Zaki Chehab is a London-based journalist and author – his latest is Iraq Ablaze – and one of the finest Arab reporters in the Middle East. A Lebanese Palestinian born in a refugee camp, he is now political editor of al-Hayat and of the Arabic TV channel LBC. He has worked for the BBC, Guardian and UK’s Channel 4. He is also the first journalist to broadcast interviews with the Iraqi resistance in 2003. He is currently in Australia on a speaking tour. He has received little mainstream media coverage (the broadsheets have ignored him) though ABC have provided a platform to his views (Lateline, Late Night Live and The World Today.)
Speaking last night in Sydney – in the wake of the bombing of the gold-domed Shia mosque in Samarra – Chehab painted a picture of modern Iraq far removed from the Western media’s gaze. He is a war correspondent, and although he has reported on conflicts in Palestine and Lebanon, he said Iraq is unlike any other battlefield he has experienced.
The country is in turmoil and a majority of citizens want the Americans to leave. But, he said, they are also fearful of what will follow. Infrastructure is a shambles and basic services are at levels below what Saddam offered. The insurgency is constantly shifting, a combination of foreign fighters, Iraqi nationalists, former Baathists, Saddam loyalists and al-Qaeda. He believed civil war was unlikely because of the high levels of intermarriage between Shia and Sunni, although he acknowledged the US – every other country was irrelevant in the struggle, he said – had grossly mismanaged the occupation.
Chehab has spent much time with the insurgents and said they laughed at the suggestion that the capture of Saddam in late 2003 would end the fight. In fact, it only strengthened their resolve. The security situation was so dangerous now, he reminded the audience, that even Arab journalists are struggling to move around freely. Iraqi journalists are being routinely murdered, but the Western media ignores it. He was damning of Western media reports on the conflict, saying most are little more than mere ciphers for the US authorities. It is this reason that Western readers have little understanding of the situation or the daily hardship of average Iraqis. Iraqis with enough money had all left, he said, because the security was so bad. During question time, Chehab was hassled by a few people because he didn’t unequivocally advocate an American withdrawal immediately. I support “Coalition” withdrawal but Chehab underscored the necessity for a plan once Western troops have gone.
If there have been any positives in the last years, the rise of Arab media in the Western consciousness is one of them. Embedded reporting, the mainstay of hacks in Washington, Canberra, London or Baghdad, is increasingly regarded as inaccurate and dishonest. Alternatives are being sourced. Chehab represents the kind of brave reporting all too often left to stringers.