Our Man In Iraq Leaves

NPR's Quil Lawrence is finishing up a year's posting as Baghdad bureau chief this week, capping off a decade covering Iraq. Few western journalists have been on the story that long. In this "exit interview," guest host Jacki Lyden steps back and focuses on the arc of events, from dictatorship to invasion, to occupation and to what now appears to be an exhausted insurgency in Iraq.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Parts of Iraq are recovering from a series of deadly, coordinated bombings this past week, thought to be connected to the killings of two senior al-Qaida operatives. With no clear leader in Iraq following its March elections, and U.S. combat troops set to withdraw in June, it seems as fragile a time as ever in Iraq.

NPR's bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, is finishing up a yearlong assignment in Baghdad this week, capping off a decade of Iraq coverage. Few Western journalists have been on the story for that long. And Quil Lawrence joins us now for something of an exit interview.

And Quil, Im glad to be doing it with you. Welcome.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Thanks, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, a decade youve been reporting on Iraq, well before the fall of Saddam - obviously - covering the dictatorship, the American-led invasion in '03, the occupation, the insurgency, and now political fallout. Would you just walk us through the evolution, as you see it, of this last decade?

LAWRENCE: Yes. Certainly when I first came here it was a story about a dictatorship that many people considered to be one of the most brutal in the world. Coming to Baghdad in those days was, of course, quiet, stable. There was perfect law and order, as you only get in a police state. But there were these portraits of Saddam peering down on you from every corner and at the border stations, and you could really just feel this weight.

LYDEN: It was a little creepy.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, it was. It was terrifying in a lot of ways, especially knowing what was going on - about the secret prisons and the secret police. They used to say that you couldnt have more than five people in one place without one of them working for one of the security services.

And then seeing that be torn down, literally - all of these posters be torn down in the days after the American invasion hit Baghdad was quite something - though watching the euphoria, I suppose, pass to a period of uncertainty and chaos. And now a kind of a stability, where people are really still holding their breath and trying to decide whats happened to them, really.

There's so much of Iraq's history thats still a mystery to people, stories that we haven't been able to tell because they were overtaken by the next ensuing catastrophe.

LYDEN: who stands out as you conclude this? I mean, you talked about things getting obliterated by the war, but people's stories are remarkable.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, some of the stories for me, I guess, are some of the opposition leaders who I met 10 years ago when they were happy to meet with you anywhere, anytime to tryand get their story out. They would be in London or Washington. Some of them were in Damascus or Tehran. They wanted to tell their story.

Now some of them, well, they can barely find time to make space to meet with journalists. They're ministers, they're presidents of the country. So seeing those - sort of historic figures evolve is quite impressive.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. But now, as you leave, there is something of a power vacuum with the contested parliamentary results. What do you feel about the future?

LAWRENCE: It's so hard to say. The only thing Im sure of in Iraq is that there will be surprises. I guess the currents you feel are - one is a pessimism that many Iraqis share about how Iraq has never really held together as a country, that it's always been terribly violent. And at the same time, appreciating how far that they have come against those odds in the last few years, to have what is a flawed and corrupt government but one thats truly representative around the country. And the Iraqi character sort of tends to go from being terribly pessimistic about it to saying, well, we're going to push through this.

LYDEN: You head next, Quil, to Kabul. Some people would say, what - glutton for punishment or what?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, it's sort of been - I guess - a decade of the war on terror. And I guess on a personal note, I feel really privileged to be able to witness all of this history, that these are the most important events in my journalistic career, and some of the most significant events in the world I've had a chance to witness. But I'd be lying if I said it wasnt wearing me down some.

LYDEN: But as you said, a privilege to be able to tell the story, which you do so well. And thanks for spending the time with us as you conclude this particular chapter. We really look forward to hearing you in Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: NPR Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence.

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