BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Borzou Daragahi, when did you step into the country of Iraq for the first time?
BORZOU DARAGAHI, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, ”LOS ANGELES TIMES”: That was in September of 2002.
I was with my wife, and we had been – we were in Iran. And at that time, about the only way to get into northern Iraq – which is where we wanted to go – was through Iran, because Turkey had closed the border and Syria was making it really hard.
And so, we wanted to go to this autonomous, Kurdish part of the country. There were rumors of war coming. There was talk of a confrontation. And some of the journalists were trying to get there, and we managed to get in there.
That was the first time.
LAMB: What were you doing in Iran?
DARAGAHI: Well, I’m of Iranian descent, but I was there as a freelance journalist working for Western media, mostly for American news and print and radio outlets at that time.
LAMB: So, does it help to be of Iranian descent?
LAMB: In Iran?
DARAGAHI: You know, in Iran it helps to some extent, but it’s also a disadvantage, as well.
The way that it helps is that they can’t kick you out like they can kick out other journalists, like they can kick out a British journalist, and so.
LAMB: Why not? Why can’t they?
DARAGAHI: Because I hold an Iranian passport.
The disadvantage is that they – the government doesn’t really trust at all – I mean, the government doesn’t trust anybody. It’s a very paranoid government.
But it especially does not trust us dual nationals. There’s a suspicion that all dual nationals, especially those with U.S. passports, are potentially infiltrators or spies.
LAMB: What about your wife? Is she Iranian also?
DARAGAHI: My wife is half Iranian. Her father is Iranian and moved to France when he was very young. So, yes, she falls in that same category. But, you know, French, it’s a little easier.
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
DARAGAHI: We met at a press conference in Iran, in Teheran.
LAMB: How much time have you spent in Iran as a journalist?
DARAGAHI: Well, I’ve been there on and off since – shortly after September 11th.
LAMB: Why did you go there then?
DARAGAHI: Well, I had always wanted to work abroad in some capacity. And at the time I was working for MONEY Magazine here in the U.S.
And I was saving up money, and then when September 11th happened, it suddenly struck me that I didn’t need as much money as I thought to be a freelance correspondent abroad, that I could do it – that there would be demand for reports out of the Middle East.
LAMB: How much does it cost to live as a freelance journalist, just hanging around Iraq and Iran, and places like that, a day?
DARAGAHI: Well, it depends. In Iraq right now it would cost a lot to live in that country and work in that country as a journalist, just because you need security.
You probably need two drivers. You probably need to live in a rather expensive – you couldn’t just rent a flat. You’d probably need to live in a rather expensive compound.
But in a relatively safe place, at least in terms of terrorism, like Iran or Egypt, for example – or even, to some extent, Lebanon, where a lot of freelance journalists wind up – it’s pretty inexpensive.
LAMB: What would you say? Fifty dollars a day? A hundred dollars a day?
DARAGAHI: I mean, it depends on how long you’re going to be there. But, yes, $50 a day – maybe even less, if you got a flat in a middling part of Cairo, for example, and economized on food, and so on, didn’t go out to dinner all the time. You could do it pretty inexpensively.
LAMB: Where are you based now?
DARAGAHI: Right now I’m kind of not based anywhere. I’m kind of just traveling around. But I will be based in Lebanon for the ”Los Angeles Times,” in Beirut.
LAMB: And how did you get your job at the ”Los Angeles Times”?
DARAGAHI: Basically, it was March-April 2005.
And as it happens with a lot of news organizations in Iraq, they periodically have to get their people out of there, because, you know, two years there and it really takes a toll on your family and your personal life and your spiritual life, even.
And so, they were having one of their periodic turnovers. They were looking for people to hire.
I had just been – I had just been nominated for a Pulitzer, and so, I guess I caught their attention, and then they hired me.
LAMB: What were you nominated for?
DARAGAHI: For my work in Iraq.
LAMB: And who were you working for at the time that you were nominated?
DARAGAHI: I was a freelancer. But my main client at that point is a great little newspaper called the ”Newark Star Ledger,” which was giving me expenses, and they were my primary outlet.
LAMB: Did you get the Pulitzer?
DARAGAHI: No, I didn’t get it.
LAMB: But you were nominated.
LAMB: How many were nominated in your category?
DARAGAHI: Three. Three finalists.
LAMB: You were born where?
DARAGAHI: I was born in Teheran.
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: What were your parents doing there?
DARAGAHI: Well, my dad is a doctor and my mom was a nurse.
LAMB: When did you move to the United States?
DARAGAHI: It was ’73-’74.
LAMB: Do you remember anything about Iran in those early days of your life?
DARAGAHI: Barely. Barely anything. And, you know, there’s a lot of photographs, because my dad did a lot of photography. So, you never know what you remember and what is a picture.
But we went back once in ’76, just my mom. And I remember that trip pretty vividly. I was like seven at that time.
LAMB: And where did you – where did your parents move to?
DARAGAHI: We moved to the U.S., to Chicago and new York.
LAMB: Why Chicago and New York? Are they separated, your parents? Are they together?
DARAGAHI: No, no. We moved to Chicago and New York, like back and forth a few times.
LAMB: What did you think of this country as you were growing up? And what was the reaction of your parents to this country, versus Iran? And why did they move here?
DARAGAHI: Well, the reasons why they moved here were numerous. I think to some extent – I think there was – in my family there was a bit of disillusionment with the excesses of the shah at that time. So, I think that was definitely part of the reason.
And growing up in the U.S., I mean, for them – I think, for my family, they – I mean, they took different views on it. They took different views on the U.S. I think sometimes they saw it as a place of great opportunity, and other times they were kind of baffled by the cultural differences, and so on.
LAMB: What do they think of you running around in that area?
DARAGAHI: Coming back, you mean?
LAMB: No. What do they think of you over in Iraq and Iran, your possibility of being injured?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think they were quite nervous about it. I think they were at first, at least, a little confused about coming back to Iran, when I came back to Iran shortly after September 11th.
But, I mean, it was very quick that things got off the ground for me in terms of work and finances, and so on. So, I think they were a little bit more assured.
They were a little concerned about me being in a war zone. I kept assuring them that I was playing safe. I kept, you know – I would basically tell them, don’t believe what’s on the TV. The view that you have of the situation in Iraq on the TV is kind of exaggerated. And, you know, you just see the car bomb and you don’t see that things are OK.
And I would just sort of try to placate their worry …
LAMB: Were you telling them the truth?
DARAGAHI: I think that I told them what I thought they needed to hear, to a large extent.
LAMB: But you did that also with your wife, and your wife did that with you.
DARAGAHI: Absolutely. Yes, yes.
LAMB: Because you lived apart for some time, when she was in Iran and you were in Iraq.
LAMB: Explain that.
DARAGAHI: Well, it’s a harsh reality, I guess, of human nature that you don’t want confrontation. You don’t want people to be upset or people to be angry at you. And so, sometimes you get in a situation where you kind of ascertain what that person wants to hear and you tell them what they want to hear.
In the case of my going to Iraq, it wasn’t for any other purpose other than to just make it through the day. I mean, it became a sort of day-to-day survival mechanism.
And, you know, I mean, there was no plotting. You know, there was no planning of, OK, I’m going to deceive my wife, I’m going to deceive my family. It was just, you know, you’re in this crush of news and trying to get the story out.
And then, soon after coming to the ”L.A. Times,” in addition to that, I had all these bureaucratic duties, because I became bureau chief. I had all these managerial duties – finances and safety issues and logistics, and so on.
And so, the pressure, the amount of work was so intense that you end up perhaps sacrificing some facts when you’re recounting your day to your family or your spouse, and even your editors.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
DARAGAHI: As an undergraduate I went to the New School in New York City, and for graduate school I went to Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
LAMB: Why did you want to be a journalist?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think I was always a decent writer. It was almost by default. You know, I was never at my high school paper. I was never at my college paper.
After college I kind of got into the New York City publishing world, because that’s the only kind of work there is in New York, at least back then. That’s the main kind of work there is.
And I kind of decided that, hey, I’m a pretty good writer and this seems like a good thing for me to do. And Columbia has a one-year program, so I thought that was very attractive that I didn’t have to go to school to get a master’s degree for more than one year.
LAMB: When did you graduate from Columbia?
LAMB: Ninety-four. And did you freelance from that moment forward until working for the ”L.A. Times”?
DARAGAHI: No, I worked for a small newspaper chain in Massachusetts at first. And then I worked for some business publications, and then worked for MONEY Magazine in New York, and also for MONEY’s Web site.
And so, I had a pretty eclectic career.
LAMB: What languages do you speak?
DARAGAHI: I speak Farsi, which is the language of Iran. I also speak German and Spanish.
LAMB: Go back to the first time you ever went to Iraq with your wife. When was it?
DARAGAHI: September 2002.
LAMB: Where did you go in?
DARAGAHI: We went across – it was really kind of an extraordinary trip. I should write about that. I wrote about it in a little letter once, like a letter to friends, and so on, that got published on the Internet.
But it was really hard, because at that time they had closed all the borders. But we managed to convince – and I guess I can say this, you know, convince with money – someone in the Revolutionary Guards to give us access – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – to give us access to the border.
It was, you know, legitimate to some extent, and so that’s how we crossed the border, and we got in. We got in at what’s called the Hadjomran. It’s sort of an unofficial border crossing.
And we went in and, you know, it was like a bunch of these Kurdish peshmerga warriors who are – I guess that you would call them the Kurds’ private militia. They came running up to us, and we were kind of scared. And they were like, well, who are you? And we’re like, we’re journalists.
And they’re like – they started smiling and they said, ”Welcome. Welcome here. Welcome to free Iraq. Welcome to free Kurdistan.”
And they sort of swept us into their little entourage there, and they took us and got us checked in and gave us very nice treatment.
They were very happy that some foreign journalists had come into their enclave. They were very friendly towards the media at that time.
LAMB: Now, does your – was your wife born in the United States?
DARAGAHI: She was born in Paris.
LAMB: She was born in Paris. And where did she grow up in the United States – or not?
DARAGAHI: She didn’t grow up here. She grew up in France.
LAMB: So, what’s her language?
DARAGAHI: She speaks French, English and Farsi.
LAMB: Is she dark-complected?
DARAGAHI: Yes, she’s of Mediterranean complexion and …
LAMB: And the reason I ask that is, can you be mistaken for somebody that’s from over there as you’re traveling around?
DARAGAHI: Yes. Oh, sure. But to the Kurds, especially – absolutely, I can be mistaken. And that’s one of the advantages that I have. It’s very rarely a disadvantage, in that I can blend in.
But it was obvious that we were – you know, I mean, what I typically do is, exiting Iran, I exit with my Iranian passport. But when I get to the other side, I show my American passport.
And so, it was obvious who we were. And so, they were treating us like foreign visitors, which we were.
LAMB: How long did you stay north in the Kurdish area?
DARAGAHI: You know, I stayed there on and off from September until, oh, late April. September until late April, until well past the war. I mean, I came in and out, but until like a few weeks after the war, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
LAMB: We always hear about the payoff, the money payoff. What kind of money do, like the Revolutionary Guards, or people that you have to pay off in any of these places, expect?
DARAGAHI: What kind of money? You mean the amounts?
LAMB: Yes, how much? Yes.
DARAGAHI: It depends. I mean, sometimes – and in this case there was a cover for the money. It wasn’t totally – you know, it was a kind of a funny travel agency that their job was to shuttle people into Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran.
And so, it was that – you know, if I was ever brought into a court it’d be like I wasn’t paying a bribe; I was paying a ticket fee.
But in this case, it was $150 a person.
LAMB: Did you ever have to spend more than that at any point to get through a checkpoint, or anything like that?
DARAGAHI: I’m not going to answer that, just because it would be kind of an admission of something that I probably shouldn’t admit publicly.
LAMB: Why shouldn’t you?
DARAGAHI: Because there’s a Corrupt Foreign Practices Act that the U.S. has. And so, if it were true, I wouldn’t be able to answer that question …
LAMB: Let me ask it maybe a different way.
Do the people of Iraq, in the government, expect payoffs?
DARAGAHI: I wouldn’t say the people of Iraq in the government. I would say that there’s certain times when, in order to get information, just as it is here, you might have to treat someone to, for example, to lunch or some kind of more formal arrangement, such as putting them on a retainer, in order to get access.
LAMB: When you traveled from the north of Iraq down to the south, how did you do it?
DARAGAHI: Well, typically I would – I mean, later on when I would come to Baghdad, I would come through the Turkish border sometimes, the Habur gate crossing. I’ve crossed the land border, like Iraq’s land borders – almost all of them except like Syria and Saudi.
But I would come through the Habur gate crossing, go to Mosul. And in the beginning, after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mosul wasn’t that bad in the first year or so under General David Petraeus. It was a pretty stable place, actually.
And so, I’d got to Mosul and, you know, I’d go to – I would even go to like the University Avenue, I remember, and go to an Internet cafe there near the university and check my e-mails and send some e-mails telling people I was in Iraq.
And then I would get a taxi and then, you know, gun (ph) it down, sometimes past Tikrit and Samarra, and other times from Sulimaniyah, which is in northern Iraq to Irbil – I’m sorry, from Irbil to Sulimaniyah and then on to Baghdad.
LAMB: You talk about things like the stench that we can’t smell through television that comes out of the Tigris River that runs through Iraq. Explain that.
DARAGAHI: Well, I think that, you know, Iraq’s sewage infrastructure is pretty much very dilapidated, so there’s a lot of raw sewage in the Tigris …
LAMB: Is there a smell in the air everywhere?
DARAGAHI: Not everywhere. But by the river there’s a – especially in the summer, the smell just is sometimes overwhelming, you know, the smell of raw sewage.
LAMB: Has there been any attempt at correcting that?
DARAGAHI: Oh, absolutely. I think there’s been many attempts at repairing Iraq’s basic infrastructure, and it has not worked very well.
I think there was an article in our competitor’s paper, the ”New York Times,” about that issue this week, about the lack of progress and, indeed, deterioration of some of the infrastructure projects.
LAMB: When you hear – and we hear it all the time on this network – people say that the press does not cover the good things going on in Iraq, what’s your reaction?
DARAGAHI: Well, I would just say, show me those goods.
For example, is infant mortality going down? Is the number of attacks on U.S. and coalition forces going down?
Are the number of Iraqis who are fleeing the country declining? Is there an increase in employment? So, let’s see the facts.
Is there a decrease in the number of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians being killed day to day? If there is, we’ve reported it. I mean, if there has been – and we put it prominently on page one.
I remember when the recent Baghdad security plan first went into effect, and there was a dramatic decline in the number of sectarian death squad executions, that was on the front page of the ”Los Angeles Times.”
I remember when there was a – reports originally of Sunni Arab tribesmen in western Iraq fighting against al Qaeda, my colleague, Ned Parker, put that on page one.
So, I think that the people who say that criticism should at least read our product first.
LAMB: What are your personal feelings about the war?
DARAGAHI: I think at this point, it just – it seems like it’s become a disaster. I mean, I don’t think anyone could dispute that. It’s just going very, very, very, very badly.
I think that in the beginning, I was conflicted as to whether I was – because I had the Kurdish perspective up there, you know. And you don’t fully adopt the perspective of the people that you’re covering. You can’t do that as a journalist. But you’re at least sympathetic to it.
And from the Kurdish point of view, they were very much in favor of the war. They very much viewed it as a liberation. And that was rather infectious.
And so, I can’t say that I was like completely against the invasion. I took a neutral, wait-and-see attitude.
As time wore on, though, as the bodies mounted, it just seems more and more like a really bad mistake. And it seems like a very ill-thought-out adventure. I mean, doesn’t it at this point?
Sort of what it’s turned into in the eyes of many people in the Middle East is a war of imperial conquest gone bad, done poorly. At least the Romans granted their captives citizenship and brought them into the fold and brought stability to the lands that they conquered.
And I think, in the Arab world – and this is a really disastrous thing, they basically view this is as, you know, the Americans came in and they destroyed an Arab country. And I don’t think they’ll ever forgive us for that.
LAMB: How do the Iranians view what’s going on there? People that you talk to when you’re in Iran.
DARAGAHI: Well, it depends. Generally – and it’s shifted, too.
I think at first, when the Americans came in there and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, I think there was a strong element in the country that was very much in favor of what was happening in Iraq.
But as the violence mounted, and as the bloodshed continued to rise, the Iranian government managed to use this as a propaganda tool to convince the Iranian people that the last thing you want is America coming here and meddling in our affairs.
And I think they’ve done that effectively. I think a lot of people are really frightened about what happened in Iraq.
LAMB: When you speak Farsi in Iran, is it without accent?
DARAGAHI: I think it goes up and down. When I spend a lot of time in Iran, my accent starts to go away, my American accent. But generally, I do have a slight American accent when I speak Farsi.
LAMB: When you’re in Iran, what’s the sense of how many Iranians are here in the United States that moved out and moved over here? Is there a lot of connection between the two countries?
DARAGAHI: Oh, absolutely. I think that that’s one of the ways in which the world has changed in recent years, is that there’s – because of satellite television and the proliferation of the satellite channels – in many countries the diaspora and the population itself in the domestic population feel a lot more of a connection to each other.
They call into the same talk shows.
DARAGAHI: Sometimes they’re based in Los Angeles. Many of them are based in Los Angeles, these satellite channels. A few are in London. And there’s also a growing number in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates, Dubai.
LAMB: They call into our talk show …
LAMB: … all the time.
DARAGAHI: From Iran.
LAMB: All over Iran.
How do they do that? I mean, what’s the – and how do they not get punished in some way – or maybe that’s not the right word – by the government, who says they don’t want them to listen to these satellite channels?
DARAGAHI: You know, Iran is such an interesting place. And it’s so complicated.
And, you know, maybe the guy who’s listening in on that phone call is just having a bad day and he doesn’t really care. And so, you talk to people.
Let me tell you a story. I was in a part of Iran. I was talking to a government official. This was a few years ago.
And we started the interview and he was like – he’s like, OK, are we rolling? And I said, yes. And I was taping the interview. And he said, OK, in the name of God, the almighty, the all powerful.
And he started this kind of speech. It was just kind of this rhetoric, this typical rhetoric that you hear from the Iranian officials, talking about how great the economy of this certain part of the country was and how wonderful everything there was.
And then when the tape ended, when the interview ended, he said, OK, are we off? And I said, yes.
And he said, you know, I wish they would go. I wish they would go. I wish the government would just go.
But I said, you’re a government official. You’re a ranking government official.
He said, yes, I know. I know I am, but it would be so wonderful if they would just leave.
And I thought that was very interesting. So, you can imagine what some intelligence official would act like, if someone that high would have that kind of cynicism about the country.
LAMB: What’s the origin of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel statements all the time? What’s the purpose?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think that there’s a number of purposes. One is to rally support among the Arab – in the Arab world and the Islamic world, to sort of make himself this pan-Arab and pan-Islamist figure to sort of mobilize the world in his ideological cause.
And also, I think it’s basically, domestically, is to sabotage the attempts by more moderate figures to establish a more productive rapport with the West, so he makes these toxic statements.
And I think there’s one other factor that I think is really important and is not noted enough. I think he’s just not that smart. I think he’s just kind of, you know, kind of a loose cannon, not very politically experienced, rarely was out of the country of Iran his whole life. He’s just not that savvy of a figure. And that’s something that we shouldn’t rule out.
LAMB: Who is savvy in the government?
DARAGAHI: I think that there are some people, such as, for example, the president of the national security council there, Ali Larijani, who plays a more interesting game.
You can never rule out Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the expediency council and former president of the country. He’s managed – he’s a survivor. He’s managed to survive all these years as a key player in that country.
LAMB: What’s the difference between living in Iran, living in Iraq and living in Chicago?
DARAGAHI: Well, for me, living in Iran is a rather gilded life, you know, compared to ordinary people who live there. We go to diplomatic parties. We go to embassy – our friends are embassy people and other journalists. And we live in nice apartments.
I think the key difference in terms of living – between living in Iran and living everywhere else in the world – maybe Saudi is similar to this – is that everything goes on behind closed doors, that the private sphere, the private – your private world is your palace. And in the public world, you have to put on a mask, you have to pretend all the time.
So, the difference between who you are and what you can do outside of the four corners of your house is immense.
DARAGAHI: Iraq right now, for foreigners living there, for Western journalists living there, it is a really – it’s like, you know, ”Road Warrior,” the movie ”Road Warrior” with Mel Gibson.
It’s a real nightmare state to some extent, where there’s basically little in the way of rule of law. Your personal security is constantly threatened.
There’s constant tragedies, a constant flow of tragedies that you hear about that touch you, in terms of things happening to Iraqis you know and even things happening to Westerners that you know.
So, it’s unlike anything that is out there in the world. And then …
LAMB: So, you and your wife – and also, before I do that, and the difference, what’s it like in Chicago compared to all of this? I’m talking about everyday living – cost of food, the apartments and what they look like, the transportation.
DARAGAHI: Well, transportation in Iraq for us is driving around in an armored Mercedes with a bunch of guys holding weapons as our security guards.
LAMB: In the car with you.
DARAGAHI: In the car with us. Or …
LAMB: One car in front of you or behind you? You have two cars?
DARAGAHI: I can’t – I can’t say that.
LAMB: And why not?
DARAGAHI: Because of our people in Baghdad still who follow security protocols, and I’m not supposed to talk that specifically about security details.
LAMB: And what about in Iran? Are you being watched there?
DARAGAHI: I think we’re being monitored. You know, Teheran is a city of 12 million people. And like I was explaining about this sort of, the apathy and the cynicism of the officials. You know, we get away with a lot in Iran, and people in general do a lot in Iran.
Every year, like they are doing now, they have these periodic crackdowns. If you go on the Internet and look at what’s happening in Iran these days, they’re cracking down on women who are wearing formfitting outfits and loose-fitting headscarves. But this seems to happen every year and then just goes back to normal after the crackdown is finished.
LAMB: Are there people in Iraq who are going to school – middle school, high school, college – and the same with the Iran, do they go all the way through four years of college, like we do in the United States?
DARAGAHI: In terms of the educational systems, in Iraq I think there are still people – I know that there are still people – who are trying to pursue a normal life, who have no choice.
It was interesting. I interviewed one family recently who, basically, they were staying in Iraq only because like one of their daughters was going to medical school, and she was going to a very good medical school and …
LAMB: In Iraq?
DARAGAHI: In Iraq, yes. And so, they didn’t want to lose that opportunity. So, despite that, they stayed in Iraq, because of their daughter’s education.
And then a couple of months later I phoned them, and they were gone. They had gone to Jordan. They’d had it.
Something had happened and it had spooked them.
LAMB: Other than the Kurdish areas of Iraq, are there places in Iraq where they live an absolutely normal life?
DARAGAHI: I think that outside of Baghdad in certain southern cities of Iraq, for example, Najaf and Nasiriyah, and so on, you’ve had very little violence in those areas, except for occasional bombings.
For example, the other day in Karbala, the southern Shiite city, there was a car bombing that killed like 30 people.
So, there’s – where there isn’t the daily fighting between the Sunni and Shiite gunmen or the Sunni and the American forces, there is some measure of normalcy.
LAMB: What’s a gallon of gas cost in Iraq and in Iran?
DARAGAHI: It’s extremely cheap. Like in Iraq, gas costs like – I’m not sure exactly. I think it was like 10 cents a liter, something like that.
I’m not sure of the precise figure, but it’s something ridiculous like that. Ten cents a liter is like 35, 40 cents a gallon.
LAMB: Why are there hours and hours waiting to get gas?
DARAGAHI: Because they don’t have enough refined petroleum products. They actually are importing those petroleum products, because they don’t have the capacity to create them themselves.
LAMB: Are we not suggesting they build a refinery there, or not getting behind that idea?
DARAGAHI: I think that there have been attempts at repairing Iraq’s refineries. They’ve been – the refineries have been struck by – and I don’t want to misspeak. I don’t know exact details of that particular aspect of the reconstruction effort.
But I think building refineries is a very, very complex project. You have to build pipelines to those refineries, and so on.
And so, Iraq also needs to export some of its oil. And so, it’s not just a matter of just building a refinery. It’s a matter of revamping the whole petroleum infrastructure, so that you can efficiently produce the petroleum products.
LAMB: Are there movies? I know these are simple questions.
DARAGAHI: Sure, go ahead.
LAMB: But just to get some sense of the place. Are there movie houses in Iraq?
DARAGAHI: There were. There used to be some nice movie houses, but they’ve, A, fallen into disrepair and no one would dare go into a movie theater anymore.
LAMB: Are there good restaurants?
DARAGAHI: There were. There were many good restaurants. We used to go to restaurants all the time.
But I think that no one would dare anymore, at this point, go to a good restaurant. I think that some people, you know, at night, in the evening, in the afternoon will go to a sandwich shop, or something. I know that they do.
But it’s – you know, we get takeout sometimes from some of the good Lebanese places. But that’s also in the safest neighborhood in Baghdad.
LAMB: What about in Iran? Do they have movie houses?
DARAGAHI: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Do they have good restaurants?
DARAGAHI: They have fantastic restaurants, yes.
LAMB: Do they have department stores like we do in the United States?
DARAGAHI: As a matter of fact, there is a proliferation of these big, huge, category-killer type retail establishments that they’re setting up. And there is even talk of a Carrefour, which is like the French equivalent of Wal-Mart, setting up a shop in Teheran. I don’t know what became of that.
LAMB: What’s a gallon of gas cost in Iran?
DARAGAHI: Again, really, really cheap. I can give you a specific number on that. It’s like about eight cents a liter, so about 33 cents or 34 cents a gallon.
And that’s a huge issue in Iran right now, because a lot of people are talking about reducing the subsidized – this is subsidized, these petroleum products.
Again, Iran, although it’s this great oil producer, it is importing refined products, because it doesn’t have the capacity to produce enough refined petroleum products for itself. It’s a very heavy car culture that they have there.
LAMB: In your experience in Iraq, did you ever come close to getting shot at?
DARAGAHI: Shot at.
LAMB: Or were you on patrol and you went past an IED?
DARAGAHI: Oh, yes, sure. I mean, one time we were – I mean, not even on patrol. We were just on the road and we missed an IED hitting a U.S. convoy by seconds. We were just …
LAMB: How nervous were you about losing your life?
DARAGAHI: It’s really interesting how different people react to danger and that kind of incident.
And how I found that I reacted to it was to just get very calm. I seem to get very calm when I’m in that situation and take every step very slowly and try to figure out what’s happening, and then to basically try to safely investigate what’s happening, because that’s my job.
LAMB: Your wife, Delphine, and you lived in Iraq together for how long?
DARAGAHI: Well, it’s hard to say ”lived,” because she was more of a visitor usually. She would come for a few weeks’ stretch at a time and rarely as much as I was there, but she would come pretty regularly to Iraq. But as things got dangerous, she had less of a stomach for it.
I remember once, she and a friend of ours went to a supermarket, a very popular supermarket that has like Western stuff. And all of a sudden, outside of the supermarket there was like a terrifying shootout, like a gun fight.
And so, everyone in this supermarket kind of ran into the basement of the supermarket to hide, to make sure that they wouldn’t get hit by any stray bullets as this gunfire continued, and then emerged. And I think that was just enough for her. She’s not – she didn’t have the stomach for that.
LAMB: Will she be in Lebanon with you?
DARAGAHI: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: Do you have children?
DARAGAHI: Not yet, no.
LAMB: And how long have you been married?
DARAGAHI: We’ve been married – it’ll be three years in July.
LAMB: In Iraq, what do the Iraqis think of Americans that are there, and also, their image of the United States back here?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think that’s a complicated question.
I think that they – most generally, Iraqis are rather hostile and feel humiliated. And that’s the key thing that maybe some of our policymakers don’t understand. The presence of the U.S. soldiers is very humiliating to the Iraqis.
Even those who, in their minds know that it’s necessary to have the soldiers there, at least some kind of force there preventing an all-out civil war from getting even worse.
So, I that that’s one aspect of it.
I think that they don’t – as they’ve learned more about American culture through the soldiers and the Americans that are there, they don’t – I don’t think they appreciate American culture.
I think that they – what I’ve heard is, for example, ”We don’t like the way they treat their young. We don’t like the way they treat their old. They’re disrespectful.”
They’re – you know, Iraq is a rather rural, courtly, almost a feudal society in its values, not in its structure. And they are very old world – you know, family, tribe. And they don’t really understand or appreciate the more modern, rootless existence that we have here in the West.
LAMB: What was your experience with the United States military?
DARAGAHI: My experience?
DARAGAHI: I had a great experience with the U.S. military, I mean many great experiences with the U.S. military. I found them generally very, very professional, very dedicated, very smart. I found that the U.S. Army was – I was fascinated by the U.S. Army.
This was my first intense encounter with the Army and how diverse it was, how reflective of the American population in terms of demographics, in terms of ethnic groups, in terms of the various different class backgrounds there were in the military.
LAMB: Did you go out on patrol?
DARAGAHI: Yes, absolutely.
LAMB: How often?
DARAGAHI: You know, towards the end less and less, just because I was able to do street reporting, because I blend in. I was able to the kind of street reporting without going on patrol with the soldiers.
So, I would usually defer to, for example, a visiting correspondent for a metro who had never been to Baghdad. And there would be like an embed coming up, or we needed to send someone somewhere.
And I would be like, well, you’ve been stuck in a hotel for three weeks and you haven’t been able to get outside. Why don’t you go on this embed?
But yes, I would say once a month I would go do something with the military.
LAMB: Four-and-a-half years in Iraq.
LAMB: Do you want to go back?
DARAGAHI: Yes, kind of. And kind of no. I imagine I will go back. Most ”L.A. Times” foreign correspondents do do stints in Iraq, small stints, two or three weeks.
Generally, we don’t get to not go, even if we don’t want to go.
LAMB: You wrote in one of your stories recently that, ”But readjusting to ordinary life is hard. I miss the action.”
And then you say, ”I was thrilled as the Black Hawk lifted up, swinging over the Green Zone across the homes of the brawny, good-humored, British, South African and American security contractors. We skirted past the mosque of the wily Shiite cleric who venomously ripped into his enemies during Friday prayers, but politely offered visitors tea and sweets.”
Go back to that, ”I miss the action.”
DARAGAHI: Yes, I mean, it’s such an intense place, Iraq. It really – being there as a reporter is just such a dramatic experience. You have – every single day huge things are happening.
And when you go out onto the streets, it’s such a production. It’s like being in an action movie, you know, guys putting the clips into their AK-47s and people loading their weapons, and then you get into the car and you out into the checkpoint.
And there’s the sort of sound of the walkie-talkies crackling as you’re going through traffic. And there’s the sirens of the police vehicles screaming and mysterious armed men wearing ski masks pushing through traffic. And there’s constant like rattle of gunfire every single day of your life in that country.
And you get kind of – I mean, maybe people think I’m crazy – but you get kind of hooked on it. You get kind of into that sort of existence.
And then you come out and it’s – you know, you’re shopping for pears at the supermarket and it just doesn’t really compare.
LAMB: What were the ski masks being worn for?
DARAGAHI: I think because many of the Iraqi security forces and many of the Iraqi security organizations that provide security for VIPs wear ski masks, because they don’t want to be identified as collaborators by the insurgents.
So, that’s one of the funny things about Iraq. It’s the only place in the world where the good guys wear the ski masks.
LAMB: Go back to – you say you were charmed by Baghdad.
DARAGAHI: In the beginning, sure.
LAMB: When was the beginning again?
DARAGAHI: Like the first year or year-and-a-half after the U.S.-led invasion.
LAMB: Why were you charmed?
DARAGAHI: Because there was just a lot of interesting stuff happening.
It was really – you did have this – you know, I went to – in ’89-’90, I was a junior in college and I was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. And you had this sort of opening of the East and this outpouring of artistic expression and political organizations and civil society groups.
And that’s what you had, really, in Iraq for the first year-and-a-half or so. You’d have new kinds of – you know, this really oppressed society, these people who had been under so much pressure and under lock and chain all of a sudden freed.
And there were all sorts of new political ideas, new art. There was theater, even. There was a real opening up of the society.
LAMB: Which article did you write while you were in Baghdad that got the most reaction?
DARAGAHI: While I was – I mean, I think this one got a lot of attention.
LAMB: Or while you were in Iraq, not just Baghdad.
DARAGAHI: I think definitely it was this article I got the most …
LAMB: You mean that I have in my hands here.
DARAGAHI: Yes, the one – yes, the one that you …
LAMB: From April 10, 2007.
LAMB: And why?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think that it’s – I’m not sure exactly why. I think people were – the message, the e-mails that I got – and they were universally positive from people – was thank you for sharing this story. It just gave a unique understanding of what Iraq is like and what this adventure has been like, being in Iraq, for us, the journalists, but also for the country.
And I tried to weave that into it. I mean, I meant it – and whenever I try writing something like this, I mean it as something more than the sum of its parts.
LAMB: We’ll connect to either the ”Los Angeles Times” Web site or we’ll have this article on c-span.org under Q&A for those who want to read it. It’s not long. How many words would you say this is?
DARAGAHI: Three thousand five hundred.
LAMB: Back to Iraq.
How much – I mean, I assume – I shouldn’t assume anything.
Where did you live in Baghdad?
DARAGAHI: In Iraq, in Baghdad? We live in a guarded, high-security hotel compound with other news organizations.
LAMB: Did you ever have power cut off?
DARAGAHI: Power gets cut off every few hours.
LAMB: Why hasn’t our effort – meaning the United States’ effort over there – been able to deal with the power problem?
DARAGAHI: I think there’s a number of reasons for that. One is sabotage, continued insurgent sabotage. The other is security issues driving up the costs of any kind of repairs.
I think there’s also a real – like the infrastructure has been so badly dilapidated under the previous government, Saddam Hussein’s government, that it’s extremely hard to fix it right now. But even under Saddam Hussein there were power outages, but they just were concentrated outside of the capital.
And so, I think that the country never really recovered from the first Gulf War, in terms of its electricity infrastructure.
LAMB: We hear stories all the time about corruption and the lost money.
DARAGAHI: That’s another issue, as well.
LAMB: Did you do any stories on that?
DARAGAHI: On corruption?
DARAGAHI: I didn’t, but as a bureau – yes, I did do some stories on corruption. But as a bureau …
LAMB: But is there anything …
DARAGAHI: … we did a lot.
LAMB: Is there anything inherently corrupt about the Iraqi people?
DARAGAHI: I don’t know if it’s inherently corrupt. But I think that in a society that is as worn-out and abused and impoverished as Iraq is, there’s bound to be corruption, especially when people are so underpaid in the civil service, and so on.
LAMB: What do they make in the civil service?
DARAGAHI: A hundred and fifty dollars a month.
LAMB: Can they live on that?
DARAGAHI: I think it is very, very hard to live on that. It’s extremely difficult for them to live on $150 a month.
LAMB: How much is a loaf of bread?
DARAGAHI: I think bread is pretty cheap. But, you know, food is not a problem in Iraq right now, generally. And I’ll tell you why. Because the rations – they have rations there.
And so, you still have the Oil for Food Program. You have this sort of program where each family would get a food basket every month. And they still continue to get that.
So the problem isn’t starvation. It’s other things in life, I think – you know, rent, getting out of the country, getting trips to other places. But housing remains a big problem, as well.
LAMB: Do you fly in and out of the Baghdad airport?
DARAGAHI: Yes, I do.
LAMB: On a commercial airliner?
DARAGAHI: Yes, flying usually on – almost always on Royal Jordanian. Occasionally, I’ve taken Iraqi Airways, as well.
LAMB: In your opinion, is it safe?
DARAGAHI: Whew! God knows!
LAMB: I mean, have there been any of those planes attacked leaving?
DARAGAHI: Well, I think there was a time when very regularly people would take pot-shots at the planes, firing rockets at them. But I’m fairly certain that that has subsided, that they are not doing it anymore.
LAMB: What is your sense of the surge and its possible outcome?
DARAGAHI: I seriously doubt it’ll work. I think it’ll …
DARAGAHI: Because there is not – even according to General Petraeus’ own guidebook for fighting counterinsurgencies, they’re not using soldiers, they’re not using enough troops to accomplish their goals.
But also, more fundamentally, I don’t think that they can do this militarily. I don’t think the fundamental problems in Iraq right now are military problems.
And I think they recognize that, as well, that they need to resolve the political disagreements between the various factions in the government.
The theory was that you create some safety in Baghdad, create a space for people to resolve those differences. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
LAMB: Are you going to write a book off of your experiences there?
DARAGAHI: I’m supposed to be writing a book, but not about my experiences in Iraq, at this point. I’m doing another book about the sort of cool, sub-cultural aspects of the Middle East.
DARAGAHI: Why …
LAMB: Why the book? Why cool, sub-cultural aspects?
DARAGAHI: Because I wanted to write a book that would be kind of interesting to people other than journalists and Iraq war fans.
LAMB: So, what kind of things will you write about?
DARAGAHI: Soap operas, video clips, hair salons – things like that – satellite television channels. The whole sort of – I mean, the premise of the book is that globalization, much more than Islam, is the reigning power in the Middle East.
LAMB: If you are in Iraq, you’re supposed to be able to see Al Hurrah, and other places. Have you ever watched it, the American-produced channel?
DARAGAHI: I should caution that I don’t understand Arabic, but I have seen Al Hurrah. It’s on fairly regularly in our newsroom.
LAMB: Do you have any idea whether people in Iraq watch it?
DARAGAHI: I think they watch it when they have important interviews. When there’s a certain person that’s like very important that’s going to speak, they’ll tune in to it. But generally, it’s not one of the popular ones in Iraq.
The most popular stations are Arabiyah, which is the Dubai satellite channel, Al Sharqiya, which is an Iraqi satellite channel, and Al Jazeera, which is, of course, the famous Qatari-based satellite channel.
LAMB: And what kind of impact did they have on the citizens of Iraq?
DARAGAHI: Which? Those channels?
LAMB: Yes, those channels.
DARAGAHI: Well, as far as the satellite channels, I think it exposes them to the broader Arab world, because these are mostly pan-Arab stations, Arabiyah and Jazeera are.
I should also say that there’s one other thing that people – or I’ve noticed in Iraq. There’s also, in addition to those stations, there’s a proliferation of channels, like Al Furat, Baghdad TV, that are very sectarian. And a lot of people are watching those, too.
And so, you have Al Furat, which is the Shiite channel run by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, which is Abdul Aziz Hakim’s political party, which is one of the main Shiite groups.
And the Shiites will watch that. And this channel will really present the plight of the Shiites in a very sympathetic light, make them out to be the victims and the sufferers, and so on.
And then you have Baghdad TV, which is the channel of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is a Sunni group. And it does the opposite.
So, what you have increasingly in Iraq is people tuning in to the television station of their sect.
LAMB: What do you think will happen on the long-term basis in Iraq?
DARAGAHI: I think that – you know, I should caution, you know, like I’m not a pundit. And I see a lot of people commenting from these think tanks, and so on, and they just have no clue about what’s happening in Iraq. And I don’t want to fall into that category.
And I’m going to be really cautious and ask viewers, like, feel free to ignore what I’m saying when I’m prognosticating.
But I think the train has left the station with regard to conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis. I think that that has to play itself out, at this point.
Both the Sunnis and the Shiites, hardliners, the militants are convinced that they’ll win, and that’s always a kind of recipe for a long war, when neither side has enough information to know when to stop.
So, they’re going to keep fighting until they tire each other out, or until one side decides there’s no more chance of fighting and they accept some kind of settlement.
LAMB: What happens if the U.S. military pulls out?
DARAGAHI: I think it’ll probably get worse, the sort of civil strife between Sunnis and Shiites. It’ll definitely accelerate.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t pull out anyway, you know. But we should be prepared for the consequences if we do.
LAMB: What did the military people that you talked to tell you about their own morale, their own attitude about pulling out?
DARAGAHI: I think a lot of the soldiers are – you know, there is a time when the soldiers – the morale was a lot worse, I think, because no one knew what to expect.
For example, guys in the 3rd Infantry Division, they came in expecting to win a war and they ended up doing a peacekeeping mission. And they were very, very bitter about that. And I think that affected morale throughout the 3rd Infantry Division.
The guys of the 1st Cavalry Division came in expecting a peacekeeping mission, and they wound up fighting a vicious insurgency in Baghdad and Najaf, if you remember, in 2004. And I think that really hurt morale.
But I think at this point, soldiers when they come in, the Marines when they come in, they pretty much know what they’re expecting. And I think that that has helped with morale. I think they are mentally prepared when they arrive.
And it does – it’s really hard to speak for all the troops and say, here’s what they think. But I think most opinion polls show that the military has also turned against the war.
LAMB: In your own case, you were nominated for a Pulitzer. What year?
DARAGAHI: In 2005. And then this year – I’ll mention it – our whole bureau was a Pulitzer finalist. We didn’t win this year, either.
LAMB: But you were freelance.
DARAGAHI: As a freelancer, yes.
LAMB: And what year – when were you actually hired full-time?
LAMB: What’s your sense of what got you either nominated for the Pulitzer or hired full-time? What about your work – and I mean, this case, of advising young folks that think they want to get into this world.
DARAGAHI: Get into …
LAMB: The world of journalism …
LAMB: … and international reporting.
DARAGAHI: I think it’s really important to refine in journalism, to – you know, I mean, to not forget the fundamentals, which is like good writing. And I think all too often right now in our schools, writing is kind of passed over as an art.
And I see that with a lot of young people who are getting into the business. They’re really tenacious. They’re really motivated. They’re really ambitious.
But they’re not that great of writers. They’re just not – you know, they don’t really have a flare for it. And I’m not sure why that is.
I think people should read much more than they do, in general. Read books, read the classics, read the greats of literature, and continue reading.
Become absorbed in whatever environment that you’re in. For example, if you’re in – one of the things that when I was in Iraq, I tried to be out and mingle among the people as much as I could and just sort of get a tactile understanding of the country.
LAMB: Did you dress like the people?
DARAGAHI: Sometimes you had to. I mean, yes. When I was out, especially when things got very dangerous – and it wasn’t just me; all of us – we had a whole sort of Baghdad fashion school, where we would talk about ways to dress that looked local, so that we would blend in and not be identified as foreigners.
LAMB: Anybody ever figure that you were a foreigner when you were trying to cover it up?
DARAGAHI: Oh, yes. It happened all the time, and it was really the most dangerous thing.
I remember one time, I was at a – and I recount this in the story, but there were a number of incidents like this.
But I was at a double truck bombing scene at a market. And we were just collecting interviews with people, getting ready to head back to the hotel when we were stopped by the police who wanted to know who we were and what we were doing, and so on. And they were – you know, started taking away our equipment and looking for IDs, and so on.
I basically explained to them, look. I’m an American journalist. We’re just here doing some reporting, and then we’re going to be on our way.
And then they said, ”Oh, OK.”
And then I hear one guy yelling to the other guy, ”Sahaf Ameriki, (ph)” American journalist.
And there was a big crowd everywhere. And I can tell you, that was a long walk back to the car, with everyone. It felt like all eyes were on my back.
LAMB: Borzou Daragahi, we’re out of time. Thank you very much.
And you’re on your way to Lebanon and served as the Baghdad bureau chief for the ”Los Angeles Times” for the last couple years.
DARAGAHI: Thank you so much.
LAMB: Thanks for joining us.
DARAGAHI: It’s been a pleasure.