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The World | COLUMN ONE

An Unseen Lifeline in Iraq

Western journalists rely heavily on a staff of locals to help them report and survive. There's a bond, but also a stark divide -- the visitors get to leave.

July 15, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — He is proud of the enormous armored sedan. "Two inches, the glass. Very strong."

He is proud to have survived the bombings -- two of them so far.

He is proud that he is routinely trusted to navigate this airport road, the unpredictable scene of ambushes and assassinations.

Black smoke spirals skyward on the horizon, and swarms of Iraqi men in camouflage and dark masks tote rifles by the roadside.

But the driver puts me at ease.

He has driven other reporters down this road. He names them. They were brave. And all survived.

Then there is a sudden thud. The driver's eyes dart across the asphalt and along brown apartments lining both sides of the highway. He fumbles for a walkie-talkie, speaking in Arabic to bodyguards in another car. Even at a distance, the explosion creates a deep tremor.

He cranks the wheel to the right, making a hairpin turn.

Drivers shuttling Westerners around this beleaguered city change course frequently to throw off kidnappers. But this about-face is sudden and unnerving. Our driver is taking us the wrong way up a highway off-ramp.

Cars streak past in the opposite direction, a foot off our left front fender. My chest tightens.

"Is this normal?" I ask. "I mean, driving the wrong way like this?"

"In Iraq," the driver answers, "broken is the normal."

*

The Iraqi men and women who drive, cook, guard and interpret for American correspondents in Baghdad have much to teach.

At any given time, there are generally three American correspondents covering Iraq for The Times. Roughly 25 Iraqis support them: interpreters, drivers and bodyguards, cooks, a computer technician and an office manager.

From a single floor in a once-elegant, badly faded building across the Tigris River from the fortified Green Zone, this team of Americans and Iraqis tracks the U.S.-led occupation -- covering the budding parliament, measuring the mood from Mosul to Basra, trying to make sense of the daily violence.

Without exception, the Western journalists I met during a recent three-week tour in Baghdad acknowledged their increasing dependence on Iraqis.

Americans routinely trust their lives to their Iraqi colleagues, but they also worry whether these aides can deliver the fullest picture of the country's struggles. These locals, after all, are mostly of a certain caste: English speakers, comfortable with Americans. Few hail from, say, Sadr City, the poor Shiite Muslim neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

But a similar critique might be leveled at journalists in the United States. And the Iraqi staff does not lack for diversity of opinion.

One day, an older interpreter said he had felt safer under Saddam Hussein. "At least then," he said, "I knew who to be afraid of."

A younger colleague immediately disagreed. "This is crazy," he retorted. "Of course it's better he is gone."

These nationals help conduct interviews. They gather information on their own by telephone or on visits to politicians, police chiefs, sheiks, aid workers and Iraqi citizens. They sift through

e-mail and phone reports from stringers, part-time reporters scattered across Iraq. They go places a foreigner cannot. Their daily experiences help keep their American colleagues connected to the realities of life in Baghdad.

The work is dangerous. Out of concern for their security, their names are not used in this article. Of the 73 journalists reported killed during the war, 52 were Iraqis. All but one of the 27 support workers and technicians killed were Iraqi.

But work is in short supply here, and the Western press never lacks for new recruits.

Drivers and bodyguards can earn $500 a month. Capable interpreter-

reporters can make as much as $2,000, occasionally more.

"I know for the Western world this is not a lot," said one of The Times' veteran interpreters, who once worked in the medical field. "But in Iraq, this is a very good salary."

The interpreter spoke with pride about the stories he has helped cover: a string of assassinations that targeted physicians, water contamination that caused a deadly outbreak of typhoid, insurgent dominion in the northern city of Mosul.

"I had to leave my family during Eid" for the Mosul story, he said, referring to the Muslim holiday that follows Ramadan. "But no one else from the press was there. It was worth it."

It's not safe for him and the others to broadcast their achievements too widely. Most describe their work only to close family members or a friend or two. Others might dodge the question by saying they work as interpreters for government agencies.

The threat of exposure wears on them and can grow acute when they venture into public with one of their pale-faced American colleagues. Tension swirls around routine visits to the Convention Center -- the seat of parliament and the fledgling government -- because dozens of television news crews gather outside.

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