Blogging Baghdad: Reflections on Five Years at War

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Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Eric Owles, chief multimedia producer for the New York Times, talks about the Baghdad Bureau, a blog where journalists and soldiers reflect on the events of the war.

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NEIL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A year after stories that exposed squalid conditions and interminable bureaucracy at the Army's premier medical facility, we're going to spend most of this hour focusing on what's changed at Walter Reed, specifically, and in the Army's medical care system in general. Assistant Surgeon General and Brigadier General Mike Tucker will join us from the Pentagon to take your questions.

But first, fives years after the start of the war, we go to Baghdad. A month ago, reporters, photographers and videographers in The New York Times' Baghdad Bureau started a new blog. Western and Iraqi staff members post stories about explosions and attacks, political developments and everyday life there. They interact with readers from around the world.

Earlier this week, a multimedia producer and a member of the newspaper's Iraqi staff traveled around Baghdad to ask Iraqis questions submitted by the blog's readers.

Mr. ERIC OWLES (Chief Multimedia Producer, The New York Times): One reader asked, how do Iraqi people feel about the U.S. troops in Iraq? Did they think it has helped or did they think things are getting worse with the U.S. troops in the country?

HALDER (Shiite; Street Vendor): (Through translator) Ever since the Americans came, we haven't seen anything good from them. Every neighborhood they go in, the Americans go over (unintelligible). If they enter an area, then that area has problems.

CONAN: And that was Halder, a Shiite street vendor. The producer put that same question to Bakar, also a Shiite who was partially blinded by an IED, and also to Bakar's brother.

BAKAR (Shiite): (Through translator) If the American government pulled out, there will be disasters in Iraq because now we have a school of terrorism and the terrorists need to have someone standing at their base. America is strong and if it pulled out, then the Iraqi people are weak and terrorism will take control and not only on Iraq but in all of the Arab homeland and all of the world.

Mr. OWLES: Do you agree with your brother?

Unidentified Man (Shiite, Brother of Bakar): (Through translator) No, I don't. I think that America is terrorism.

CONAN: Iraqis answering questions submitted by readers of The New York Times' Baghdad Bureau blog.

What questions would you ask the Iraqi man or woman in the street? Our number 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Eric Owles is the chief multimedia producer for nytimes.com and he joins us now by phone from The New York Times bureau in Baghdad.

Eric Owles, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. OWLES: Hello. Thanks very much.

CONAN: And was it easy to get Iraqis - to find Iraqis willing to answer these questions?

Mr. OWLES: We had some mixed success with that. There were some people that (unintelligible) camera or they did not want to show their faces on camera. There were others that did not want their full name used. But in general, (unintelligible) willing to. We're usually considered safe so - or more safer, so most of the people we talked to are willing to talk to us.

CONAN: And I should explain this. A larger prologue to your man in the street and woman in the street interviews in which you say - explain some of the difficulties and explain this is not scientific; you're not doing an opinion survey here.

Mr. OWLES: Right. This was man on a street interviews where we walk up to people. The people that (unintelligible) were usually the first or second person to give a coherent smart answer to the reader's question.

CONAN: Hmm, a coherent smart answer. So again, you're limiting yourself to some degree.

Mr. OWLES: Well, in general, I think - by the neighborhoods we're going, we're going to middle-class neighborhoods. We were going to mixed neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shiites work together. I interviewed (unintelligible) lots of store owners. Because by doing that, you're going to be safer than just conducting your interview out on the street. So in limiting yourself in that way, you're getting a smaller group of people that would be (unintelligible).

CONAN: Do you also take care not to stay in any one place very long?

Mr. OWLES: Correct.

CONAN: And I wonder, the questions, how many have been submitted on The New York Times' blog?

Mr. OWLES: We've got hundreds of comments so far. But there's a particular one (unintelligible) about 12 or 15 to go out and ask Iraqis in the street. And we had very varying degrees of (unintelligible). The questions that the reader submitted, I was really impressed with the quality of them. Some of them had a little bit of a bias to it. But in general, the rest are smart questions.

CONAN: Hmm. We're asking out listeners to call up and see if they have - might have some suggestions for you even though they're not necessarily readers of The New York Times' Baghdad Bureau blog. But let's see if we can get Bill(ph) on the line. Bill's calling us from South Bend in Indiana.

BILL (Caller): Yes. This is a question that I've been thinking about for some time. I think it's the 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to confront, which is does the Iraqi on the street actually long for the Saddam Hussein regime to be back in power because I think there's no denying, unfortunately, things were a lot more stable under that regime than they has been since and they're showing no signs of getting any more stable? And I just wondered if the Iraqis actually are in a sad way kind of wistful for the stability of Saddam Hussein's regime?

CONAN: And I wonder, Eric Owles, was that one of the questions submitted by one of your readers?

Mr. OWLES: It was. I think a lot of people wanted to know what the average Iraqi felt and (unintelligible) answer because as you saw on the video, we reported even among (unintelligible) brother and (unintelligible).

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. OWLES: But, in general, if you could say that Sunnis are more in favor of the Americans staying a little bit longer for example; and for the Shiites in general, maybe more in favor of Americans leaving.

CONAN: Was there any of that attitude that Bill was asking about, that wistful remembrance of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. OWLES: Some of the Sunni that I interviewed in a park did have a little bit visual reminisces for the stability of Saddam, obviously. The Shiites we interviewed generally less so.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call Bill.

And the other question is obviously, you're only speaking to people in Baghdad. I guess that's another limitation.

Mr. OWLES: That's correct.

CONAN: But obvious that…

Mr. OWLES: We are trying to travel outside of the city as well, but for this Q&A, I just conducted it this past weekend traveling around Baghdad.

CONAN: Were you nervous?

Mr. OWLES: Oh, no. Not really. We have pretty good safety precautions, so.

CONAN: And as you go ahead, are you going to be looking for different kinds of Iraqis because, obviously, with an interpreter, you don't have to ask questions just in English?

Mr. OWLES: Right. My (unintelligible) in doing this was to try and get a mix of different (unintelligible) of people, population-wise. We wanted to try and interview Sunnis as well as Shiites as well as Kurds. One of the people we interviewed was a (unintelligible), which obviously is not going to be the average person on the street in Baghdad. But we did get a pretty wide variety of these people.

CONAN: Let's get Erica(ph) on the line. And Erica is with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

ERICA (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ERICA: I wanted to maybe post a question. Maybe a lot of people are thinking in the short term and what has happened in the past six years, seven years. I would ask if in the long term, the average citizen believes that their children or future generations are going to have a better life due to the occupation or if the occupation has hurt that, what they think in the longer term versus, you know, next year if we pull out.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Remembering that just before the war, of course, for several years, there had been an embargo and the situation for many Iraqi children in particular was not so great.

Eric Owles, what did - is that one of the questions that's come up?

Mr. OWLES: That actually is one of the questions that we were asking was what was Iraqi's lives to be like five years from now? And we've found (unintelligible) even amongst Shiites that we do not get a uniform answer for them to (unintelligible). Even though we are not under the rule of Saddam Hussein anymore, we don't necessarily expect our lives to be better. However some of them were saying that. Sunnis were probably, in general, more pessimistic.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much for the call, Erica.

ERICA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And I think a lot of people have expressed frustration over this past five years and more that it's been so difficult to speak with regular Iraqis.

Mr. OWLES: You know, I think one of the reasons that this particular (unintelligible) is so successful was just that it allowed people to see and talk to, actual visit in Baghdad. It sort of removes (unintelligible) of the media.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get one more caller in. Alex - with us from Oklahoma City.

ALEX (Caller): Thank you for this opportunity. What I was wondering about is what does the average Iraqi think - the war started with our invasion of Iraq. There is no question as to what the two sides were. What does the average Iraqi think the war is continuing? What are the sides in the war to them at this point?

CONAN: Hmm. Have you been able to ask that question, Eric?

Mr. OWLES: I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?

CONAN: It's basically, what do Iraqis now believe the war - the continuing war is about?

Mr. OWLES: Right. The general rule of safety or a level of violence rather in our - across Iraq right now is blamed on different things based on the (unintelligible) people you talk to. I talk to some people who felt that the U.S. military was responsible for all the violence. I've talked to other people that felt that it was the insurgents that were responsible for all the violence. And that they're from (unintelligible) and neighborhoods.

CONAN: So a diversity of opinion. Thanks very much, Alex.

ALEX: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we could get one last caller in and go to - excuse me, Steve. Steve is with us from Cincinnati.

STEVE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi there.

STEVE: Hey.

Mr. OWLES: Hi.

STEVE: I was thinking about the children of Iraq. I recalled under the sanctions during the U.N. time. You know, the no-fly zone, that sort of stuff. That I recall hearing reports of 500,000 or a million Iraqi children dying each year. Has that situation changed now?

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure that Eric Owles is in the position to answer that question. He's a videographer who's been speaking with people on the streets of Baghdad posing questions put to him by readers of The New York Times' Baghdad Bureau blog. So I don't think we're going to put him on the spot and see if he knows that answer to that question, Steve.

STEVE: Okay. But thank you.

Mr. OWLES: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

And Eric Owles, thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. OWLES: Thanks very much.

CONAN: Eric Owles is the chief multimedia producer for nytimes.com. He joined us today by phone from The New York Times' Baghdad Bureau. You can find a link to the Baghdad Bureau blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Stay with us. When we come back we're going to be talking about the scandal uncovered by The Washington Post a year ago that found bleak conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When we come back we'll find out what's changed in the year since. If you're in the Army and received care at a military hospital, call and tell us your story - what's improved, what hasn't? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. That address is talk@npr.org. You can also get on our blog to tell us your story. Again that's - www.npr./blogofthenation - npr.org/blogofthenation. I'm just back from vacation. I'll get this right in a couple of days. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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