Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Remember that Farnaz Fassihi email?

There were so many compelling stories to choose from about Sunday's elections in Iraq, and some came from surprising quarters. Even that curmudgeon and skeptic, Robert Fisk, couldn't help himself: "it was the sight of thousands of Shias, the women in black "hijab" covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away." And doubtless there will be many more post-election analyses from sources like Robert Scheer, who today is uncharacteristically benevolent toward the Bush administration: "To be sure, President Bush did the right thing in pushing through the election, because the Sunni insurgency is not going to fade away as long as it can feed off the occupation's presence." (Worth a look.)

But I'm am a little surprised that Farnaz Fassihi's account has not gotten picked up more in the blogosphere. (I might have missed it myself, but for Marc Cooper pointing it out.) Remember Fassihi? She was the reporter whose private email last September became public, causing a bit of a stir, and prompting much navel-gazing by presswonks. Here's what she wrote about the elections last September:

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him about elections here. He has been trying to educate the public on the importance of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be an example for the Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a model for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before all is lost."

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle.

The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three months while half of the country remains a 'no go zone'-out of the hands of the government and the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the other half, the disenchanted population is too terrified to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis have already said they'd boycott elections, leaving the stage open for polarized government of Kurds and Shiites that will not be deemed as legitimate and will most certainly lead to civil war.

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate in the Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could to some degree elect a leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"

Now compare that with her equally personal account in yesterday's WSJ, which I reprint in full here:
Reporter's Notebook:
Iraq Breaks From Past

January 31, 2005 9:11 a.m.

BAGHDAD -- The crowd began streaming into the polling station near our hotel by 10 a.m. They lined up patiently behind rolls of barbed wire and submitted to being frisked and searched with metal detectors. Men smiled as they handed over personal belongings -- mobile phones, cameras and pens -- to the security guard. Women, many covering their hair with festive scarves, pulled along little kids in party dresses.

There were boxes of sugar cookies, and congratulatory exchanges. In one classroom-turned-polling-center, the monitor hovered nearby with a big grin as voters neatly folded their large ballots and dropped them into the transparent plastic box. "Barak-Allah Eini," ("Well done, my dear"), he said to every single one.

Wathah Hussein, a 75-year-old woman with a hunched back and shaking hands, reached into her black abaya and brought out a crumpled back plastic bag that contained all of her identity documents: her food-ration card, birth certificate and voter registration card. She asked one of the monitors if he could help her vote. "I can't tell you who to vote for," he said.

"Iyad Allawi, Iyad Allawi," she repeated, explaining that she was illiterate and needed help finding interim Prime Minister Mr. Allawi's slate on the ballot sheet. Behind the makeshift booths made of cardboard, with shaking hands and a little assistance, she cast her vote and walked out waving her inked finger and saying to herself and anyone who listened, "This is a happy day, I am happy."

The dusty, dirty streets behind the hotel in the Jadriya district of Baghdad had suddenly been transformed into a neighborhood block party of sorts. Yet in the background, occasional booms of mortars raining down in the distance could still be heard. News came of carnage and explosions in other parts of the capital. Our Iraqi neighbors, the residents of the mostly Shiite district around our hotel in Baghdad, were braving the intimidations, threats of violence and risk of death to exercise democracy.

My window into Iraq's election was limited. I could not jump in the car, as I've done to cover past elections, and drive around from polling station to polling station to gauge with my own eyes how the day was faring. Even moving around my hotel was not risk free. I wore black pants and a long raincoat, covered my hair in a dark scarf and hid my press credentials, pretending to be local as I walked with my translator, an Iraqi named Haaqi, from one polling station to the other. "Try not to speak English or answer your phone while we are on the street," he instructed. The streets were dangerous and infested with insurgents, and he was taking no chances being spotted.

Navigating around Baghdad was especially tough because of the elaborate security measures. An all-day vehicle ban across the capital meant we could not drive around even if we wished. Several reporters attempted to do so by flashing their government-issued election credentials, only to receive warning shots from jittery Iraqi police at checkpoints. They were told to leave their cars and walk back home.

We were forced to find creative ways to cover the day. For starters, the curfew meant that our Iraqi staff, who live across town, had to temporarily move into our hotel, hostage to our needs for three days and abandoning their worried relatives. Between us, we came up with a list of Iraqi friends and contacts scattered around Baghdad. In between visits to the neighborhood polling stations the Iraqi staff, we worked the phones.

What's happening in the Sunni enclaves of Adhamiya and Ammariya, where the residents are notoriously anti-American and sympathetic to insurgents? "None of the polling stations have opened here. The streets are desolate," said my friend, Ziad, from his home in Adhamiya around 3 p.m. "We haven't left the house." From Sadr City, a slum near Baghdad where loyalty to militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr runs high, Ahmed Mukhtar, an Iraqi journalist friend called me in the afternoon to report with great excitement in his voice that polling stations were forced to bring extra ballot boxes.

"There are so many women voting, you wouldn't believe it, even more than men," he said. A mortar landed in a house behind a polling station in Sadr City, killing four people but the shock had not deterred voters, who were back in line an hour later. "This is the best day of my life."

The most astonishing news was that even some Sunni Muslims were voting. In some areas in the Sunni Triangle, like Samarra and Mahmoudiya, polling stations never opened, and in other places like Tikrit, voters were scarce. But Abu Munaf, our driver, called his brothers -- all of them former army generals and ex-regime Baathists who live in the Ghazalliya district of Baghdad, a home to many former army officers. He was amazed to discover they were speaking to him from the line outside a polling station. "This is unbelievable. The general has gone to vote," he exclaimed when he hung up the phone.

For me, one of the most extraordinary moments was watching Haqqi, my long-time translator, cast his ballot. Haqqi is from Tikrit and comes from a tribe related to Saddam Hussein. Until the fall of Baghdad, he had lived all of his 26 years enjoying privileges unknown to most other Iraqi families.

The son of an ambassador, he grew up abroad and was educated in international private schools. He drives a Mercedes and speaks impeccable English. He and I argue often and passionately about events in Iraq. He criticizes everything and anything since the fall of the regime; I point out that under Saddam he couldn't work for an American newspaper or so much as voice his opinion.

All along, as he followed me to interviews and press conferences, his attitude was dismissive and pessimistic. Then yesterday, half an hour before the polling center closed, he had a change of heart. I heard him pleading with election workers to allow him to vote out of his district. He had never bothered to pick up his registration form.

"I really want to vote," I heard him say. "I didn't before, but coming here today and seeing old people, handicapped and women and men vote made me feel very nationalistic. I am Iraqi. I have a right to decide the future. Please let me vote."

The election worker smiled and handed him a ballot sheet. Afterwards he simply said, "It was great," and quickly made a phone call to the rest of our staff encouraging them to rush over and cast a ballot.

Election Day was the most uplifting moment I've witnessed in the two years that I've been stationed in Iraq. I was here for the last Iraqi election, in October 2002, when Saddam held a referendum to solidify his rule. Then, there was one name on the ballot, and rejecting him meant retaliation no one dared to even ponder. At a polling station in Tikrit that day, the crowd broke into cheers and dances as soon as our bus full of journalists approached. Voters poked their hands with needles to pledge their alliance to Saddam with their blood. It was a formidable show, but obviously not genuine.

Since then, I have marked many milestones in Iraq since the war officially began in March 2003 -- fall of the regime, killing of Saddam's sons Uday and Qussay, formation of the Governing Council, the capture of Saddam, the handover of sovereignty to an interim government and now the creation of a national assembly. None has captured the attention and imagination of Iraqis the way yesterday's elections did.

Iraqis viewed those events with the skepticism and suspicion they always do for things forced upon them by an outside hand -- in this case the Americans. It's difficult to predict what yesterday's election will mean in the coming months. The new government will continue to battle a raging insurgency, while negotiating a new constitution in hopes it will help restore the war-torn nation.

But one thing is clear: Iraqis have finally broken from the past.

Farnaz Fassihi is the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She joined the Journal in January 2003 and was immediately sent to Iraq. She has degrees in English from Tehran University and in journalism from Columbia University. Prior to joining the Journal, she was a roving foreign correspondent for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. *Write to* Farnaz Fassihi at farnaz.fassihi@wsj.com

A few months ago, I took out an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal, and it's been worth every penny, with lots of gems like the one above. The old adage that I used to hear some twenty years ago or more -- that the WSJ's reporting is as good as its editorial page is bad -- still holds.

No comments: