Author Goes 'Inside the Resistance' in Iraq

Steve Inskeep talks to Zaki Chehab, the political editor for al-Hayat, one of the best-known Arabic-language newspapers. In 2003, Chehab met a group of insurgents in Iraq. His new book Inside the Resistance he describes what he's seen during numerous trips to that country.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On this morning after President Bush gave a major speech on Iraq, we're going to review the effort to identify who the US and its allies are fighting. The military maxim `Know your enemy' has not been easy to follow in Iraq. One Arab journalist thinks the US did not always succeed in the war's early days. Zaki Chehab is political editor for Al-Hayat, one of the best-known Arabic language newspapers. In a new book, "Inside the Resistance," Chehab describes what he saw in numerous reporting trips to Iraq. In the critical months after the US invasion in 2003, he met some men in the city of Ramadi who offered to drive him into the countryside.

Mr. ZAKI CHEHAB (Political Editor, Al-Hayat): They drove me for about an hour in the field surrounding, you know, the city until I end up, you know, in one of these small farms, got into their compound.

INSKEEP: When you reached what amounted to an insurgent safehouse in the middle of the night out in the countryside in Iraq, what did the insurgents have to say to you and who were they?

Mr. CHEHAB: They were like a group of five. They have different kind of weapons, starting from these small mortar 60mm to different machine guns and hand grenades. And it was a bit scary because it was a curfew. You are not allowed to go around. It was fields. All you can hear is just helicopters in the air and lightning. And one thing they assured me, that they're not fans of Saddam Hussein. They really were like happy to see him going into jail because, you know, all his people have messed up the country. Definitely they were anti-Saddam. Definitely they talked about different kinds of groups, some of them Islamist, some of them missionaries, you know.

INSKEEP: This is early. This is still 2003 we're talking about.

Mr. CHEHAB: That was definitely end of June, 2003.

INSKEEP: US officials were saying that the main enemy at that point was people loyal to Saddam Hussein. You say they were something else.

Mr. CHEHAB: Whenever I used to hear such a statement about the kind of insurgency is faced by American official, I used to laugh because they were underestimating. I myself have the chance to talk to the commander of American forces in Iraq at that time, General Ricardo Sanchez, and after my trips in these areas, I felt obliged that I should tell him about what kind of feelings these people have expressed about the mistakes have been taken place.

INSKEEP: Mistakes? You're talking about American troops that misbehave in the populace?

Mr. CHEHAB: Yeah, because it's not matter of misbehaving. It's really the lack of knowledge, how--the tradition in this area; how to deal with the elders; how, when you enter a house, you have to respect. In general, the inhabitants of that area are conservative Muslims. Doesn't mean they are extreme Muslim.

INSKEEP: I have to observe that in addition to being a Palestinian, you're obviously an Arabic speaker. And it's remarkable to hear you describe being in a building or standing on a street and you're surrounded by people who are telling you, `Oh, I'm with the resistance, I'm with the insurgency,' and at the same time, American patrols are going by on the street completely oblivious to the conversations that might be going on right there in front of them.

Mr. CHEHAB: I was amazed. One day I was driving into Tikrit and in front of Saddam Hussein palace, and then suddenly, like, two cars stopped next to me. They were young...

INSKEEP: These are Iraqis?

Mr. CHEHAB: Iraqis. And they questioned me about if I have an ID. And I realize they are--you now, at that time, they are really Saddam Hussein loyalists and questioning me as if Saddam Hussein was in power. And in fact, there are more than 12,000 American soldiers just in Tikrit and around. And whenever they saw an American patrol going around, they just swear, you know, bad words at it.

INSKEEP: Your most vivid contacts with insurgents came, I suppose, around 2003, 2004. As we've gotten through 2004 into 2005, what has happened to the reporting environment in Iraq as you've gone back again and again?

Mr. CHEHAB: It's so difficult, not only for Westerner but even for Arab journalists and even Iraqi journalists. Large numbers of Iraqi reporters find it difficult to go around. Their life be in danger or they'll find difficulty in going here. So the environment is not that easy.

INSKEEP: Zaki Chehab is author of a book that he calls "Inside the Resistance," which includes his encounters with insurgents early in the war.

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