The Iraq scoop

Jan. 18, 2006, midnight | By Anna Coughlan | 15 years ago

Washington Post reporter discusses his experiences, war

Every day reporter Tom Ricks wakes up at dawn, conducts interviews, checks in with the Washington Post bureau and later works on a story. But throughout these typical journalistic routines, Ricks also adorns body armor, a helmet and sunglasses to protect him against bomb blasts, because security is always a problem when reporting in Iraq.

Ricks, a Silver Spring resident, returned to Iraq on Thursday, Jan. 12 for the fifth time during the U.S. occupation. His experiences in the past few years talking to soldiers and conducting research for his book to be released in September have helped him understand the current situation on the controversial war. Yet no matter how many times Ricks goes to Iraq, he admits that reporting there is a dangerous challenge. "It's always a relief to leave Iraq," he says.

Risking life to bring us news

Ricks has been writing for the Post since 2000 and previously reported for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years. He is a visiting fellow at the international security program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and authored "Making the Corps" in 1998 and "A Soldier's Duty" in 2001.

As a veteran military journalist, Ricks has traveled to Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, to name a few places. Iraq remains his most difficult venue for covering news. "It's probably the hardest reporting environment I've ever seen," he says.

Getting interviews with military people is the easiest part about working in Iraq, according to Ricks, who is mostly concerned about lack of safety and communication. "You spend like 40 percent of your time worrying about security," he says.

For safety reasons, Ricks usually lives and travels with the U.S. military. The soldiers that he talks to are very candid about the situations and events. "The troops tend to be very honest," says Ricks. "In Iraq, everything is on the record."

Ricks works 12 to 14 hours a day, for seven days a week, which gets to be exhausting. "It takes just a week to get used to it," says Ricks. He cannot go to bed until 10 p.m. or later because back in Washington it's only late afternoon and Ricks's editors want to discuss stories with him.

To mollify the stress, Ricks brings a big book to read and his favorite CD's. To fellow reporters, he recommends, "make sure you have some good music and some good books." One day when Ricks was writing a story he was listening to the band Outkast. A soldier leaned over and mentioned that he was surprised that the 50-year-old man liked the contemporary hip-hop duo. Music helps Ricks "get away from Iraq," he says.

No end in sight

It has been almost three years since the occupation in Iraq began. Cindy Sheehan's anti-war campaigns and Bush's declining approval ratings in the fall both show that Americans are getting antsy about bringing the troops home. Yet, Ricks foresees the war will last "much longer than any of us will think."

American troops will start coming home when a key insurgency leader joins the Iraqi government, Ricks predicts. "That's what victory will look like in Iraq," he says. "The war is not going to end militarily."

Ricks puts part of the blame of the perpetual war on the military's early mistakes. One tactic was conducting sweeps and detaining hundreds of innocent people, which increased sympathy for the insurgency. "Having American troops coming into houses at night really antagonized Iraqis," says Ricks. "The U.S. military didn't understand the culture it was working with."

Ricks says the Bush administration's assurances of progress are measured by their own standards. "It's like letting students grade their own papers," he says.

For example, the administration cited the Dec. 15 Iraqi National Assembly election as evidence of advancement. On the other hand, Iraqis might gauge improvement by feeling safe in their homes, having the ability to go to school and work or having electricity.

The insurgents know that security and transportation are important to common citizens' lives, and so they threaten those aspects, according to Ricks. "The insurgents do stuff to interrupt the gasoline" flow, he says.

Future escalation?

Ricks worries that the war could branch out to other Arab countries such as Syria and Iran. "Iran and Syria are very involved and upset," he says. Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia are also concerned that the government in Iraq is now pre-dominantly Shi'ite.

Civil war between the Shi'ites and Sunnis is also a possibility, according to Ricks, who believes that divisions were evident in the Dec. 15 elections. "People voted along religious lines," he says.

Even if the war does not worsen, soldiers who enlisted hoping for the best are now stuck in an everlasting conflict, according to Ricks. "One theme that emerged was everyone went in there with the best of intentions," says Ricks of the soldiers he interviewed.

Ricks shows no emotion about his own intentions reporting in a hazardous environment. But he does reveal a frank opinion about the Iraq conflict. "This has been a real mess," he says.

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Anna Coughlan. Anna is a CAP junior who can't believe she's an upperclassman already. She likes to run Blair cross-country and track, do yoga, play soccer, and chill with fun-loving people. Anna is a big movie fan and loves the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Star … More »

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