News flash: reporter bares all in Baghdad

by Liz Yepsen | 11/5/03 6:00am

"Covering Iraq was like a very bad episode of 'Survivor,'" NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels told a crowded auditorium in her lecture "Naked in Baghdad" yesterday. The lecture was part of the Montgomery Endowment's series "Truth and Ethics in Journalism."

As one of only 16 non-embedded reporters to stay in Baghdad throughout the Iraqi war, Garrels produced broadcasts focused on how the Iraqi people felt about themselves, Saddam and the war.

"The value of being in Iraq was to listen to Iraqis," Garrels said. "There was no access to Saddam's regime."

Problems with personal security arose for many reporters covering Iraq, and Garrels was no exception. She solved some of the problem by issuing her radio broadcasts in the nude in her hotel room so she could plead female modesty if security came to her door, and then hide the equipment when she went to dress.

Assessing Iraqi attitudes was difficult, she recalled, because of conflicting attitudes of the Iraqi citizens. According to Garrels, many hated Saddam but were afraid of life without the strongman. She explained that many Iraqis resented the U.S. presence in Iraq, but also weren't ready for the Americans to leave.

"They are incredibly confused. They haven't begun to sort out the past," Garrels said. "They don't have much confidence in the Americans." She later stated that "Iraqis had somehow inflated expectations of what Americans might be able to do once they came in."

Garrels credits her experience in Baghdad to the help of an Iraqi driver she met upon arrival.

"I'm given a huge amount of credit for staying in Baghdad. If I have been courageous it's really because of great colleagues and Iraqis who helped me along the way," she said.

Because she was in radio, reporting to the United States was often easier for her than for television reporters. Newscasters were often denied access to people or places because of their conspicuous equipment and crews.

The Iraqi military did, however, put some constraints on all reporters, and Garrels and her colleagues often had to hide their work from the sporadic surprise raids of the Iraqi military.

Though she was initially afraid of the Iraqi military, Garrels said that her "gut feeling" led her to believe that she would not be taken hostage.

"I have no death wish, and a dead reporter is a useless reporter," she said.

Conflicting Iraqi attitudes about Saddam Hussein also made Garrels' work difficult. She said that many Iraqis would have given Saddam shelter, even though they suffered under his rule. Garrels compared this feeling of nostalgia to that felt after Stalin's death in the former Soviet Union.

Making recommendations to the U.S. government about what to do in Iraq is not one of Garrels's objectives in her work.

"I'm just happy to go back to Baghdad and do what I do," she said. "I hope I wouldn't have done what they've done the way they've done it. But, Jesus -- I don't want to have to fix it."

"Naked in Baghdad," Garrels's diary and record of her life in Iraq, was published in September. She will be hosting a book signing at the Dartmouth Bookstore at 3:30 p.m. today.