ABC News' Senior White House Correspondent Martha Raddatz and Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran â veteran Iraq War correspondents with recently published books about their experiences â joined about 200 people who braved an afternoon downpour at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg Saturday.
Chandrasekaran's book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" writes of the heavily protected Green Zone, the place where non-military government administrators stay while in Iraq. He called the Zone a bit of "D.C. on the Tigris" and a "bubble" where civilians make decisions for the U.S. military, often without communicating with them.
In early 2004, for example, American administrators signed a decree against Muqtada Al Sadr, a popular cleric supported by the majority of Iraqis in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum home to 2.5 million people. They shut down Sadrâs newspaper, prompting massive protests. To that point, only one American had died in Sadr City in the previous 12 months. After the decree, guerrilla warfare broke out. One night in March 2004, an American armored vehicle was pinned down in an alley in Sadr City, and the 1st Calvary, in open trucks, was sent in to make the rescue. 8 men died and 70 were wounded in that operation.
Both Chandrasekaran and Raddatz â unknown to each other when they were writing their books â examine this same pivotal event in explaining how the Iraq War turned out of control.
Chandrasekaran said he wanted to write the book to understand "why these civilians sitting in the relative safety of the Green Zone decided to confront Sadr without properly communicating to the military, and without having a military contingency plan, without letting the 1st Cav know that in their area of operation there could be a potentially violent blow-back to a decree signed by the American administrator sitting in his air conditioned office across the Tigris River."
Raddatz calls that attack the beginning of the insurgency and the turning point in the war. Her book focuses on the soldiers of the 1st Calvary, who had arrived in Iraq just four days earlier from Fort Hood, Texas. Raddatz portrays how the administrationâs policy of multiple deployments â with some soldiers being sent back to Iraq as many as nine times - takes a toll on the soldiers and their families.
Raddatz believes the 1st Cav would have been able to gauge the changing tension level in Sadr City had they been there for 2 weeks instead of 4 days and agrees that the battle could have been prevented if there had been better communication between the civilian administrators in Iraq and the military.
The conversation included five panelists and continued for more than two hours as the audience posed questions, ranging from âhow did we get in this mess?â; âhow do we get out?â; the role of contractors; and the balance between reporting unfavorable news and yet still try to keep your seat in the White House pressroom or on flights with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (Raddatz said that last point wasnât a problem for her; Rumsfeld never liked her.)
There was a discussion of safety, as well. Panelist Susan Taylor Martin of the St. Petersburg Times went to Iraq six times before the SPT deemed the country too unsafe for its reporters in 2004, letting the war reporting fall to âour fine, national newspapers.â
Raddatz and Chandrasekaran had plenty of close calls; Chandrasekaran recalled letting a vehicle go before him over a narrow bridge only to see the vehicle get hit. Raddatz, the mother of two, is not required by her job to go to Iraq. In fact, she fights with ABC to go back every 5-6 months. Despite her colleague Bob Woodruff being hit with shrapnel last year, Raddatz will go back for her 14th trip in a few weeks.
More info on Poynterâs upcoming Community Conversations and other speakerâs events, can be found at poynter.org.