Life during wartime

From today’s Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: Dexter Filkins, your dispatches are so rich with detail and understanding of what you’re seeing and observing. Tell us about your life in Iraq. What do you do? Where do you live? How do you get up? How do you function as a reporter?

MR. FILKINS: Well, The New York Times has a huge operation there. It’s very expensive. But it’s…

MR. RUSSERT: Heavily guard?

MR. FILKINS: Very heavily guarded. We’ve got a couple of houses, we’ve got 20-foot-high concrete blast walls topped with barbed wire. There’s armed guards, there’s armored cars, searchlights, the whole thing.

MR. RUSSERT: How do you move around the city?

MR. FILKINS: You just try to do the best you can, you know. The — you go…

MR. RUSSERT: With guards?

MR. FILKINS: Usually with guards. I mean, you know, none of that’s desirable. You want to be — as a reporter, you want to be as unintrusive as possible. You want to put people at ease. And — but that’s not really possible anymore. So you can — things have gotten a little better. I mean, Baghdad is not as tense and as angry as it was even six months ago. But doing something like getting out of your car and walking around a neighborhood and just talking to people on the street, you can’t really go that anymore. I mean you can do it for 20 minutes, you know, 25 minutes, and then get in your car and get out, because if you linger too long, you’re putting yourself in danger.

MR. RUSSERT: Have you had any close calls?

MR. FILKINS: More than I can count, yeah.

MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Even when you’re accompanied by large numbers of American troops, if you’re in one place for longer than 10 minutes, they start to get nervous, and they say, “Let’s get this over with and move on,” because word gets out very quickly who’s where and how vulnerable they may be. So you really do, as Dexter said, have to keep moving.

MR. RUSSERT: There is a road, a highway from the airport to downtown Baghdad that’s called the Road of Death by many. I understand there’s a taxi service on that road to take someone from downtown to the airport.

MR. FILKINS: Yeah. There’s actually a company in Baghdad that does nothing except offer rides to the airport and back. They’ve got an armored cars and some guards. And they charge $35,000 for…

MR. RUSSERT: Thirty-five thousand dollars?

MR. FILKINS: …for a ride to the airport. And I think you know, if you miss your plane and you have to come back, it’s another $35,000. But…

MR. RUSSERT: How long — is it six miles?

MR. FILKINS: I think it’s about six miles, yeah. It’s not a happy six miles. So, you know, they earn their money.

* * *

MR. MIKLASZEWSKI: Again, I’ll go back to Fallujah, because I was just there for a couple of days last week. Nine thousand homes and buildings in Fallujah were destroyed when the Marines went in in November. There have been 32,000 claims against the government by homeowners and business owners. Of those 32,000 claims, only 2,400 have been paid off so far. And when you walk in and — let’s say your house is worth $10,000. They will only give you 20 percent of the amount of your claim for now. It’s because — and those funds are controlled by the Iraqi government. They’re husbanding those funds for use in the future. And as I stood next to the line of those claimants, all you have to do is ask them what their complaint is, and within seconds, their rage surfaces, so badly at one point the cameraman said to me, “Mik, we’re about to start a riot here. I think we’d better leave.”

And the current president of the temporary council, Sheik Khaled, admitted to me that the people in Fallujah are already growing impatient, and predicted it will take at least another year before reconstruction actually begins to take hold.

MR. FILKINS: If I could just jump in there — I mean, I think what’s happened here — you know, Congress allocated $18 billion for reconstruction. And what’s happened is, you know, it’s a lot easier to kick a barn down than it is to build one. And so, so much of this money has had to be diverted for security training, for just security on the projects. I mean, on any given construction project, as much as 35 percent of the money goes to protecting the workers who are working on it. So the problem is just — has been the violence, and it’s basically overwhelmed every attempt or most of the attempts to rebuild the country.

What’s striking about this is that if you read the entire transcript, both of these reporters actually seemed to think that things are generally improving in Iraq — proving once again that everything is relative…