The Wild, Dangerous, True Story Of The First English Language Newspaper In Post-Saddam Iraq

19 March 2020
Iraq, Arab, Iraq Today, Break The News, Baghdad, Saddam, War, Middle East, Mustafa Alrawi, Hassan Fatah
Image: Illustration by Matt Needle
Reporting the news is never easy, but rarely is it this perilous, too

Mustafa Alrawi felt the cold barrel of the revolver press against the side of his head. It was 2003 and a warm, late-June Baghdad morning, but it seemed like the end of the world could be just seconds away. He cursed himself for many things – not least his complacency – but the question remained: just how had he managed to get himself into this mess?

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Two months earlier, Alrawi had moved to his homeland to help launch Iraq Today, the country’s first independent English newspaper. He could not have accounted for the utter mayhem that he would find there – and certainly not that he would find himself at the wrong end of a gun-wielding gangster for his troubles. That they would be some of the more reasonable people he would encounter in a chaotic seven months is another story. That story starts with Saddam Hussein.

Hussein’s army had been defeated in April and, briefly intoxicated on the promises of freedom and democracy, optimism reigned in Iraq’s liberated capital. These were heady days, with a people blissfully unaware of the catastrophic civil war that lay ahead.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it seemed that foresight – both short and long-term –had betrayed Alrawi this time. He cursed himself again. That he was in Iraq in the first place owed much to luck, although that luck had turned rotten.

As US forces had marched triumphantly into Baghdad, the 26-year-old journalist, a British citizen who had lived in London from the age of two, was freelancing for The Jordan Times and hatching a plan that would get him across the border and into Iraq for the year. By coincidence, his father was alerted about a job posting for a soon-to-launch title, Iraq Today. It would be the country’s first post-liberation English language newspaper. The final piece of the puzzle lay in a common acquaintance between Alrawi and Iraq Today founder, Steven MacSearraigh. After positive talks, Alrawi agreed to come out to Baghdad and see the lay of the land.

“MacSearraigh’s vision was of a local weekly English language newspaper, staffed by Iraqis that could provide really useful information in a post-war country. It was all very optimistic,” says Alrawi, now assitant editor in chief at Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper.

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After meeting up with MacSearraigh, he was taken to Iraq Today’s headquarters – a two-storey villa in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Karada. Found on a quiet residential street, the newsroom was housed on the ground floor, while most of the staff would sleep in the three bedrooms upstairs. Occasionally, other staff members or visitors would spend the night downstairs as well. It had a small front garden, a driveway and was surrounded by a low wall, which, in hindsight, made it woefully lacking in even a rudimentary level of security. A lone, unarmed guard from Sudan would keep watch at the gate.

In the week that followed, Alrawi would explore the city, meet relatives for the first time, and visit the weapons market on Kifah Street, tellingly housed across the road from a money exchange. Those early days were an intense experience that often bordered on the surreal.

“You could hear random gunfire at any time,” he says. “American patrols were everywhere, it was really colourful and really strange. I’d literally been watching all of this on TV and now, suddenly, I was in it.

“Everyone was incredibly optimistic,” continues Alrawi. “Yes, you could feel it was lawless and you heard stories about robberies, but it [civil war] didn’t feel imminent. You just had to be careful, low-key, not flash anything around, and try to avoid looking foreign.”

But while optimism was indeed sweeping the nation, so too were the US military convoys, and the first signs of mission creep were setting in. Objectives seemingly changed, as barriers began popping up around the Green Zone – a 10km2 area in the Karkh district of central Baghdad – almost overnight.

“They were becoming occupiers, not liberators,” says Alrawi. But despite the mounting warning signs, after a few days of much needed thinking time back in Amman, he had made up his mind. He was in. Alrawi packed up his belongings and left Jordan to become managing editor of Iraq Today. Almost immediately, things started to go wrong.

“The Al Hamra Hotel was a bit of scene,” he says. “There was Bernie Kerik, who subsequently interim Interior Minister of Iraq, there were journalists, businesspeople, traders. You name it, they were there. Obviously the most famous area was the Green Zone, but if you weren’t Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) or military, the most colourful place to be was Al Hamra.”

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The scruffy, 10-storey hotel that sat across from the Tigris was a fertile ground for legend-making, and you couldn’t really tell the genuine people from the frauds.

“There were so many people telling tall tales it was crazy, claiming they were this or that and you’d see the corruption up front. I’m not going to lie, it was very seductive. It wasn’t real, of course, but you felt very excited.”

Some of the characters that would hang around the swimming pool bar at Al Hamra appeared straight out of a Tarantino movie. Legendary war correspondents Robert Fisk and Thomas Friedman. The Australian Ambassador and his protection entourage. A former NYPD cop and his girlfriend. An oil trader who claimed to be “saving the country with his fuel shipments”. A British security contractor who used to be a hostage negotiator in Colombia.

But in time, even the friendly faces at Al Hamra would become a distant memory as tensions in Iraq grew, and security measures rose accordingly.

At Alrawi’s house, security measures were redundant. The intruders had been meticulous, making their move just after morning curfew had lifted and easily bypassing the Sudanese house guard.

“At first I was numb, I was frightened,” says Alrawi. “One guy put the gun to my head, another held a knife to my throat. But after a few minutes I realised we were only being robbed. I began to think, I can get out of this. I tried to work with them, pointing out where things were and basically giving them what they wanted to get them out.”

Writing in Voice, a magazine he co-founded in Dubai one year later, Alrawi recalled: “The last to leave was ‘Mr Starsky and Hutch Revolver’, I could see him grabbing my Adidas trainers, clothes and packing them into a suitcase. After he squeezed it shut, he casually walked out of the room taking a quick glance either side to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. He hadn’t. In fact, this was the last time I dealt with anyone as efficient or professional in Iraq. They were impressive. In quickly, no bloodshed, out quickly with more than $14,000 in cash, four Thuraya satellite phones, three mobiles, two digital cameras and most of my wardrobe – including a pair of flip-flops.”

There was a parting gift for Alrawi, too, in the form of machine gun butt jammed to the knee, which meant a trip to Al Kindi Hospital. But if being held at gunpoint was bad, getting hospital treatment for it was even worse.

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“We actually had to go to a government hospital as part of the reporting procedure with the police. Private hospitals were OK, but government hospitals had no medicine, no anaesthetic, very little electricity.”

All around were victims of explosions, of gunshot wounds. Wailing families crowded over dead bodies. Outside lay long queues of injured and dying Iraqis juxtaposed with nervous US forces patrolling the streets desperate to keep a lid on everything.

“Al Kindi Hospital was hell,” admits Alrawi. “A little kid next to me was getting stitches with no anaesthetic, screaming his head off. That was the reality of post-war Iraq.”

Hassan Fattah had joined Iraq Today as Editor-in-Chief at the same time as Alrawi. As bad luck would have it, the night before the robbery, he had decided to spend the night at the villa rather than head back to his hotel.

“I opened my eyes and there were six guys pointing Kalashnikovs in my face,” he said. “I thought, this is it. They tied me up, and kept asking, ‘Where’s the money?’ in English. I kept answering ‘I don’t know,’ in Arabic. In the back of mind I couldn’t stop thinking, are they going to take the computers? Are they going to steal the paper? Then they were gone, and everything was quiet.”

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The computers were untouched.

“Two or three months later and we probably would have been dead,” admits Fattah. “We were lucky that this took place at a time when people were still afraid to go too far.”

But while Alrawi and Fattah had escaped relatively unharmed, it was a collective wakeup call for the team and a timely reminder that this was no game. Things were clearly a lot worse than everybody had thought, even with increased security in the city.

“I probably had nightmares for at least a year after that,” says Fattah, who would go on to become Editor-in-Chief at The National. “As far as I was concerned, I was a dead man that morning.”

The robbery had taken place in the week before the scheduled launch edition. Undeterred, the first issue of Iraq Today hit the streets of Baghdad on July 6, 2003. Audience or not, the Iraq Today team would toil from 9am to 6pm daily, go to press on Saturday and publish the following day. “We had to get the copy edited, onto the page, designed, proofed, and then physically had to drive to the printers with a USB,” says Alrawi. “There was no digital transfer.”

Distribution was an issue, too. Alrawi had hired a few people ‘off the streets’ who promised to deliver the printed copies. But within a week they were asking for more money and soon he had had enough of them. They were promptly fired. But it was now down to the team to get the copies into hotels, offices and anywhere that foreigners would be. By then, unfortunately, most of those people were were behind barricades.

Eventually, every Sunday, Alrawi himself would take 200 copies and drive around Baghdad hoping to get Iraq Today into the right places, especially the Green Zone.

“I’d have to rely on finding a contractor and basically beg him to drop them at the entrance of the Rashid Hotel, which was were CPA officials were staying, because we wanted them to read it.”

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By October, getting the paper out was becoming an almost impossible task. Even MacSearraigh had left – though continued to wire transfer the $13,000 monthly budget – leaving Fattah and Alrawi to run operations, backed by future deputy editor Sarmad Ali, business reporter Ali Al Shouk, and page designer Firas Nadeem, among a team of 12.

Frequent power cuts meant more money was being spent on diesel for generators. And, of course, the security situation was getting out of control.

“It was hand-to-mouth, and every week we didn’t even know if we would get the paper out at all,” admits Alrawi.

“I remember the night Uday and Qusay Hussein [Saddam Hussein’s sons] were killed. There was gunfire all night, and lots of people celebrating. American patrols were going door-to-door, trying to find anybody who had guns. Tanks would just roll up to the doors and they would take you.”

When Ali Al Shouk showed up to the Iraq Today villa on the morning of the robbery, he was greeted with pale faces. Unlike Alrawi and Fattah, Al Shouk was a local boy living with his family. He wasn’t even a trained journalist, having graduated with a degree in chemistry from Baghdad University.

“There were no jobs at the time,” he remembers. “I was seeking any work. Zaid Fahmi, an old college friend, said, ‘Your English is good, come and join us at the newspaper.’”

On August 19, 2003, the Canal Hotel bombing shook Baghdad. Targeting the United Nations headquarters, it claimed the life of 22 people including the UN Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio De Mello. The attack was claimed by Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a portend of things to come. The next morning, Al Shouk approached an overworked Alrawi at Iraq Today.

“They needed help. He [Alrawi] made me an ID and asked me to go the UN headquarters. So I went and interviewed people there and gathered information. When I filed the story, he gave me $50 and said come back tomorrow.”

Alrawi was impressed and tasked the new guy with the business beat. Al Shouk covered stories about the Iraq Stock Exchange, American investments in small local businesses and the shortage of fuel. He also covered bombings. The hardest part of the job for him was interviewing grieving families. Worse still, interacting with Americans and foreigners was tantamount to treason for some Iraqis.

The Fallujah offensive and subsequent full-blown civil war were still a few years away, but it became clear that, in 2003, the leaderless interim Iraqi government had little control over Baghdad and other cities. The reality on the ground was that of roaming gangsters, many who had notoriously been released from Abu Ghraib prison by Saddam Hussein in November 2002. The man with the gun ruled his neighbourhood, whether Sunni or Shia, and Iraq Today attempted to tell stories that the likes of CNN and other news agencies couldn’t.

When investment dried up, the staff offered to work for free. “It had become our passion,” says Al Shouk. But the dream was over. Al Shouk would ultimately take his passion elsewhere, becoming a successful reporter for 7DAYS and then Gulf News, in Dubai.

Alrawi knew his time in Baghdad was coming to an end, too. “I’d say it was November, there were more and more barriers going up and there were some really grim bombings.”

On December 13, 2003, he left Baghdad for Amman for what turned out to be the last time. It was a momentous day for many reasons.

“The day I left, they announced Saddam Hussein had been captured,” says Alrawi. “That kind of bookended my time there. The previous few weeks, I just couldn’t take it anymore. To be honest I’d had enough by September. I remember travelling for a break and finding it very, very hard to go back.

“The whole time I was there, I literally did not have one good night’s sleep. Between gunshots, helicopters and just generally being worried about what will happen, the intensity gets to you. I always felt there was a bigger picture there, of something good being done, but as time went on I became less and less convinced that I was able to help. I lost hope.”

Fattah stuck around a little longer, until April 2004. “When Saddam was captured, things got much worse,” he says. “That was the beginning of the civil war. The insurgency grew dramatically.” It was also a time when strange occurrences began to take place.

“I started to notice I was being followed,” he said. “The level of danger was rising. I was stringing with TIME magazine, and a friend who was working there got badly shot. They were starting to target journalists. At some stage, I realised I was a name on that list.”

For Fattah, telling the mother of a friend who had been shot that her son was being taken off life support was the final straw.

“It was excruciating, one of the hardest things I had to do,” he says. “I realised that my time was running out, it was time to go.”

Fattah gathered his team and suggested they abandon the house. Salaries had been paid and other financial issues were being settled. By May 2004, with investors having long-ago lost interest, Iraq Today ceased to be.

One year later Fattah, then a correspondent for The New York Times, discovered that insurgents had attempted to blow up Iraq Today’s headquarters just one week after they had left.

“When I look back, I can say that I saw the place of my birth properly for the first time,” says Alrawi. “I met so many wonderful people, I travelled the country, I went to Mosul, to Basra. We went by road and I saw how beautiful the country is. That I can never regret. But I also saw all the mistakes being made which are still haunting us today.”

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Sixteen years on, Alrawi remembers his time in Iraq as a mixture of patriotism, ambition and naivety.

“I can’t say that I went there purely for altruistic reasons,” he admits. “I’m a journalist and that was the biggest story in the world. It was very seductive, not only were you part of the tapestry of what everyone was focusing on, but you were in demand… Would I do it again now at 44? No way.”

Fattah, too, finds solace in the small way that Iraq Today might have made difference in such a short space of time.

“You saw the best and worst of people,” he says. “The people we worked with were some of the greatest people I’ve ever met. There was such camaraderie and sense of purpose. People ask me, ‘What did you accomplish in Iraq?’ Well, maybe I didn’t touch the lives of millions or even hundreds of people. But we touched the lives of 12 or 15 people who went on to bigger and better things. Everyone from Iraq Today went on to do something special.”

After the robbery, precautions were belatedly taken at Iraq Today’s headquarters. It was prohibitively expensive but necessary for a fleeting piece of mind.

“There was a month when I rarely left the house,” says Alrawi. “But then I thought, what’s the point of that, I might as well not be here. I made sure that I got out to experience what I was there to experience. But I was lucky, I have to say. Really lucky.”

In the years to come as the civil war raged, many journalists suffered horrific fates. Somehow, Alrawi, Fattah, Al Shouk and the rest of the Iraq Today crew managed to survive unscathed, barring the odd knee injury.

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“We realised how stupid we were, and that we were not going to fly in under the radar,” says Alrawi. “Foreigners, American journalists coming in and out of our house, Thomas Friedman coming in and out of our house… it was always going to draw attention. We were naïve. We thought: live and let live. We’re not Americans, we’re not military. We’re neutral, we hire local Iraqis, we’ll be fine. But it didn’t really work out that way.”

Sixteen years on, Alrawi and his erstwhile colleagues continue to keep a watchful, mostly regretful, eye on the turmoil that has stalked Iraq since their short-lived adventure came to an inevitable end. They, like so many others, had been seduced by the adrenaline of war, and by the promise of a better future for the country they loved. And while the war’s rush has quieted, that promise remains unfulfilled.