Covering Iraq: Trying To Connect

An Iraqi army soldier frisks a man at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, March 22, 2007.
An Iraqi army soldier frisks a man at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, March 22, 2007.

By CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey

As I sit typing this, the rattle of heavy machine gun fire is coming from across the Tigris River, on whose banks our office sits. It began with the dull thud of an explosion, probably an IED by the sound of it. The fire fight has been going on intermittently for about 45 minutes. Somebody is having a bad day, but I have no idea why, what kind of battle it is, where it is or between whom.

Even if I did know all that, it probably wouldn't make the news. It's just another firefight.

Trying to explain Iraq in a way that American viewers can relate to is a challenge at the best of times. It becomes even more acute when you start the day by watching American newscasts. Thanks to clever technicians who can pull down signals from European and other international satellite channels —— and access Arabic networks that like to carry the U.S. evening newscasts one after the other early the following morning — it' possible to report from here and see what else is of interest to the viewers one is supposed to inform.

How well we do that informing is for others to decide. What is depressingly clear is that what seems important here is far removed from what viewers in the U.S. seem to be concerned about.

The pet food "scandal" is a case in point. As far as I can tell from what is coming through the dust-encrusted TV monitors in our office, a dozen or so pets have died, apparently from eating well-known brands of cat or dog food. No doubt the owners paid premium prices for high nutritional value, so they have a right to be upset that instead of the glossy coats and tail-wagging promised by the ads they got organ failure. Being a pet owner, I can understand being upset when one dies.

How 12 dead animals in a country the size of the U.S. rates with the sliding scale of mayhem here is what I'm finding hard to gauge. When only 12 human bodies are found on any given morning in Baghdad with marks of the kind of torture the ASPCA would quite rightly have a pet owner in court for, it is judged as "progress" for the security plan.

In one of the pet food stories the bereaved owner of a cat said she was planning to sue the pet food company because it was something she had to do for the sake of her dead pet. How that helps the pet is not clear.

Lawsuits have not taken hold here yet — not least because the courts barely function. But even if they did, settling issues with an AK-47 is still more common than hiring a lawyer with blow-dried hair to fight your case in court and then court the media outside it. Come to think of it, maybe it's not that AKs are simpler; it's the fact that lawyers can't stand about in the street and pontificate for the 6 o'clock news. The camera crews would be shot or kidnapped and the crowd car-bombed.

But if the justice system and tort lawyers ever do get up to speed and take to the litigious aspect of the democracy that has, or rather is in the process of being, brought to them they'll be swamped with work for years to come — if only by following the example of the lawsuit being brought against Sudan.

That one is by families of sailors killed when the USS Cole was rammed by a suicide bomber in a harbor in Yemen a few years ago.

If Americans can sue a country their government does not like for something that happened in another country, what about Iraqis who have been victims of "collateral damage" from bombs? Their list of lawsuit targets is inexhaustible.

And on the subject of targets, a short while ago a rocket slammed into the "Green Zone" or, as the Americans prefer to call it, the "IZ" short for "International Zone", a word game that allows them to pretend someone other than America runs the place. The rocket, fired from across the river, slammed in about 50 yards from where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were meeting the press.

Pool pictures from the scene showed the U.N. chief ducking, a not unnatural or unwise move, and then looking somewhat puzzled.

That may have been because his host announced that "nothing is wrong."

In fact, except for a few pieces of plaster falling off the ceiling and some slight injuries reported from people who had the bad luck to be outside at the time, nothing was.

Compare that to what would have happened if a similar explosion had occurred in Washington. If the event that precipitated the war is anything to judge by, President Bush would have been hustled onto a plane to fly around for a few hours, Vice President Dick Cheney would have disappeared to an "undisclosed location" for a few months and the entire U.S. Capitol would have been put on full security alert — if not shut down. One shudders to think what the rest of the political elite would have done.

Here, the press conference resumed.

You see the problem in making the connections?

By Allen Pizzey