ‘Reporting War‘ debate, one of the topics that came up was the reporting of mortality in Iraq. The Lancet/Johns Hopkins figures and the ORB figures are often replaced with the IBC figures, which are essentially those deaths reported in the media. Paddy Smyth made the point, a common argument among mainstream journalists, that the figures found by Johns Hopkins were arrived at by an extrapolation of a small sample, and he was attempting to convince the audience that this was an unscientific study. The main problem with that being that…
LM: Apparently extrapolating from relatively small samples is standard research procedure. There was a very good piece in the Guardian in March that addressed that. They said the Lancet/Johns Hopkins studies were done and redone. The second Lancet figure was 655,000, which to me seems a plausible figure. There were arguments about the fact the survey focused on main streets – some researchers claimed most car bombs occur on main streets and thus the figure could be higher than if the study took more account of side streets. But they did take representative samples.
It is stunning that we know that 4,080 US soldiers have died and yet they do not want to know how many civilians have died as a result of the invasion. It was General Franks who said ‘we don’t do body counts’.
I asked the US ambassador in Baghdad how many people he thought had been killed and he wouldn’t give an answer, so it seems clear to me they don’t want to know. George W Bush at one point put forward the figure of 35,000, which is obviously ridiculously low. Perhaps some day we will know the exact figure, but it will likely be a long time from now. Certainly every Iraqi I have met knows somebody who has been killed.
MB: Would you discuss this issue with other journalists? Because a lot of journalists choose not to use the Lancet figures, and refuse to entertain them. We did a survey of 12 months of Irish Times reporting between June 2005 and June 2006 and found that the first Lancet study was reported a total of 3 times, in contrast to the number of US military casualties which was reported 8 times in a two month period May to June 2006. At every opportunity the Irish Times would pick lower figures based on media reports for Iraqi mortality.
LM: The World Health Organisation came up with the figure of 150,000.
MB: Yes, earlier this year. Though it included only deaths due to violence.
LM: I’m not an editor in Dublin, so you’d really have to ask Paddy Smyth to explain his reasoning on this and whether there is a policy on this. Because the figures are so much in dispute, I follow my instinct, based on what I have learned in Iraq, and use the vague phrase, “hundreds of thousands”.
MB: Al Qaeda came up a number of times in your latest series of reports from Iraq. Is it that you were focusing in this instance on that particular story – or maybe that the role of Al Qaeda in Iraq is overstated – since they represent such a small percentage of the actual insurgency or resistance?
LM: It’s debatable what percentage they represent. There are those who believe the US inflates the number and attribute attacks to Al Qaeda where they are not really the culprits. They certainly loom large in the imagination of the Iraqis and they have committed the most grisly killings – beheadings for instance.
I interviewed three men from Mosul, one of whose father and brother-in-law were assassinated by Al Qaeda. It may be a very loose organisation, but there’s no doubt they exist. Ayman al-Zawahiri existed, the Americans killed him in a bombing raid; we saw images of his dead body afterwards.
I didn’t intentionally concentrate on Al-Qaeda. I did 2 stories out of 10 where Al Qaeda featured prominently. One was the story about Mosul where the Iraqi government has said it’s the last battle against Al Qaeda – I doubt it, we’ve heard this kind of language before. The other story was about ‘Sahwa’ or ‘Awakening’ which the Americans are now financing. They essentially bought out 90,000 Sunni Muslims, now being paid by the US. Iraqis claim that between 50 and 75% are former Al Qaeda members or supporters, and US officers working with them refused to give an estimate. It was General Petraeus’ idea to pay them not to attack US forces.
MB: And how will that play out in the long term?
LM: It’s a very good question, it’s one of the great unknowns. In the short term it seems to be working because people are desperate for a livelihood. It’s much easier to take $300 a month from the US not to attack Americans than it is to risk your life for Al Qaeda, who may not pay at all.
There was a backlash against Al Qaeda because they were bullying the local population, for example threatening women who weren’t wearing hijab. They were threatening and killing people who worked for the government. And at some point people just wouldn’t take it anymore. So they are working for the Americans both because they don’t like Al Qaeda and because they need the money. But they don’t love the Americans.
I interviewed several of these people who were on the US payroll and even in the presence of US officers they would say they are doing it because they don’t have a job and need to support their families – with the very clear implication that they don’t particularly like the Americans, but that they had no choice. Senator John Kerry said ‘this is a rented allegiance’, which is a very good name for it. It is probably not a lasting, long-term alliance.
MB: If the opinion polls are true, and the majority of Iraqis support attacks on coalition troops, then by employing the Sunnis in protection they may well be engendering the civil war by pitting the majority against an armed Sunni minority.
LM: What’s happened is that they have effectively neutralised those people. Although they are in essence a militia, according to Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador, the weapons they have are their own, the US is not actually arming them. Every Iraqi is entitled to have their own assault rifle. So they are using their own weapons and the money they are receiving is something like unemployment benefits. So that segment of the population has been neutralised, taken out of the equation, for the time being at any rate.
You are right though in the sense that the Shia are very wary of this development, they don’t like this alliance between the Americans and the Sunnis. They view it with intense suspicion. The Shia run government has refused to incorporate these people into the police force. Which is what the Sunnis want and what the Americans want. It is as you say quite possible that further down the road the US is planting the seeds of future strife in the sense that they have created yet another militia, in a country that already has far too many. The professed US aim is to have only legitimate Iraqi security forces, Iraqi army and Iraqi police – but now you have this armed force, the so called ‘Sons of Iraq’, who are outside the control of the government. So I do see the dangers of that.
MB: How do you view developments unfolding if popular clerics in Iraq declare that it is legitimate to attack US forces, is the violence likely to increase?
LM: They already have. Certainly Harith al-Dari, the Sunni cleric, who was the head of the Hayat Al-Ulama Al-Muslimin (Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars), praised attacks on US forces, and has gone into exile now. There are rumours that he has received huge sums of money from the Americans to shut up. I have no idea if it’s true or not. Muqtada al Sadr also justifies attacks on US forces. But there may be a lot of clerics who do not support attacks on US forces.
Among the Sunni, it’s almost schizophrenic. I’ve heard a lot of Sunnis saying ‘things are better now that we are allied with the Americans’ and ‘the Americans are protecting us’, but if you ask them ‘do you want the Americans to leave?’ or ‘do you approve of attacks on Americans?’ they say yes. So there are a lot of contradictory feelings there.
The Shia on the other hand tend to be far more optimistic, and with good reason, because they are the majority. They are starting to like the Maliki government, though they still very much want the US to leave. If you ask middle class Shia in Baghdad whether they support attacks on US troops, I’m not sure all of them would say yes because they know a lot of innocent Iraqi civilians get killed in attacks and they would have mixed feelings about it. So you have to distinguish between approving of attacks, and being willing to provide logistical support or participate in them, and just wanting the Americans to leave. The feeling of just wanting the Americans to leave is far more prevalent than approval for actively participating in attacks.