Interview with Tim Arango: Beyond Iraq’s Headlines

Iraq has been subject to intense upheaval, social change, and cyclical violence — a reality that is challenging for any reporter to capture and share with an international readership. We spoke with The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau chief, Tim Arango, to learn more about his process, the transforming landscape for journalists covering Iraq, and his thoughts on the country’s future after ISIS. 

A street in Baghdad.

M. Schweitzer: Iraqis have been subject to wartime conditions for nearly 37 years — from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War through the 1990-1991 Gulf War, sanctions, and the post-2003 occupation. How have these cycles of violence shaped Iraqi perceptions of crisis today, most recently the fight against ISIS?  

T. Arango: Every generation in Iraq has been impacted by the recurring cycles of violence there. For Iraqis who were alive in 1980, the war that started that year against Iran has never stopped. During my time in the country, I have found that there is a pervasive sense among Iraqis that the American government will continue to dictate how events in Iraq will unfold, and that one’s future is uncontrollable. The younger generations came of age during the worst years in terms of violence, after 2003.

Yet, what strikes me today about Iraqi society and its collective psyche is that it is shaped — even after being subjected to incredible violence and horrible upheaval — by a sense that future events and development are out of one’s control; Iraqis are not masters of their own fate. In turn, this feeling creates an almost relaxed persona, warmth, and hospitality among Iraqis that is still difficult for me to understand. After working in Iraq for seven years, I am still amazed that I have never once felt threatened or uncomfortable. While the main concern remains — of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — the generosity of the Iraqi spirit is truly remarkable.

In your November article, Another Mass Grave Dug by ISIS in Iraq, and a Ghastly Ritual Renewed,” you describe the mass graves uncovered in territory liberated from ISIS as “the horrible symbol of what has been for decades a gut-wrenching constant of Iraqi life: the disappearance of loved ones into the machinery of despotism.” How do you approach this culture of unknown fate and the trauma it represents?

Violence and disappearance of loved ones is one of the most prevalent issues shaping Iraqi society and culture. This twofold pain — of losing someone and then not knowing their fate — struck me early in my time covering Iraq. The mass graves of ISIS, as well as those filled during the Saddam period, are symbols of this sense of loss. It is critical to cover these kinds of stories in a way that shows how these graves fit into the broader cultural context — and not to present, every time, a bare-bones news story about a newly-discovered mass grave. Loss and sacrifice is such an important part of the Iraqi psyche today.

The graves and the focus on loss has gotten in the way of reconciliation between aggrieved communities. After 2003, the Saddam-era mass graves started to be uncovered, including the Shia graves in the south and the Kurdish graves in the north. Even though these sites were found as much as 13 years ago, there has not been much work done to identify remains through DNA testing. Much of the impasse comes down to political disputes; for example, the Kurds and the Shia often compete about which group was the greater victim under Saddam. As a result, those affected have never received any answers about the fate of their loved ones; they have never faced the past or reconciled with it. Overcoming this history is essential for Iraqis to move forward, at both individual and national levels.

As the fight against ISIS grinds on, memorials, posters, and photographs depicting those who have died in various battles across Iraq — many of whom while fighting in non-state Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). How do perceptions of martyrdom and battlefield sacrifice impact Iraq’s youth population — have views on martyrdom changed during your time in Iraq?

Martyrdom is central to the Shia identity. Because of the fight against ISIS, and the emergence of the PMU, it is impossible to escape reminders of the men who have been martyred on the battlefield. Across many of Baghdad’s neighborhoods there are photographs, flags, and banners depicting and celebrating those who have died. And, of course, the cemetery in Najaf keeps expanding. It is difficult to say whether young Shias in Iraq have come to see themselves as destined for martyrdom, particularly within the cyclical violence that the country has experienced since 2003. There is a segment of the population — especially in Baghdad — comprising young, more secular youth who are involved with civic activism and civil society. These people do not want anything to do with the martial culture that so many associate with Iraq today. Members of the Shia lower classes, however, who are joining the PMU generally see martyrdom as a great honor. In some sense, there does seem, ultimately, to be a socioeconomic divide in terms of perception of martyrdom. This question of young people’s views regarding martyrdom is a good one, and is something that needs to be explored further.

How does this sentiment translate into the relationship between Iraqi youth and the government? Most young Iraqis lack any faith in the government or political class in Baghdad; they are completely disillusioned. The only real relationship that exists between Iraqis and their government is through the patronage networks. A huge segment of the population relies on a government or ministry salary: approximately 62 percent of Iraqis are employed and paid by the state, although some among this population are “ghost” soldiers or employees — people who do not actually exist but still receive a paycheck. This lack of faith in government, combined with the outsized role that government plays as the main employer in Iraq, highlights the reasons why it has proven so difficult for Abadi to implement much-needed economic reforms. Austerity measures and widespread layoffs would just be too painful for Iraqis, and give a significant shock to the system.

Every so often, there are hopeful bursts of street protests aimed at sending messages to politicians in Baghdad. This trend began in August 2015 when thousands of people took to the streets in Baghdad to protest government inefficiency — specifically electricity shortages. These demonstrations are sporadic, but they do illuminate an energetic civil society that can mobilize popular sentiment. Ultimately, though, it is no young Iraqi’s ambition to become a politician. Instead, many Iraqis wish to secure a bureaucratic job in a government ministry that pays a decent salary.

Seemingly-perpetual conflict has transformed the relationship between Iraq’s state and people, shaping the manner in which Iraqis made claim to citizenship and national identity. What are the challenges you face when reporting on the pervasiveness of violence in Iraqi society, and the way in which the state relates to its people through conflict?

In terms of practical reporting, Iraq is today divided into various silos of authority: primarily the state and the non-state Popular Mobilization Units (these militias, also known as the PMU, are in some ways more powerful than the government). However, another astonishing thing about working in Iraq — as opposed to, say, Turkey, which I also cover — is the high level of accessibility across Iraqi institutions; almost every important leader lives inside Iraq and is willing to speak to journalists. There was a gradual shift after 2011 toward greater openness among Iraq’s various state and non-state entities. At that point, many of the groups that are prominent today — including, for example, PMU like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) — began to emerge into the political sphere. These groups that had been perceived by the Americans during the post-2003 occupation as terrorist entities were off-limits for many journalists before 2011. Today, I am able to speak with high-level figures in these organizations; moreover, these leaders are often eager to take me to the battlefields on which their groups are fighting. These groups are seeking legitimacy in the current political climate; their leaders have political ambitions. At the same time, the Army and other state-based military units have also grown more accessible since late 2014.

In terms of national identity, though, Iraqis’ notions of citizenship or belonging to the state are shaped by their long experience with violence — from state and non-state sources. As time goes on, individuals seem to cling to smaller and smaller identities, whether that is the tribe, sect, neighborhood, or family. Trying to tell that story is a significant part of my job, as I seek to relate Iraq’s story to an international audience. One particularly good illustration of this situation is the fact that, wherever you go across Iraq, you will see many different types of flags representing various militia, religious, sectarian, or national groups. I can always tell where I am in the capital or country by looking at the flags. Interestingly, the Iraqi national flag is never the most prominent symbol, as it might be in the US. This fractious identity is, in part, a product of how Iraqis understand the state’s role after ISIS swept into Mosul in June 2014. The widespread feeling among Iraqis — particularly among the Shia community — is that the PMU are the true heroes fighting against ISIS, and that the PMU are better able to provide protection than the Iraqi Army.

You have been reporting from Iraq since 2010. In the period between the withdrawal of US combat troops in December 2011 and ISIS’s advances in June 2014, the country has experienced intense social upheaval, political change, and conflict. How did you choose to cover Iraq — has the narrative of Iraq’s development, political status, and role in regional affairs changed during that period?

I joined The New York Times in 2007, and my first job was to cover media. I always wanted to work at the Times because, once I got in the door, I knew that I would have many opportunities to go from one assignment to another and to see different parts of the world. The Iraq War had been the biggest story of that decade, aside from 9/11, and I missed it. When I started at the Times, it was always in the back of my mind that if the newspaper needed volunteers to cover Iraq, I would raise my hand. I wanted to be part of that story.

I arrived in Iraq just before the parliamentary elections in March 2010. At that point, I remember feeling as if I had missed all the action — looking back on the past decade, the 2010-2011 period was the best time, in terms of how hopeful Iraqis and international observers were about Iraq’s democratic development and the direction in which the country was headed, coming out of the sectarian civil war a few years earlier. In 2010 there was a cross-sectarian list running for parliament, people were speaking about moving beyond the sectarianism that had fueled violence after 2003. In 2011, Iraq began to take a more prominent role in the Arab League, and was urging international action in Libya — its leaders seemed to be attempting to step onto the international stage and play a bigger role in the region. Of course, this political situation was not necessarily something I perceived clearly in 2010. I had never been to Iraq before 2010. When I stepped off the plane, there was razor-wire everywhere and I was, at first, scared.

One memory stands out from those early days. I covered a speech from Ayad Allawi during the lead-up to the 2010 elections. He was a cross-sectarian figure, a Shia leading a largely Sunni list. I remember how hopeful his message was then. Standing at a rally outside Allawi’s house, I felt a real sense of this emotion — although security was still tight and attacks, while lessening, were ongoing. When Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement won the most seats in Parliament — beating Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition — I traveled to Adhamiya in east Baghdad. That night, after election results were announced, I saw and heard crowds, gunshots in the air, fireworks, and celebrations across the Sunni neighborhood. It really felt, at that moment, as if the country could come together. Looking back from the present, this period seems exceedingly optimistic.

Today, Iraq and its leaders are much more inward-looking; the current situation represents a far more existential period in the country’s history. Iran, while always influential in Iraq, has in recent years become much more powerful inside the country after ISIS. Interestingly, as this political situation devolved, the challenges to reporting decreased — particularly in terms of access. For example, when the battle started around Mosul in October, it felt as if anyone and everyone could gain access to the battlefield. It is remarkable how open the Iraqi Army was at that point, especially the Iraqi counter-terror forces. The risks are likely more obvious today than they were in 2010, but the actual reporting process has followed an opposite trajectory. There are many difficulties one faces in Iraq, but reporting on it — in terms of being able to talk to people and travel freely — is not one of them.

Iraqi politics and society are in a state of rapid flux. How is The New York Times Baghdad Bureau structured today — has it changed or adapted to the issues that have emerged in Iraq since your arrival in 2010, as well as to the evolving interests of readers during that periods?

The greatest difference between the Bureau before and after the US occupation is size and number of personnel employed. Before the withdrawal of American combat troops in 2011, the Times employed a huge number of local staff to support an equally huge news team. During that period, the Times was also responsible for protecting their entire operation — an extremely costly responsibility.

Today, the Bureau is much more nimble. We share costs and facilities with other news outlets, and there are significantly fewer local staff or correspondents in-country at any given time. After 2011, I was the only journalist from The New York Times left in Iraq. Every so often, someone else will come through the Bureau for a short period of time. Although ISIS swept through northern Iraq, and American soldiers and advisors have returned to the country, Iraq is just not the same type of story as it was before 2011. There simply is not the same demand for Iraq stories everyday as there was during the US occupation. For example, while the first car bomb in 2003-2004 was an important international story, 14 years later, the latest car bomb in the country draws less international attention as the violence there becomes familiar.

As a result, I must prioritize the stories that I seek to cover — I report on Turkey for half the year, and Iraq for the other half. My first job is to cover the bigger topics that The New York Times readership needs to know, and leave some of the more off-beat material for later. I have written about these less-mainstream topics before; last year I reported on the Baghdad marathon, and I have previously covered a famous Kebab restaurant that moved from Fallujah to Baghdad. If covered properly, it is possible to tell an important story through such off-beat topics. For example, the Kebab restaurant illuminated how Iraqis view their history and the somewhat mythologized past of sectarian co-existence – a period in which everyone could go to Fallujah to eat together. It is difficult to assess how the process of reporting changes with regards to reader interest. When I arrived in 2010, there was certainly a sense of “Iraq fatigue.” Now, when I write a story about violence in Iraq, it will have less of an impact as before. To keep readers’ attention, it is important to be creative or colorful; covering off-beat stories can help perform this role.

Since the Trump Administration issued its Executive Order on 27 January banning immigration from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries, Iraqis have expressed a sense of betrayal by the United States — even as the two countries fight a common enemy.  Will the White House’s policy make it more difficult to report on Iraq — how could it reshape Iraqi perceptions of their country’s partnership with the US?

I do not believe that the Trump Administration’s policies will make my life as a journalist any more difficult, given my experience working with Iraqis in the past. Iraqis have a great ability to separate their views about American politicians from how they treat individual American citizens. Despite the post-2003 history of occupation — which was colored by events like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal — Iraqis have never blamed me or my American journalist friends for these abuses or excesses.

In terms of the Iraqi partnership with the US in the fight against ISIS, however, the Trump Administration’s policies could have a detrimental effect. Iraqis want to feel valued and respected in their relationship with the US, and they view the immigration restrictions as an incredible insult. The other implication of the immigration policy is that it will likely further empower Iran’s actions in Iraq. Much of the Iraqi government’s response will be out of Prime Minister Abadi’s hands. Trump’s policy is a fantastic tool with which actors like Moqtada al-Sadr and other militia leaders can whip up popular anger against Baghdad. In the 2018 elections, it will be interesting to see whether PMU leaders like Hadi al-Ameri, or controversial figures like Nouri al-Maliki, can capitalize on Iraqi frustration with Abadi’s response, and thus secure electoral gain. If these actors are successful in 2018, their potential policies could have serious implications for critical post-ISIS policymaking, including efforts to manage the PMU after Mosul.

The timing of the White House’s immigration restrictions could not have been worse, as Iraqi soldiers take the fight against ISIS into western Mosul. For example, it is now unclear whether Iraqi generals, who have family in the US, will be able to see their relatives. However, I have been somewhat surprised by the public’s reaction to the visa ban — people have not taken to the streets in Baghdad to protest.

While significant international attention has focused on the fight against ISIS, Iraq faces serious underlying political and economic challenges, the responses to which will shape any post-ISIS state. What are the dominant narratives or questions emerging in Iraqi politics and society?

The greatest question in Iraq today is about the future of the Sunni community, and how it can reconstitute itself after ISIS. As much as sectarianism impacts and poisons Iraqi politics, the country’s development is not driven by the Sunni-Shia split. Rather, Iraq’s future hinges on how divides within the Sunni community might be reconciled or managed, after ISIS has killed thousands of Sunni civilians, reduced Sunni-majority cities to rubble, and divided Sunni families. How can local populations restore war-damaged infrastructure, and create conditions for return? What leaders might emerge from this decimated community? The answers to these questions will shape debates moving forward regarding the Sunni population’s relationship with the federal government in Baghdad, as well as the future status of Sunni-majority provinces. They will also guide the type of assistance western countries might be willing to provide for reconstructing Iraq over the next few years.

While I am reluctant to identify reasons for optimism regarding Iraq’s future, I also believe it is unlikely that the country will slide back to the same pattern of politics and violence that produced ISIS in 2014. After the pain and heartbreak experienced since ISIS’s emergence, few people will be willing to let such a group gain a foothold again. This sentiment could create some space and time to bring the country together.

This interview was originally posted at the Post-War Watch.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email