TORONTO, Canada — When Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen arrived in Iraq before the American invasion, a bleak situation greeted her.
“A real sense of war” was in the air, she said. “Most Iraqis believed it was inevitable.”
“All we could do was sit and wait” for shooting to start, said the foreign affairs journalist.
During a phone interview from her Toronto home, Nolen talked about what she saw in Iraq as she reported stories for one of Canada’s largest newspapers. Nolen is a veteran correspondent who has covered news from Africa to Afghanistan.
Before President George W. Bush sent in the troops, Nolen said, the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, two groups oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, wanted the war to begin.
But the Arab Iraqis – mostly Sunni Muslims — felt obliged to express their hostility to war while Hussein was in power, she said.
Only during Saddam’s downfall did they show relief and gratitude, Nolen said. Nonetheless, she said, the American soldiers moving in to Iraq were generally not welcomed.
The Iraqis, she said, “did not appreciate being invaded.”
Nolen said the television images of Baghdad in flames from American air attacks were distorted.
Nolen said that “99 percent of the city shows no sign of having been the target of a war.”
When the American military speaks of its precision bombs, she said, it really means it. She described the bombing as “organized” and stated that anyone with the common sense to avoid an Iraqi military building was safe.
Nolen said she was most frightened after the downfall of Saddam’s regime. Hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets then for looting, rioting and ethnic reprisals.
It was during that time, Nolen said, that “every Iraqi has an assault weapon and was on the streets with it. You were at risk of people who identified you as a foreigner having money who wanted to kill you, or who wanted to kill you because you were American.”
Nolen said she felt “privileged to witness” the Iraqis’ elation at the downfall of the regime.
But she also saw some awful things.
On one of her last nights in a Kirkuk hotel, she said, she witnessed a demonstration which involved Turkomen, the third largest ethnic minority in Iraq, who brought the body of a 12-year-old boy inside.
Nolen said the boy was “wearing a striped shirt and green jeans. It looked like he was sleeping, except his head was gone.”
The Turkomen said his death was caused by the Kurds. But later, she said she saw the boy’s body lying discarded on the sidewalk. The Turkomen had used the boy, apparently killed in crossfire that had nothing to do with the Kurds, to manipulate the media, Nolen said.
As she reported in her story the next day, “The whole appalling incident is a textbook example of the fog of war; in a city half in ruins and fraught with tension, with gunfire a constant soundtrack, it was impossible to tell who was killing whom, or why.”
Nolen is returning to Iraq soon to write about the reconstruction, though she already has an idea of what awaits the country.
She said she has “a bad feeling that it’s going to be a lot like Afghanistan,” a country that has yet to see the billions of foreign aid dollars promised by America.
Nolen said she’s concerned by the fact that “not many Iraqis have the skill to run a country” after so many years of suffering at the hands of Hussein and few have sufficient understanding of a democracy.
She said she believes that Iraq’s enormous oil potential will bring about leaders with less-than-worthy intentions.
Nolen said she feels strongly that the United Nations should play a major part in Iraq’s reconstruction, though she doesn’t think it will.
“I feel lucky to have a ring-side seat for such interesting events,” she said. “I just hope that I contribute something.”
Angela Kozak is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.