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Webchat Transcript: Baghdad War Diary

Read the Transcript from the live webchat on Tuesday 9th September 2003 by scrolling down this page.

Whether experienced through the words or camera lens of an 'embedded' journalist advancing with coalition troops on the Iraqi capital, or via the unique insight provided by correspondents travelling with information ministry 'minders' throughout the city and perched on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel, the war in Iraq was arguably covered in greater depth by the western media than any other conflict.

However the then lack of free press in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the obvious reporting restrictions placed on journalists staying in the city at the regime's discretion has led to criticism of the overall accuracy of many of these accounts chronicling the lead-up, duration and aftermath of the war.

For this reason, thousands of readers worldwide logged on to the homepage of Salam Pax (a pseudonym), the Baghdad resident who told of his experiences on the streets of the city as the war progressed. The online diary disappeared for some time as the front moved closer to the capital's centre and power supplies became erratic, but were then updated following the conflict.

Now this 'Blog' is being published in book form, and we conducted a webchat with Salam Pax in our studio on September 9. You can read the transcript here.

A last word from Salam:
Thanks everyone for reading my webblog and sending in all these great questions today. It's so good to know that my thoughts had such a receptive audience and I'm so grateful for the interest shown.

Name: Elaine Henderson, Edinburgh.
Question: What are you going to do now? What are your aspirations? Are you going to continue writing?

Answer: I am still writing. The weblog is still being updated as often as I can. I don't think I'll stop blogging - it's become too much of a habit. Blogging has nothing to do with what I do, it's what I do in my free time. The reconstruction will begin soon hopefully and then everyone will have a huge duty to go to work and make this happen. To build the new Iraq. I'm an architect so obviously I'm very keen to get to work!

Name: Molly
Question: Where were you when the statue of Saddam was pulled down and how did that make you feel?

Answer: Everyone was really happy. There were 30 people watching the TV in my house: cheering! We had a generator running - the electricity was out all over the city. The problem was that most people didn't see this happen and didn't know the Americans were in the centre of Baghdad. They thought the fight for Baghdad was still on the way. We had to persuade them that the statue had been pulled down. It was a great hour of TV!

Name: Kate Cooper
Question: Riverbend writes in her blog of the scary restrictions being put upon her, simply because she is a woman. She needs family members as bodyguards, for example, just to go an buy an aubergine. She can no longer work. She can’t wear her normal clothes, but has to cover up.

Answer: There are already certain districts in Baghdad where it's not possible for a woman to go around shopping or anything if she wasn't totally veiled. It feels like Iran. So it is a worry. It's very unsafe. There have been lots of kidnappings, women's especially. Stories of rape make everyone feel uncomfortable. But we also have these very strong women's organisations who now have the freedom to stand up and shout. It's just the phase Iraq is going through. We're trying out freedom and when it comes to women's rights, it's not just the chaos we're going through right now, it's also a cultural thing. I'm afraid women will have to fight on two sides: the Islamic tide rolling through Iraq and the cultural issue of the position of women in society.

Name: Stuart Raper
Question: I have recently come back from a 3 week "holiday" in Iraq. My wife is Kurdish. We spent most of the time in the northen Kurdish regions but we did drive through Baghdad twice. From what I saw most of the country looked in a bad state. However most of this did not look as if it was down to the war. Most of it looked to be very long term neglect. Even the main road from Baghdad to Kirkuk was a joke. We spent a lot of time in Sulemania where my wife noticed that there were lots of tourists from the south [Baghdad] including at one point 3 coach loads of students from Baghdad University. Have you visited any of the Kurdish areas yet? And if so what did you think of them?

Answer: I visited the Kurdish areas and one of the ways to make Iraqis in the south to feel things will get better is to take them in buses and drive them through Kurdistan. They worked for ten years to get where they are now and it's been very difficult. It was a struggle, but it's beautiful up there. It feels normal, which Baghdad doesn’t at all. I had the most amazing five days up there. They've done very well for themselves. I hope that in the future they do not want to be separated from the rest of Iraq. But I could understand it: they worked so hard on Kurdistan. And things are going to get much worse in Central and Southern Iraq so I could understand why they wouldn't want the trouble to move up to their area. They've been through so much and come out the other side.

Name: Lara B
Question: When do you expect / hope the coalition will pull out of Baghdad and give you back your city?

Answer: As soon as we're back on our own feet. If they pull out of Baghdad too soon, we'll have chaos. If they stay after we have a government, and when it looks like we are able to run things, it would be unacceptable. For the moment I think we need their help. It's less the military force, more people helping us in governance issues, administration, showing people the way.

Name: Mary Vance.
Question: You started the weblog last year. Did you know all the way back then that the war was inevitable?

Answer: War was clearly inevitable in December. They were figuring out how the best way was to sell it to their domestic audience. Anyone who was falling the news could see the political dance was leading to war.

Name: Kate D
Question: We keep hearing so much about how Saddam Hussein never allowed anyone to have satellite dishes or internet access, yet that's clearly not true if you were able to post on the internet on a daily basis. I take it you've seen a lot of what the Bush administration has claimed about life in Iraq under Saddam ... have they exaggerated the hardship of life there, or do you support the coalition's attempts to oust the regime?

Answer: Yes, I support the ousting of the regime. Most Iraqis don't have any problem with the coalition coming in. We needed their help. It was never going to happen any other way. I don't think they exaggerated the hardship of life. After 25 years it is a bit suspicious that they look at how Iraqis feel about the regime and publish Amnesty reports which were written years ago. The US was supportive of Saddam during the 80s. When Halbaja happened, the US knew about it. They sent Rumsfeld to tell Saddam not to do it again. Now suddenly they care, so this is what makes people suspicious. Iraqis and the coalition wanted this outcome for different reasons. I hope we can work it out in the end. There was a massive media campaign saying "We're hear to liberate the Iraqis" but we're not so stupid. If they really meant it, they'd have done it 10 years ago when Saddam was killing thousands of people down in the Shia region.

Satellite dishes got you six months in prison and 750,000 dinars fine (a huge amount). Internet was not available until 2000, it was "The Tool of the Devil", so when we first had internet it was in internet centres so you could be checked up on. Later on when we had internet at home, the firewall was being updated daily. Funnily enough news sites weren't blocked. We had all the news about the opposition parties meeting and what was prepared for the war. And of course the James Bond moments when the US would use the internet for email attacks: everyone who had an email in Iraq got an email telling you to cooperate with the coalition forces, to stay at home. All the military commanders got their phone numbers changed because for hours when they picked up their receivers they'd get a voice message saying "don't fight, go home" from the coalition.

Name: Peter Watson
Question: Welcome to London, Salam. Incredible to think that after nine months of reading your blog, I'm sitting just 25 miles from you!

There is clearly a lot of antipathy to Al-Chalabi and the other 'friendly' (i.e. Americanised) members of the new government. Is the US being realistic in believing that this group will ever want to offer themselves for a free election? And if not, do you think that there is any internal figurehead emerging who could successfully stand for election without immediately condemning the country to a Shia/Sunni civil war?

Answer: It's not only Chalabi. It's a number of exiles who are leading political parties who have a real image problem. People think that because they work so closely with the Americans for such a long time, people think they're compromised. All the news about Chalabi being on the CIA's and I don't know who else's payroll doesn't help. It's difficult because people don’t trust them, even if they are good. And I think the US realises this because they've stopped pushing Chalabi to the front. I wish we had an internal figurehead. I thought that someone like Pachechi would be this figurehead. He's very moderate, he really does not have any interest in becoming the next President of Iraq. But this didn't happen, but this would be the best solution: for someone who we believe could lead us out of this mess. Someone who everyone agrees is trustworthy and has our interests at hear rather than his own glory. Because they're not visible in the media, it's difficult for people to know who they are and to build a relationship with them.

Name: Emma, Wales
Question: If there was an election some time in the next six months, what kind of government do you think the Iraqis would elect? What kind of relationship might that government might have with the neighbouring states?

Answer: I'm really worried about elections so soon. We need time to learn how to use our freedom. If we were to have elections in six months we would have an Islamic government. There is a very strong Islamic drive now. We have to learn how to separate religion from politics. You don't have to follow your imam into the ballot box. Elections in six months are a bit worrying. I'd rather have them in two years. The governing council should get more active: they will be the ones who will show people that politicians aren't there for their own benefit, they're there to work for the people, and that we have every right to challenge their decisions. We need to learn this and we need time. Everyone's worried about this so I'm sure we're not going to have elections in six months. We'd be like mini-Iran. Iran would love us but everyone else around us would hate us.

Name: Chris from London
Question: Salam,
I'm just interested to hear whether you thought you were in any physical danger because of what you were writing - from any of the authorities? Were there certain things you thought you shouldn't write? Was there anything you decided not to publish?

Answer: I had no idea that they were actively looking for me. They had bigger worries than me. It was under the radar. They weren't really aware of me. You'd be amazed at how much you can do even under such a regime. But, yes, I did sometimes think twice about writing certain things: mentioning names, or districts, especially before the war. The week before and the first week of the war they were actively looking for people who were communicating with the "West". This was the most worrying period. Especially after the BBC and the Voice of America report about me. My URL was blocked for a week - this was just before the war and I was worried that they might have an idea something was happening. So I stopped, but it turned out that it was only a regular site check. I'm sure it was totally a routine thing. It wasn't just my site that was blocked.

Name: Jon Drane
Question: I wondered if the human shields really did any good protecting civilian areas during the bombing? The media here went very quiet about them... did you see any? Were they used as stooges of the regime?

Answer: They had a great time I think. I do not really understand their motivation. They were obviously being used by the regime and they knew it. They stayed on and then there was an article in the Guardian I think which was them complaining that the regime was going to put them in dangerous places which might be bombed. It was totally surreal. If you go somewhere as a human shield, you're going to be put somewhere that is a target: that's the whole point. When the government stopped pampering them and put them in dangerous spots, they pulled out and left the country. After the war, I met a couple of the people who were human shields. They're good people idealistic: which Saddam used against them. They weren't in civilian areas which were attacked. They were in their hotels.

Name: Pat Warren, regular reader.
Question: I'm curious about how the firm of architects you were working for up to the war is doing at the present time?

Answer: There's no work. We're all waiting for the so-called reconstruction phase to start and because the security situation is so unstable no one wants to come back into Iraq if they're foreigners. Inside Iraq, friends go into the office to sit around for a few hours and then go home. There's a real frustration, they need to do something.

Name: Christopher Cox, London
Question: How much fame could you cope with?

Answer: Unroll the red carpet! I'm ready!! It's funny, people mention fame but because I'm in Baghdad, all that's been happening: the book, the Guardian pieces - they're not part of my daily existence. It's separate from my "real" life. I go online for about an hour a day and that's it. It doesn't feel very real. I don't really know how much fame I can cope with. I've been trying to get more Iraqi voices on the web. I've been talking to lots of people at home and showing them where they can write. Also, there's the item that the New York Times picked up about the nine-year-old girl who was raped. I was with the reporter and all of us, had no idea what to do. There aren't any organisations that we could go to for help. We put this on the blog and we had an amazing response. It worked out that there's an orphanage which War Child supervises and she's now there. She's much safer there.

The power of the media can be useful. The difference between the web blog and news is that they connect the blog with a person, it's more personal, they've been reading it for a long time and you build up a relationship of trust with that person; and with a newspaper it's not personal, you don't always connect with it.

Name: David Trippas
Question: First, thanks for getting the dispatches, through, magic, in the best tradition. Second, "what is simple to do and would bring a lot of hope to the people of Iraq"?

Answer: Make them feel that there is a better future. Everybody's stuck in the now because of all these bombings and trouble. There's no feeling of progress. All we need to feel is that things are going to improve. Even if it's only a marginal improvement. Everyone's just grumbling at the moment. The improvements may be on the way, but they're not visible. They're working on other things but they should be concentrating on things that touch people's lives: law, court, police, electricity, schools are going to start soon but the streets are dangerous and people are worried for their kids. People are carrying guns on the streets and taking pot shots at people. Rounding up the dangerous criminals that Saddam released months before the war started would greatly help. Food isn't a problem - the rations programme is back and running well. Lots of countries are donating things. Big bottles of soy bean oil is coming from you here in the UK!! It's more about feeling safe in your own city, in your own house.

Name: Karen Gregory
Dear Salam,
Tony Blair said that if he asked the average Iraqi if they would prefer Saddam back they would look at him as if he was insane. What would you do if Tony Blair asked you if you would rather have Saddam back? Do you think Tony Blair's once fabled feel for public opinion now applies to Iraqis? What do you think of UK and us politicians telling us what the average Iraqi thinks?

Answer: There is no comparison in the problems we have with services and the issue of the fallen regime. These things are separate. Everyone is really glad that Sadam has gone. There is no one in Iraq that he wants him back, unless it's someone who benefitted from the old regime. So no, never. It's over. With all the problems we have with services and utlilities, this is a problem that can be dealt with in time. People had unrealistic expectations. I had unrealistic expectations that everything will be up and running in two weeks. The coalition is not in tune with our culture. Tony Blair will never get a feel for public opinion in Iraq. Maybe they rely too much on the opinion of advisors.

The general sentiment is that we needed help to get rid of Saddam. But how it was done and planned could have been better. Wars are never OK, but the actual war did much less harm than everybody was expecting. The Iraqi troops decided not to fight and the way the Coalition forces decided to move into the country and the precise bombing meant that things could have been much much worse. Things are going wrong now post-war. It's the lack of planning and the wrong advisors. They are Iraqi exiles who are out of touch with present-day needs.

Name: Michael
Question: Can Salem Pax give his views of why, when there are so many highly qualified Iraquis who maintained the utilities through ten years of sanctions, that it has not been possible to maintain, apparantly a modicum of services. Was it because more of the infrastructure was destroyed than we were led to believe? Or was it because Iraquis have been precluded from taking charge of these assets because of the way contracts had been prelet?

Answer: The infrastructure was falling apart anyway. It was barely holding together. It wasn't destroyed more than people were led to believe but a lot was looted. We have a real problem with looting and now a serious problem with sabotage. Of course there are a lot of highly qualified Iraqis, but no one is asking them to help.


Listen to Salam Pax, as he talked to the Today Programme about his Web Blog.


You can find out more about the publication of 'The Baghdad Blog'

Read Salam Pax's weblog

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