Behind the Microphone: Reporter's View from Northern Iraq
By Michael Goldfarb
|The view at Sunset from Erbil
towards Mt. Safeen. (Photo: M. Goldfarb)
I arrived in a blizzard and departed in spring. I came through
the mountains and left through the desert. In the month I was in
Iraq, a whole nation was changed. When I returned to my home in
London, nothing was different. The debate about the war was and
remains the same: vitriolic and ill informed.
Symmetrical experience is what journalists hope for. It means
less work trying to understand a story. For us symmetry is measured
by expectations being fulfilled. The war in Iraq was symmetrical.
It broadly fulfilled our expectations. The overwhelming force overwhelmed.
The post-war political plans of the American government proved to
be as poorly thought out as we imagined they would be.
There was symmetry too in my arrival and departure from the conflict
zone. Both entrance and exit were fraught.
To get into Iraq I had to travel to Iran. All the other nations
on Iraq's borders had closed their crossing points. I arrive in
Tehran at 1 a.m. and after waiting for half an hour to get through
passport control I am told I must be fingerprinted. I have never
been fingerprinted in my life (except possibly at birth) and certainly
don't want my prints on file with the Iranian government. I lose
my temper, something a lifetime of travel has taught me never to
do with immigration officials. The reason I'm being fingerprinted?
Last summer, American INS officials detained without charge hundred
of Iranian men who were legally in the U.S. They were fingerprinted
and held like common criminals in Los Angeles. This was payback.
| Sunset over the Citadel. (Photo:
By mid-afternoon, without opportunity for sleep, I had gone through
all proceedings and flown and driven to the Iraq border crossing.
It's in the rugged mountains of northwestern Iran. We were told
to wait in our cars while Iranian officials checked our papers.
While we sat outside in the car, clouds built up and a blizzard
began. After two hours in the freezing conditions, I went into the
little building where the border officials were sitting in the warmth
to ask what was going on. I was told to go back outside. A half
hour later I lost my temper again. This stirred up some action.
The border official said there was no problem with me crossing into
Iraq then asked for 50 dollars to allow my baggage to accompany
me. I asked if he would give me a receipt. He gave me a black look.
I gave him the money. This was a pay off.
|Michael Goldfarb reports from the Middle East. (Photo: H.H.A / SIPA)
Unexplained Phenomena: One day the word went out that there was
to be a press conference at the Chwar Chra, Erbil's swankest hotel,
featuring Hoshiar Zebari, the main spokesman of the Kurdistan Democratic
Party or KDP, and Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy
to the region. The starting time came and went. After half an hour
most reporters drifted outside to enjoy the brilliant spring sunshine.
We heard the unmistakable thud of an explosion, and turned to see
a ball of white smoke worming its' way up into the sky a couple
of kilometers away. What could it be?
A half hour later we were summoned back inside for the press conference.
Mr. Khalilzad was nowhere to be seen but Hoshiar Zebari told us
about the explosion. The KDP was investigating whether it was a
rocket or a bomb placed on the outskirts of Erbil by pro-Saddam
terrorists. Of great concern was the fact that the smoke was white.
Because, "as you all know," chemical or biological weapons
give off a white smoke. The KDP were conducting atmospheric tests
to determine if this was the case. We all checked our pulses and
monitored our breathing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. So
We never heard about the bomb again. But we did hear that shortly
after it went off the U.S. government provided chemical suits to
I knew the war was going well when the cost of one of these suits
in Erbil's bazaar plummeted from $175 to $35 in under a week.
Resuming my Symmetrical Exits and Entrances Story:
|A portrait of Saddam among
the provisions of an American soldier.
Leaving Iraq was as fraught as getting in. From early on I knew
that my documentary would follow Ahmad Shawkat back to his home
in Mosul. The war was effectively over several days before Mosul
fell. Ahmad and I went to Mosul twice. Then it was time for me to
Given my experience getting into Iraq, I had no real desire to
leave via Iran. Journalists were being held up on the Iranian side
of the border for up to a week before being given permission to
fly to Tehran and then onward.
I had a valid Turkish visa but the Turks had closed their border
crossing with Iraq. So that was out. Syria was close. But the Bush
administration was rattling its rhetorical saber at the Assad regime
and it just didn't seem like a good idea for an American journalist
to be begging his way into Syria at the time.
The only border that was open was the border with Jordan. But
to get to that border you had to first drive to Baghdad and the
road from Erbil to Baghdad wasn't safe. It came close to Tikrit,
the last place where the Saddam regime put up resistance.
There seemed to be only one way out: hitching an airlift with
the U.S. military. Ahmad, our driver Sami and I took the scenic
route, one and a half hours through the mountains to the airfield
at Harir to make the request in person. An armored brigade from
Germany was being flown into Kurdistan piece by piece. Four or five
flights a day were bringing men and equipment to Harir and flying
back to Germany empty. A lift on an empty flight didn't seem an
|Art on stones call for peace
and for Kurdistan. (Photo: M Goldfarb)
Boy was I wrong. I thought the request could be dealt with locally.
But this is the military we're talking about. My request had to
be sent to Centcom in Kuwait and then to the Pentagon and then back
to Harir. And there was no phone number I could call in Harir. My
executive producer, Anna Bensted, had to be the point of contact
in all this. She received some fairly condescending e-mails from
Centcom. The gist of them was Mr. Goldfarb is not an embedded reporter,
so he is not our responsibility. We told journalists "the battlefield
is a dangerous place." read one of them. To which I can only
respond: I know the battlefield is a dangerous place, and if there
was a battle going on I wouldn't be making this request. I would
be trying to get as close to the action as possible to observe and
report to my listeners what I see. But the war is effectively over
and you are flying empty back to Ramstein Germany and this is the
kind of reasonable thing Americans do for one another in extraordinary
I had no qualms about the embed program until that moment. But
it's clear that the military views it as a way of creating a two-tier
"insider vs. outsider" set up with the press. I hope they
realize we all bat on the same team.
Anyway, in the time it took to send e-mails and get straight that
the military wasn't going to help out, the road to Baghdad cleared
up sufficiently to exit that way. Although we still had to take
precautions. I say "we" because it wasn't safe to go on
your own, so several journalists decided to travel together in a
First, my driver, Sami wouldn't do the gig. His license plates were
from the Kurdish region and he was warned that in the Arab villages
and in Baghdad itself the car was at risk from thieves and vandals.
So he hired several ancient taxis with Saddam regime license plates
to drive us. The price was two-hundred dollars a cab for the four
hour drive from Erbil to Baghdad. The reason the price was so high
was that one of the drivers had been shot at making the Baghdad
run two days previously. I decided to call our drivers Peshmerchants.
Kurdish fighters are called Peshmerga, which means "men who
face death." I decided Peshmerchants were "men who face
death for money."
We left Erbil at dawn. The hope was to get past the Arab villages
where there was still fighting before people started waking up.
It was a glorious morning. We rolled at breakneck speed across the
plain that had been our war zone. It was like travelling through
a film set just after production is finished: empty but full of
echoes of what had been enacted there.
|Local Fighters atop an abandoned
tank. (Photo: M Goldfarb)
There was the Peshmerga camp at Dola Bakir where we watched the
distant action in the first days of the war. Empty. We slashed along
the road to a place where I recorded Peshmerga destroying land mines.
The fields where we walked were now covered with the red triangle
warning signs of the Mine Action Group. Lucky I didn't step on one
while roaming around there. We zoomed past massive ruined barracks
of the Iraqi Army, barracks I had seen from a ridge 15 miles to
the east while hanging around with Green Berets as they called in
the airstrikes that destroyed them.
As the sun rose on the shimmering emerald green plain, the moon
was just setting and for one magical moment they shared the same
angle in the sky facing each other from east to west with me rushing
|The Citadel (Photo: M Goldfarb)
The roadside south of Kirkuk was lined with boots and uniforms.
The Iraqi Army had literally stripped off its clothes as it melted
away. We passed from the green of Kurdistan into the Arabian desert.
The change of landscape was immediate. There was perhaps a quarter
mile where grass and sand fought each other and then the desert
We made Baghdad in virtually no time and without incident. It
was instructive to see the city. The war in the North was a quiet
affair. Not in Baghdad. We came in from the east side of the city.
The main boulevard was lined with the detritus of a massive and
unfair battle between Iraqi tanks and American attack helicopters.
The tanks were precisely and absolutely demolished. Metal coffins
for the crews that manned them.
Traffic jams were building although there was no electricity,
no water, and no place to work. We headed for the Palestine Hotel
where I was supposed to pick up a car to take me the rest of the
way to Amman. Here, in downtown Baghdad you could see what precision
bombing really meant. Government buildings utterly destroyed by
airstrikes and residential neighborhoods just behind them untouched.
The scene at the Palestine Hotel, where the foreign press was
headquartered, was one of panic. The hotel is huge and sits in grounds
of many acres. It seemed like every person who had been interviewed
by a journalist in the last three months was trying to get in. There
were thousands of Baghdadi's waving pieces of paper and business
cards demanding to speak to a reporter. U.S. Marines were trying
unsuccessfully to keep them out. I felt sorry for the Marines. They
had not been trained for this kind of duty. There had already been
a couple of suicide bombing attacks on American military personnel
in the city and this set up was an open invitation to anyone with
a hankering to be a martyr.
|Ahmad watching war coverage
at Mishko's Tea House - a hang-out for Erbil's literary set
at the foot of Erbil's Citadel. (M Goldfarb)
I was supposed to share a ride to Amman with British journalist
Patrick Cockburn, but we got separated in the mob. I looked for
him for almost an hour. I returned to where my driver Sami and my
translator Ahmad were guarding my bags. In his poetic English Ahmad
said, "Untie yourself from that man." I didn't know how
to tell them I simply couldn't afford to hire a car on my own and
had to travel with Patrick. But before we could talk further they
found a guy with a 1997 Chevy Suburban touting for business.
He wanted 1,800 bucks to drive me to Amman. My team engaged in some
heavy Middle Eastern haggling and got him down to $700. The deal
I hastily said goodbye to my team and set off, although not immediately,
for Amman. My driver, being a good middle class young man, had to
go home and tell his mother that he was going to Jordan for a couple
of days so she wouldn't worry.
We roared across the desert and got to the border crossing at
R'weisheid. I had one last film set moment: I had been here on the
Jordanian side in February reporting on how the war would affect
Iraq's neighbors. Obviously, I was not allowed on the Iraqi side
of the border station. Now here I was having to unpack all my gear,
the gear I paid 50 bucks at the Iranian border to get into Iraq,
so Jordanian customs officials could go through it. For me it wasn't
difficult but a couple of colleagues were delaying themselves arguing
with the customs guys. The Jordanians wanted to seize their maps
of Iraq and my journalist friends were objecting with increasing
I could have told them for nothing that you should never lose
your temper with border guards. But as you already know, I don't
always follow my own advice.