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WEB EXTRA: NBC News’ Engel Looks Back on Four Years in Iraq

NBC News’ Engel Looks Back on Four Years in Iraq

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. On March 21, MSNBC will air War Zone Diaries, an hour special based on the video journal of NBC News’ Richard Engel, 33, who has reported continuously from Iraq longer than any other foreign correspondent. Beginning on the eve of the invasion, when Engel was an unembedded freelancer, the diaries chronicle the personal toll—the brushes with death, his broken marriage—of covering a war that has claimed 96 of his fellow journalists. While back in New York, Engel spoke with B&C’s Joel Topcik about the special, the current situation in Iraq and what keeps him going back.

How did War Zone Diaries come about?

I started collecting this video diary four years ago because I thought I would eventually put it together in some form or another. And it’s been floating around with lots of different producers since I’ve been at NBC [he joined in May 2003]. But I’ve just been doing other things, gathering stories, doing my regular assignments. About 6 months ago, I was talking with Alex Wallace [VP of NBC News who recently became executive producer of Nightly News With Brian Williams], and she said, “Just do it.”

So it’s been a project long in the coming that could’ve almost happened at anytime. But now, with the four year anniversary, it seemed like the time had finally come to put it together.

Reporters have very much become part of the story they’re covering in Iraq. What do you hope viewers will learn from your story?

I don’t want it to come across that it’s all about me because it’s really not. Sure, it’s my diary, and I’m the narrator. But I think what I’ve gone through kind of reflects what the country has gone through—what Iraqis I’ve been in contact with have gone through, and the soldiers and the evolutions of the war. I don’t think it’s pro-war; I don’t think it’s anti-war. It’s just what it’s looked like from the ground.

People often ask me: “So what’s it like over there?” And I think this was an answer to that. And I tried to just put it out there, kind of, in a flat, very raw tone.

What’s your sense of the way the war is being covered in the U.S., the way we see it here?

I don’t know. I’m pretty cut off [when I’m in Iraq]. Obviously, I can see the Internet, and we can see NBC programming because in our bureau we have a dish and on the dish I can see return of our own programming. But I’m not exposed to lots of the radio and the constant talk shows, so I’m pretty cut off to the domestic debate—which, to be honest, is fine with me. I’m in more of the hunter-gatherer side of it. I just kind of gather the information, and if people talk about it back here, that’s great.

But I think there’s a lot of coverage. If you read the newspapers and watch all the reports and watch documentaries, I think there’s been a tremendous amount of coverage of this conflict. I think in general, it’s been very well covered.

There have been certain attacks on the media—that we’re all getting it wrong and that journalists are just trying to paint a negative impression. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I’m not there trying to demoralize anyone. I’m just trying to reflect what’s going on.

And how it’s presented to the American people—that’s all part of politics. How it’s packaged, and what is victory, and what is an acceptable level of violence and what can be acceptable enough to declare it a success: These are issues that are playing out in the U.S.

I’m much more concerned about what’s happening in [the Shiite Baghdad slum] Sadr City, and what [Prime Minister] al-Maliki is doing, and the health of the current president, who just left the hospital in Jordan, and what does this mean in the Dora neighborhood.

So the grander picture—Is the war being driven into the ground by reporters?—I don’t think we will know that yet. And it’s mostly playing out in a domestic sphere that I don’t really live in.

To the extent that you see it, are you frustrated by American viewers’ tendency to tune out the war or focus on trivia like the death of Anna Nicole Smith?

Obviously, I would like people to pay more attention to [the war]. I think the war is of critical importance. People are out there dying—not just Iraqis, American soldiers are out there—fighting and dying—every day. And people should pay attention to this.

America’s credibility is on the line. It is an enormous endeavor, realigning the Middle East. And Iran is resurgent. The whole region is fearing that it’s going to slip back into another war.

Look, if people want to watch Anna Nicole Smith, that’s harmless. They can do what they want. But I don’t think we should have 24-hour Iraq coverage on every channel all the time.

But it is important, and I would hope people would watch. We’ve certainly been giving it a lot of coverage. Lots more attention was focused on the story [when Brian Williams anchored Nightly News from here]. The whole broadcast was effectively done from Iraq about Iraq, so I think that’s great. It brings a lot of attention to the story.

How are things in Iraq now and where are they headed?

This new Baghdad security plan is in effect, and it’s having an impact. The executions and the assassinations and a lot of the sectarian violence has dropped off dramatically.

But are the groups just playing possum? Are they planning much bigger attacks? Most people in the military expect that there will be some severe testing of the security plan, that the insurgents will try to take on one of these new forward operating bases that the U.S. troops are setting up.

So there’s going to be serious challenges along the way. There could be another Samarra-like attack, where a Shiite religious leader is killed or a major mosque is blown up, and then all bets are off and we’re back to where we were in ’06. There’s a general perception that this is a critical time. You can sense that urgency from the military.

At one point in Diaries, you wonder if you’re being a “foolish cowboy” by covering the war. Is it harder to justify the longer you do it?

At that stage, I had come into the country—by myself. Everyone had left [most news organizations had recalled their reporters from Baghdad in advance of the invasion]. And I was in the middle of a city that was about to be attacked by the most ferocious military assault advertised in the history of warfare. The cavalry wasn’t coming for me if something went wrong! So I’m struggling with these moments where I had made my bed and now it was time to sleep in it. And I’m wondering, Did I do the right thing?

I’ve had that thought many times, and so far, I’ve been satisfied that I am doing the right thing. You do worry about: How many times can you push it, how many times can you stay lucky? And I’ve been very lucky. My experiences haven’t been that unique. It’s just a matter of time. If you stay there long enough, you’re going to run into difficult situations.

Could you see yourself covering another beat?

Sure, I could cover diplomacy, I could cover anything? Other than the Middle East, you mean a domestic beat like consumer affairs in America? No.

I moved to the Middle East [in 1996] because I thought this is it, this is going to be the story of my generation of reporters. The Soviet Union had collapsed, it was a multi-polar world, and it seemed to be the place where everyone was heading. I’d been reading about the rise of Islamic militant groups and the Green Peril, as it was talked about in political science classes.

I think over the next few years, these are going to be tremendous periods of transformation in the Middle East, so this is the time to be there. The story’s not over yet, and I’d rather not walk away from it at this stage.

I’ve been doing it for a long time and the fundamental story of how it’s going to play out and how this will effect the Middle East and American foreign policy and the Iraqi people and the soldiers and the future of the military are still lingering questions. And this is my 11th year of living in the Middle East, so this is the time to be there.

Would I like it to be less dangerous? Yeah, absolutely!