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Tuesday, October 28, 2003 - Page updated at 10:00 A.M.

Iraq correspondent: No calm after storm

By Jon Savelle
Seattle Times staff reporter

Anne Garrels
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As the U.S. invasion of Iraq closed in on Baghdad, National Public Radio correspondent Anne Garrels was there providing listeners at home with vivid and often harrowing reports from the battle zone.

Her biggest fear was not of the U.S. bombs, which she said were accurately aimed at military targets. Rather, it was the fear of being taken hostage by the Iraqi resistance. That was a more disturbing thought, she said, simply because it was more uncertain than the regular whump of bomb explosions.

Garrels never was taken hostage, but as she shared some of her experiences last night with a crowd of several hundred at the University of Washington's Kane Hall, she made it clear that Iraq today remains very unsettled, very unpredictable and very dangerous.

Many of those observations are contained in her newly published book "Naked in Baghdad," which describes her work there during the war, for which she won a 2003 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.

Garrels emphasized that her purpose in writing the book was to give voice to the Iraqis who were, and are, caught up in a cataclysm.

"You would look at the (Iraqi) officials and try to get some kind of read from them as to how they would react in the paroxysm at the end," she said.

By pure luck, Garrels found a reliable guide in a man she identifies as Amer, a taxi driver who took considerable risks to help her as war approached. And she found among other taxi drivers a range of views they were not free to express outside the privacy of their cabs.

"Everybody shared one concern: What was going to happen when the strongman (Saddam Hussein) was gone," Garrels said. "They didn't trust each other. They didn't know one another. They predicted very well the chaos that was going to happen next."

For many in the audience, it was that continuing chaos in Iraq, and the U.S. role in it, that brought them to hear Garrels. They wanted to know just what it is that the U.S. is enmeshed in, and what the outcome may be.

"I think the majority of Iraqis want us to leave — after a short period," Garrels said. But they also want a chance to make their country work again, and they want the U.S. to help.

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"People are impatient," she said. "You add to that they still don't know where they're going. There's no rambunctious debate about what kind of country they want to have."

And that debate may not be coming soon. Garrels said decades of Stalinist-style rule under Hussein, in which neighbors informed on one another and dissent meant death, left the country without a civic foundation that could guide reconstruction.

To make matters worse, extremist groups have targeted anyone who "collaborates" with the U.S. And Iraq's three main religious and cultural groups have yet to find a way to work together.

Garrels sees herself as a witness to these events and not a commentator. But she did offer one comment on the Bush administration:

"Could we have asked better questions in the run-up to this whole thing? You betcha."

Jon Savelle: 206-464-3192 or jsavelle@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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