Life goes on, for now: the famous Shahbandar café in Baghdad, 27 June. Photo: Getty
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Lindsey Hilsum: “Apprehension and excitement at being back in Iraq is eclipsed by fury”

Channel 4 News’s international editor returns to a country where she has strong memories and friendships but finds her movements hampered by customs officials. 

I landed at Baghdad airport feeling apprehensive and excited – this could be a dangerous assignment, but I have strong memories and friendships here. These emotions were soon eclipsed by another: fury. 

After two hours in the dingy baggage area, during which customs officials examined every cable, microphone and computer in our luggage, we were told we could not bring any of our TV equipment into the country. The intelligence chief was unhappy and was demanding a piece of paper stamped by someone or other. Arguing proved futile, so we got a slip for the equipment, which they locked in a store, and drove down what the Americans used to call Route Irish.

As we crossed the bridge over the River Tigris I saw a group of half a dozen men in uniform taking photographs of each other with an iPhone. “They’re Shia militia,” the driver explained. “They’ve just come back from fighting in Syria and now they’re going to fight here in their own country.”

 

Syria, that old safe haven

As we checked into our hotel – which every­one still calls the Sheraton, even though the chain cut links during sanctions in the 1990s – I caught sight of a familiar face. Karim was the bureau manager for ITV and Channel 4 News during the long years of Saddam’s rule and through the 2003 war. As we hugged I found I was crying. I could see tears on his cheeks, too. You form a special bond with people when you work together under dictatorship and bombardment.

In those days Karim and his family reassured my colleagues and me that they would look after us come what may – we were family, too. But after the US invasion, when civil war between Shias and Sunnis erupted and foreigners became a target for kidnappers, Karim was forced to confess that his traditional Iraqi hospitality and paternal pride would no longer afford us protection. A few months later he asked us to stop coming to Baghdad because our presence was putting his family in danger. Any association with foreigners could be seen as suspect. Karim and his family fled to Syria for a while – and how strange it sounds now to say anyone thought of Syria as a haven. A few years ago they came back: Iraq was still dangerous but it was home.

 

Weekend woes

Why do I always arrive in Muslim countries on a Friday? There was no chance of even starting the process of liberating our gear until Sunday, the first day of the week. We hired a small camera; not that we could do much because filming permits aren’t issued on the weekend, either. Today in Baghdad there are even more bureaucratic hoops and hurdles than under Saddam – more pieces of paper, more rubber stamps, more corrupt and lazy officials. Luckily we are working with an Iraqi media company that seems to know how to work the system.

 

A message for Her Maj

It’s Monday and miraculously we have our filming permit, so we head south to meet a Sunni sheikh. Driving through an area that used to be controlled by al-Qaeda, we pass a flattened industrial unit. It was, I’m told, a car bomb factory until the Americans hit it from the air. I sit with Sheikh Mustafa Jboori under a linden tree in his garden. His white djellaba robe is belted so he can carry a revolver at all times. He explains that while he and his men fought al-Qaeda in 2006/2007, he understands why other Sunnis are now fighting alongside the jihadis in places such as Mosul and Fallujah. It is, in his opinion, the fault of the government of the Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which has alienated Sunnis. “We need the British and the Americans to stand by us!” he says. “Please give this message to the Queen.”

 

Disaster averted

Back to the Sheraton. In the car park we glimpse a sight we had scarcely dared hope for – a pick-up with our gear in the back. Camera, edit pack, tripod, everything we need. Our brilliant local team has sorted the problem. Iraq is a terrible mess, but some things work out in the end. 

Lindsey Hilsum is the international editor of “Channel 4 News” and the author of “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.