They Came to Baghdad …

042307 article otr1 They Came to Baghdad ...Edward Wong of The New York Times first reached Baghdad, following a 13-hour drive from Amman, in November 2003, a business reporter on a six-week rotation to cover the reconstruction of Iraq. Since then, Mr. Wong’s byline has appeared more than 350 times with a Baghdad dateline.

Next month, Mr. Wong is due to complete his 10th rotation in the Baghdad bureau, after which he plans to leave the Iraq war zone for good.

“I had a really hard time coming back,” said Mr. Wong, whose current stay began in February. “I didn’t feel the need to do this last rotation. But once I was here and started reporting, the thought of leaving the story was difficult, and it still is. I’m not fully reconciled to the fact that I am leaving the story.”

Mr. Wong was on the phone from Baghdad the morning of April 16. Minutes earlier, he had filed an updated version of an article about how followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr plan to break from Iraq’s fragile parliamentary government. The updated dispatch became the lead story on NYTimes.com.

The Iraq story goes on. That same day, the Pulitzer committee gave the international-reporting prize to a grab bag of China stories from The Wall Street Journal. The year before, the prize went to The Times, also for China.

The Times’ Baghdad bureau has never even been a finalist. When the war was the hot story, other papers’ coverage was hotter. But The Times has stayed dutifully on the case, even as the war becomes old news.

Mr. Wong’s first assignment, in theory, was to cover a post-invasion economic boom. “November 2003 was an entirely different war from what it is now—entirely different story,” Mr. Wong said. “We were getting into cars and driving at the drop of a dime to places like Fallujah or Basra or Mosul.”

“I remember one time in early 2004, I drove down to Basra and the marshlands,” Mr. Wong said. “When I was driving back, I had one of those moments in the car, with one of our Iraqi reporters next to me, and the driver, going through the desert. It was one of those moments when it was just that open road in front of you. Being free and being out here in the middle of this country. Talking to people whose world is different from yours—this is why I became a reporter …. In the last year or two, there have been very few moments when I’ve had that sense again.”

“I’ve talked to other reporters who have just come here,” Mr. Wong said. “If you’ve had those moments or memories of what Baghdad was to cling to, those things in a way inform all your reporting.”

Other members of the Times class of 2003 have already left Iraq: Sabrina Tavernise is now bureau chief in Istanbul, and Dexter Filkins is writing a book while on a Nieman Journalism Fellowship at Harvard. In June, John F. Burns, the grizzled, larger-than-life Baghdad bureau chief, plans to move to the London bureau.

“Basically, the entire old cast will be out by mid-summer,” Mr. Wong said. “I think that’s what’s happening. The bureau is running as smoothly as it’s ever run. We’re trying to hand over the reins to the new people who are starting.”

Alissa Rubin, formerly a Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, joined the newspaper in early March; Stephen Farrell, Middle East correspondent for The Times of London, arrives this summer.

This past February, the Times foreign desk posted two job openings for Baghdad correspondents. The slots have not yet been filled.

“I think that there is some interest in-house,” foreign editor Susan Chira said. “We’re still evaluating.” Ms. Chira said the paper does not anticipate making an outside hire.

“Our intent is to keep three and four people in the country, as we have been doing for the past several years,” Ms. Chira said.

Ms. Rubin and Mr. Farrell, both seasoned war reporters, are to join a rotation that includes reporters Richard Oppel Jr., Kirk Semple, and Damien Cave.

Reporter James Glanz, who completed several rotations since April 2004, will take over as bureau chief after Mr. Burns leaves, according to a memo obtained by The Observer.

Whatever happens, there should be a smoother transition than the last one—when in December 2003, executive editor Bill Keller sent then–foreign editor Roger Cohen to Baghdad to intervene in disputes between bureau chief Susan Sachs and reporters Filkins and Burns. Ms. Sachs was called back to New York.

“When I started, it was a pretty awkward time,” Mr. Wong said. “There was the crazy bureau politics that really exploded. At that point I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

Mr. Wong described the current bureau as “collegial.”

“You would think that there would be another implosion by now,” said Mr. Wong, “but there hasn’t.”

Mr. Burns, on taking control of the bureau, created a compound in which some 70 Iraqi staffers and a handful of Times reporters operate amid chaos and deteriorating security outside.

“The bureau is this extraordinary enterprise,” Mr. Filkins said.

“It’s in a society in a state of total collapse,” he said. “It’s autonomous. John built that. I don’t think anyone else could have done that. I hope it can carry on without him.”

Marc Santora, currently on The Times’ Rudy Giuliani beat, went to Baghdad this past February for the first time since the early days of the invasion, before there had been a formal bureau at all.

“When I went back th
is time, it was incredibly beneficial to have those people who have spent so much time there—three or four years,” Mr. Santora said. “For people like myself, to have those people to lean on, that institutional knowledge, made a difference.”

“There is nothing like sitting at a dinner table with John and a group of reporters there,” said Mr. Santora. “It’s a real perk in what can be pretty hellish at times.”

And on days when it’s impossible to leave the compound to cover a car bombing, it helps to have someone who’s been to the neighborhood in question—even two years before.

“That’s why we hired them,” Ms. Chira said of the newest hires. “I could anticipate this. We looked for people who had history in the country.”

“We have lots of talented folks, but not all of them have the history,” said Ms. Chira, of balancing a younger Times star like Mr. Cave with others who spent significant time in the region. “We wanted to balance the new talent with people who were there in 2003 and 2004.”

“Alissa brings a very experienced eye to the bureau,” said Mr. Wong. “I think part of the reason we hope this transition will go smoothly is because of the experience of the people coming in here.”

Ms. Rubin had not been in Baghdad since January 2006, and said the security situation, while still trying, has gotten slightly better.

“In Baghdad, it’s been a more accessible story than it has been in a while,” said Ms. Rubin, by phone from the bureau. “I think some of it’s the troop surge. There are fewer illegal checkpoints.”

“But there are still neighborhoods which you just can’t go to,” she continued.

Mr. Wong said that he may travel a bit more in the Middle East before returning home, visiting his family in Virginia and then his current girlfriend—whom he met while she was reporting in Baghdad for another media organization. Afterward, he said, he hopes to continue reporting overseas in some capacity.

Despite lacking a Pulitzer to take away, Mr. Wong said that the reporting from the Baghdad bureau has been the most comprehensive of any newspaper.

“If you look at the Baker-Hamilton report, which is a comprehensive study,” said Mr. Wong, “most of it had been covered by the paper in a lot of front-page stories.”

For the departing bureau, Baghdad has been a world-shaping experience. “I definitely went through a withdrawal,” said Mr. Filkins. “I went from Baghdad to Cambridge, Mass. It was quite dramatic.”

“I felt like I put my life on hold for three and a half years while doing this,” said Mr. Wong. “I want to be in a place where I have a circle of friends I can see in the evenings. Go out running whenever I want to. Eat at a café. Go to a movie.”

“When you’re in Baghdad, it’s a giant thing,” said Mr. Filkins. “It’s a huge, gigantic, epic story. You can feel the historic plates moving. People are dying and the stakes are incredibly high. You feel that everything you do really matters. And when you come out, you wonder why there aren’t enough bean sprouts on your sandwich.”

“It’s crushingly mundane,” Mr. Filkins said. “Over there, everything matters. When you remove yourself from that, it’s a shock.”