Alive in Baghdad: An Interview with Brian Conley

After college I quickly recognized the desperate need for documentation of police misconduct at political demonstrations as well as the demonstrations themselves. As the Iraq war has transpired it increasingly became clear to me that this was the latest important topic for video coverage, but the media has consistently failed to provide in-depth nuanced coverage of Iraq. After my experience documenting the lives of migrant farm workers, another issue long-ignored by the media, I felt obliged to travel to Iraq.

BD: Why did you go to Iraq? How long were you there? 

BC: Well, as I said previously, I went to Iraq because no one was there. And by no one, I mean no one who was producing independent media from Iraq and who was willing to talk to Iraqis themselves and provide a space to hear the perspectives and desires of Iraqis. I was in Iraq for three weeks and spent the bulk of my time doing face to face interviews with individual Iraqis, on video, in order to bring their images and words back to the United States and to make them available, via the internet, screening and speaking events, and eventually a feature-length documentary. I hope that by my trip to Iraq I am able to help others gain a better grasp of the situation in Iraq, to come to better understand what is happening there and what changes might be made in order to ease the conflict and enable the general withdrawal of the United States and its allies, troops, and the formation of a free and popular government in Iraq.

BD: What was your daily routine like while in Iraq? What were the challenges of working there?

BC: Well, there is certainly no such thing as a "daily routine." However, on most days I rose early, examined news and emails, checked on the status of the "Alive in Baghdad" website, and prepared notes for the days interviews. I would then travel with my translator, Omar, to various neighborhoods in Baghdad, dependent on the specific schedule of the day. Traveling anywhere in Baghdad is immensely dangerous, but generally not from any direct forces. The indirect, unpredictable dangers are the worst and often the most present. You can easily make plans to avoid whatever neighborhood is engulfed in active conflict on a given day or week, but you can’t be sure about the less predictable dangers. It’s really impossible to know when you might run into a traffic jam around a U.S. patrol of tanks or Humvees, where at any moment a car bomb might explode, killing or maiming yourself as well as so-called "legitimate military targets." Furthermore, simple criminal violence is an ongoing problem in Baghdad, as is kidnapping. For this reason, to travel in Baghdad it was necessary everyday to ensure that my appearance was as close to that of a local as possible, I adopted a short, very neat haircut, as well as a closely trimmed beard and a thick mustache to blend in. I purchased Iraqi style shoes and made sure always to dress in the general nature of Iraqis.

BD: Please talk a bit about how your "Alive in Baghdad" media project began? What are some of its objectives? 

BC: Well the media project itself is set up to help increase dialogue and understanding of Iraq. I’m hoping, eventually, to incorporate something more informative about Iraq’s geography, weather, traditions, historical importance of landmarks, maps, etc. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened yet. So far, the main attempts have been to bring back photos of Baghdad and video interviews with Iraqis. The idea is that these images will help Americans and others to better identify with Iraqis. I feel that if people in the United States and other countries who are providing resources to the war begin to identify with Iraqis, to see themselves reflected in the struggles and desires and fears of Iraqis, this will be a good first step toward ending the conflict and repairing ties between our countries. If you see a young man on a video, and he reminds you of your brother, or son, or grandson, and then after the video ends, you realize you can’t be sure he is still alive, I hope you will say to yourself, "I don’t know if this person is still alive, and that is unacceptable."

BD: On your website, it says, "Alive in Baghdad was formed with the intent of making the world, and particularly the United States, aware of the Iraqi experience." How do think most mainstream media in the U.S. is doing in the area of making U.S. citizens aware of the "Iraqi experience"?

BC: In a word: failure. The mainstream media has essentially made no effort to make U.S. citizens really aware of the Iraqi experience. Otherwise, more people in the United States would recognize that security is the number one concern, freedom is not on the march, and democracy and goodwill are certainly not breaking out all over Iraq. More people would be aware that Iraqis have on average only 12 to14 hours of electricity a day and that has lately dropped significantly, some have claimed Iraqis in Baghdad at least are averaging as little as one or two hours of electricity a day in the past week. Iraqis are angry about the occupation and are choosing to resist, in large numbers. If the mainstream media had a better concept of the Iraqi experience and why Iraqis felt this way, they might begin referring to much of the anti-occupation activities going on in Iraq now as a resistance, rather than an insurgency. But then again, I don’t really believe the mainstream media can discuss the Iraqi experience because they refuse to travel the streets of Baghdad and to talk to Iraqis living and working on the streets of Baghdad everyday. Until the media can improve recruiting methods of Iraqi journalists, and giving them the free reign to cover important stories and provide them the full credit for their work, it is unlikely the mainstream media will be able to provide more than the slightest window of insight into the "Iraqi experience."

BD: What was the general consensus among Iraqis you spoke with about the U.S. occupation? Did most Iraqis you met want the U.S. troops out immediately?  

BC: The Iraqis I met were all opposed to the occupation. Every one of them told me they felt the United States should leave Iraq and that it was there illegally and engaged in an illegal war to overthrow Saddam. That is not, however, meant to imply that they were not opposed to Saddam. Most Iraqis I met were completely opposed to Saddam, and many initially even thought something good might come of the invasion. To be honest, the response of Iraqis was mixed. Their feelings about the occupation’s legality and the timing of its departure were contradictory at best. Iraqis certainly believed that resistance was legitimate and many even supported the resistance. There were others however who felt that because of the instability and the dangerous. in-roads Iran was making, if the United States left immediately, it might descend into civil war, or at the very least there would be a great deal of in-fighting and the possible dissolution of the country. Others told me that the state had already dissolved and it was mere ignorance to look at Iraq today as anything more than a failed state. Still others really seem to believe that, when the Americans leave, all those individuals who returned to Iraq with them, "on the American tanks" would leave on these same tanks and Iraqis would unite to form a truly national government. So as you can see, the opinions were very mixed.

BD: How has Bush’s dedication to the war on terror prevented him from adequately executing the Iraq reconstruction? How is this amounting to a kind of "cut and run"?

BC: In my opinion, Bush is most interested in "fighting the terrorists" and has himself caught up in some sort of idealistic moral crusade, rather than actually fighting a war in Iraq specifically for oil. Certainly this and "democratizing the Middle East" have played a part in directing and influencing the war, but I don’t believe they are at the core of Bush’s agenda. In fact, it seems like there are three factions in the war, Cheney and Rumsfeld make up one faction, which is concerned, generally, with U.S. power and imperial influence, specifically with oil income for major trans-national corporations. Elements in the intelligence community and more specifically the State Department make up another faction, which really appears to believe in the possibility of creating the "first Democracy in the Middle East." The State Department has been most influential in the recent events around the election and the constitution referendum, and they are really working to bridge divides between Iraqis in order to create a stable, western-style, U.S.-friendly democracy in Iraq. Of course, they are doing this solely to increase U.S. power and influence in the area and protect the nations’ interests. As for Bush, I really feel like his desire to "fight the terrorists" is greatly hampering the reconstruction effort. The administration has basically done as little as possible, step by step, to fulfill their obligations under international law. Look at it this way, there are specific hallmarks, or goalposts even, to pass once you have invaded a country in order to leave it. These consist of ending major combat operations, setting up an occupation authority, a transitional government, and eventually that transitional government will arrange the process for a permanent government to take power. In Iraq we’ve seen the Bush administration hurriedly administer these steps, and in many cases it appears we’ve moved ahead much to quickly. However, if we are going to continue "fighting the terrorists" and also contend that they are not actually elements of a legitimate national army who we are still at war with, then all of these obligations must be met. I would say that in some ways this is amounting to a "cut and run" because President Bush is not looking to protect the Iraqi people and produce a stable government based on ensuring the liberty and equality of all citizens of Iraq. President Bush is in fact, doing what he can to both deal with the increasing political liability of Iraq and also better equip U.S. for continuing to fight his self-styled "war on terrorism."

BD: Please discuss the role of the media and its complicity in the breakdown of Iraq’s stability.

BC: Well, first and foremost most of the Western media appears to have no idea what’s going on in Iraq or even a small amount of knowledge about the social and cultural traditions and history of Iraq. They continue to trumpet the idea of an "ethnic divide" between Sunnis and Shi’is. Shi’a and Sunna are not ethnicities, they are religious sects. Much like being born Jewish or Christian, Iraqis are initially born into one or the other sect. I have met Iraqis who were married to members of the other sect, in fact this is fairly common! In fact, even in the city of Fallujah, one of the muezzin, the men who make the call to prayer, is married to a Shi’a woman from the south of Iraq! So first thing, the Western media keeps saying, everyday, civil war, civil war. This makes it difficult for people in the west to identify with Iraqis, who increasingly are seeing Iraq like Afghanistan or other war-torn countries torn apart by warlords and sectarian divides. Furthermore, the media’s failure to do real investigative reporting and coverage in Iraq further alienates the public to the issues facing Iraqis. We hear in the news everyday about the death and destruction and war and terrorism happening in Iraq. It presents this image of a weak Iraqi public who are besieged by terrorists and the "enemies of freedom." The western media is incapable of telling a different story however, because they lack any understanding of the lives of Iraqis. If they were talking to Iraqis they might be forced to consider that the massive enmity towards the United States could be understandable. Iraqis were mostly glad to be rid of Saddam and have the United States’ help in that process, however this quickly turned to intolerance, when the United States and its allies failed to get basic services operational and stem the tide of crime which broke out all over Iraq once the regime was destabilized. Lastly, the media’s failure to provide a balanced and nuanced view of Iraq has probably adversely affected the manner in which the occupation has been carried out and the war has been waged. If the Bush administration and military officers were forced to read about the basic concerns of Iraqis daily on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, on CNN and Fox News, chances are they would have taken steps slightly differently and with a greater measure of humility. This is why I went to Iraq, to try and provide insight into exactly what the Iraqis were thinking, and perhaps a better idea about why the resistance has been so intransigent.

BD: On your website you have an enormous list of blogs by Iraqis, and publish a number of blogs from Iraqis on your site.  What does the ability to write blogs mean for Iraqis in the midst of a war? What have been some of your experiences with fellow bloggers in Iraq that illustrate the potential of this new media tool?  

BC: Well, part of the reason for syndicating all the Iraqi blogs was to provide an insight into the thinking of individual Iraqis themselves. I believe the ability of Iraqis to publish stories about their lives could provide a great deal to the body of knowledge and understanding of Iraq. Unfortunately, they seem to have been largely ignored as an asset in understanding the situation in Iraq. Also, just like in the United States there are blogs with in-depth political analysis, people such as Riverbend ( and Khalid Jarrar (, but there are also many blogs that are just Iraqi kids talking about hanging out with their friends and what they did on their vacation. Certainly these are all important elements to understanding Iraq. One really strong example of potential for this new media can be found on Khalid Jarrar’s blog. He broke a story about torture and abuse by the Interior Ministry nearly six months before it came on the mainstream media’s radar. He was abducted by the Interior Ministry’s agents in mid-July and held for at least two weeks until being freed. He provides very specific details about the location of the prison as well as the torture and other things he saw inside. If even one intrepid reporter was reading these blogs regularly and had pitched this story to her editor, who knows how many Iraqis might have been saved a horrible fate. Keep in mind that this would never have happened in the current media climate in Iraq, however. Because western journalists refuse to go out on the streets and do in-depth reporting, and the media has generally failed to put a reasonable amount of faith in Iraqi journalists, this story would never have been capable of proper coverage.

BD: After you came back to the U.S. and spoke to Americans about the realities of the war in Iraq, what is the usual reaction from people?

BC: Well, I think people are first of all shocked that I was able to go to Baghdad and remain relatively safe, generally speaking. It seems almost inconceivable for Americans that Baghdad is nothing like Sarajevo, or Dresden, or the opening scenes to Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan." But at the same time, they are also shocked, and horrified, or sometimes dismayed, to hear about the continuing infrastructure problems in Iraq. We have to remember that Iraq is nothing like Afghanistan, and in fact, is not like most of the other nations in the Middle East. It was a well-developed, Western-looking nation even throughout it’s long war with Iran in the 80s. I think it is also hard for Americans to understand the deeply nuanced and often contradictory nature of the Iraqi mind. There has been such a great deal of trauma in Iraq’s last twenty or thirty years that they have a very specific way of striving for a desirable goal, yet also being realistic and making allowances that even seem often at odds with their expressed desires. A good example of this can be seen in a recent poll done in Iraq. The poll found that while 60% of Iraqis were completely opposed to the occupation, only 25% wanted a complete withdrawal of American forces. In the often black and white nature of American politics, whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Communist, or some other wing, I think this is an apparent contradiction that would be difficult to find. While most Iraqis are opposed to the occupation, there are many reasons for them to fear what might happen if the United States were to withdraw immediately.

BD: What message do you have for those who believe the U.S. should not withdraw its troops from Iraq immediately?

BC: Well, first of all, I’m not sure this is the right question to be asked. We should be talking about how the troop presence affects the ability to provide security and stabilize Iraq, and whether this is the best process. There are clarifications that have to be made. I don’t believe the United States should withdraw from Iraq immediately, I believe we have an obligation to provide reparations and services to the people of Iraq, and to repair much of the infrastructure we helped destroy during the war and subsequent occupation. I do, however, believe that the standard military practice is not working in Iraq. I would tell people that there is a difference between questioning the policy of large troop numbers and "show of force"-style deterrence, and suggesting we should just abandon our responsibilities in Iraq. To anyone who is calling for U.S. to immediately withdraw from Iraq, I would accuse them of the worst type of insular nationalism. However, the United States cannot possibly hope to repair the situation in Iraq by itself or by continuing its current policies. We do need to take a long look at how our military actions have affected our ability to help stabilize Iraq. We need to be certain we are talking to everyone involved from all of Iraq’s different tribes and groups, and we need to chart a course that best represents all of their various interests, and attempt to respect their specific needs and wants as best as possible. I would also say to anyone who believes this new approach of airpower combined with Iraqi boots on the ground will enable U.S. troop numbers to decrease, that they have obviously not read anything on counterinsurgency tactics written in at least the last thirty years. A unified, stable Iraq is going to be a long time coming. I think it will take at least a decade of self-less humble conflict resolution work and deal brokering. We need to remember we are still at war, and that we have obligations in regards to prisoners of war and that the international rules of war do still apply in much of the Iraq theatre and could be used to settle much of the conflict effectively. There are terrorists in Iraq and there are resistance fighters. Many of the resistance fighters are legitimate representatives of the previous regime and they should be dealt with as such. Saddam’s regime never surrendered, and until the United States comes to terms with the reality of the situation on the ground in Iraq, it is unlikely we’ll have a peaceful resolution any time soon.

Brian Conley is a 25 year-old journalist and filmmaker. He is the founder of the Alive in Baghdad Project. During his first trip to Iraq, the Alive in Baghdad Project focused on interviewing Iraqis living in and outside Baghdad. At this point Brian is working on writing articles about the ongoing situation in Iraq and arranging the project’s second phase. It is the goal of the Alive in Baghdad Project to make Westerners, and particularly Americans, more aware of the Iraqi experience and to begin to understand the occupation from the Iraqi perspective.