Baghdad Diary: Technology at War

January 25th, 2007 - by admin

Andrew North / BBC News – 2007-01-25 21:51:22

BAGHDAD (January 25, 2007) — The violence becomes more vicious, random and constant.

Gunfire in our part of Baghdad carries on long into the night now. The distinctive sound of mortars being fired or car bombs wake us up most mornings. But several incidents stand out.

A gangland-style shooting at an evening groceries market in east Baghdad. Gunmen drove up and raked the stalls with machinegun rounds, leaving at least 10 people dead and many others injured.

Then there was the devastating double-bombing at Mustansiriya university in east Baghdad last week, in which 70 people were killed — most of them young students. One hundred and seventy others were injured.

First, a car bomb was set off at the university entrance. Then, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest in a crowd fleeing the scene.

Rescue workers arriving to retrieve the dead and wounded were greeted by the sound of dozens of mobile phones ringing amongst the wreckage, as friends and relatives tried again and again to check on the fate of loved ones.

Just as depressing now is how quickly such events are forgotten. Seventy students dead in one attack. It is an amazing figure. Anywhere else it would be a story for days.

Yet as soon as the wreckage is cleared, so too are the memories.
We still travel round the city, to try to report on what’s happening. But we are being more cautious than ever.

Few are aware just how important technology has become in this conflict.
I’m not talking about American laser-guided weaponry and their all-seeing drones flying above Baghdad 24 hours a day.

What’s just as significant is the access ordinary Iraqis now have to day-to-day communication devices like mobiles and the Internet. Some use it as part of their fight, others to survive.

A quiet revolution has occurred since Saddam’s overthrow. You didn’t have broadband under the Baath party. You do now.

Millions of Iraqis own mobiles. Despite the violence, the phone companies have gradually expanded coverage — although their security budgets are astronomical. Even in places like Falluja, you get good reception.

A surreal moment comes to mind, when I was there with a US patrol. My UK mobile rang. It was my credit card company, wanting to check a purchase. As I was talking, the patrol came under fire. “I’m a bit busy now, I’ll call you back,” I shouted as I ducked behind a humvee.

The camera-equipped mobile phone has a central place in Iraqi history now, thanks to the notorious video of Saddam Hussein’s execution.

But for Ali, a doctor, it was also the only way he could show his parents and relatives his newborn son. It is just too dangerous for him to travel across town to where his parents live.

Insurgent groups have long used the Internet and mobiles to get their message out, distributing clips of attacks on the Americans — long before any US version of events is available.

Wealthier families use Internet phones to keep in touch with loved ones across the city and abroad.

Prevented from reaching her college because of fighting in her area, an academic friend decided to email questions to her students for their English literature exam.

I’ve mentioned her before in previous diaries. She talks more and more of leaving. But as long as she stays, she is determined to keep trying to educate her students, even if she now rarely sees them face-to-face.

But computers and Baghdad’s dysfunctional power system are not a happy partnership.

Her area was without power for more than a week recently. The back-up neighborhood generator had been damaged by a bomb. Eventually they got it fixed. But then a passing US military vehicle snagged the electricity cables in her street.

Only one thing for it. She sent the questions out by text message.
Her problem now is how to gather up all the exam papers.

It will probably be one of the most bizarre press conferences I will cover, certainly the most grotesque. Right up to the moment it started, none of us there really knew what to expect. But the way we were searched beforehand told us something.

An unusually determined crowd of Iraqi police officers surrounded the entrance to the room. We had to give up all our cameras, mobiles and microphones. One notebook and pen was all we were allowed. Some journalists had watches and sunglasses taken away, in case they held some kind of recorder. The New York Times correspondent even had his hair searched.

It was the day Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein’s half brother, and Awad al-Bandar, the former chief judge of his revolutionary court, had been executed. We had had a clue that yet again, something had gone wrong.

We got word that the two men had been executed early in the morning and reported it. But then some officials started to deny they had announced the execution. The government would not confirm it had happened officially.
Eventually, by late-morning, Ali Dabbagh, the Iraqi prime minister’s spokesman announced the news — and nervously added the unfortunate detail.

The head of Saddam’s half brother had become “separated” from his body. The hangman had got his macabre calculations of his weight wrong and given him too much rope.

But he said no video of the event would be shown this time.

By the afternoon though, the first conspiracy theories were circulating on the streets of Baghdad. As with Saddam’s execution, it was taking on sectarian overtones. Some were saying the Shias had beheaded Barzan, a Sunni.

So we journalists were called in, to try to scotch the rumours. “We want you to be eyewitnesses, as if you were there at the execution,” said Ali Dabbagh. But the video will not be released, he said. “This was an Act of God. But please,” he said, before starting the video. “No prayers or chanting in any religious way.”

The first surprise once the film started was what the two men were wearing — orange jump suits of the kind that have become infamous from Guantanamo Bay. In some ways it was no surprise. The two men were in US custody. But you would have thought someone would have seen the potential downside of having them appear on the execution stand in those clothes.

Both men appeared to be on the verge of tears — faces stretched in anguish. But there was no sound. So, even now, we do not have a full picture of what happened.

Then the final moment came. The trap doors opened beneath the feet of the two men. Almost instantaneously the rope round Barzan al-Tikriti’s neck jerks upwards. And then the camera man panned down to the pit below where we saw his body and the head, still covered by a hood, lying some distance away.

There was a stunned silence in the room. But not just because of what we had seen, I think. Also because of what this meant — that the Iraqi government is so worried and insecure, it has to show videos like this.