Nightline’s Terry Moran gathered a dozen Iraqis for a town hall-style meeting Thursday at a makeshift studio in Baghdad, where they spoke of their hopes, fears and aspirations.
Yet there was none of the strong anti-American comment often heard in Iraq: Those expected to express such sentiments never showed up for the taping in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Nightline spokeswoman Emily Lenzner said every effort was made to ensure that critics and supporters of the U.S. presence in Iraq were represented, but some of those invited declined to attend.
Some refused to enter the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy, Iraq’s government offices and — to many Iraqis — a symbol of foreign occupation. Others could not reach the venue because of a security alert.
She said Nightline scheduled separate interviews with Iraqis opposed to the U.S. presence and planned to incorporate them into the broadcast. It airs on ABC Friday night, two days after President Bush’s spirited defense of his war strategy.
Candid discussionDespite the absence of anti-U.S. sentiment, the discussion was candid. It touched on Iraq’s precarious security, sectarian divisions, economic woes and unemployment — issues troubling Iraq since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein and under intense debate ahead of Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
At times, the 12 Nightline participants appeared divided along sectarian lines. They also gave vivid accounts of hardships encountered because of daily bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
One participant, Baghdad physician Haidar Fadel Abed, said he needed psychiatric help amid the incessant violence. One student said she had little hope of finding a job after graduation.
Yet all 12 — politicians, professionals and students — were generally positive.
“I am optimistic because the energy of our youth could be our guarantee,” said Nasreen Berwari, a Kurdish member of the Cabinet.
“The future is bright and we have made huge progress,” said Shiite lawmaker Mowaffak al-Rubaie.
When Moran asked for anyone who believed Iraq was headed toward civil war to raise their hands, none did. He was later told the Shiite-Sunni divide was political and that intermarriages made the communities inseparable.
Nearly all agreed U.S. troops in Iraq — about 160,000 at present — should stay until Iraq’s forces can secure the country — a view that is a mainstay of Bush’s policy.
Religious divisions apparentA less rosy picture also emerged.
One student said friendships at her Baghdad college were now struck along religious lines. Journalist Zeinab Abdul-Hussein recounted how she fell out with a Sunni friend over Sunni-blamed attacks on Shiites. They made up but agreed not to revisit the subject, she said.
Adnan Pachachi, a senior Sunni Arab politician and a former foreign minister, Pachachi said Iraq’s security forces — more than 200,000 at present and mostly Shiite — should be drawn from all religious and ethnic groups and owe their allegiance exclusively to the state of Iraq.
Pachachi, who is running for parliament on a secular-oriented ticket, was alluding to widespread reports the security forces were doing the bidding of Shiite political parties.
“This type of accusation is demoralizing,” al-Rubaie said angrily.
“These are rumors spread by the terrorists,” said Col. Ali Kazim of the Wolf brigade, a commando police unit frequently accused of human rights abuses targeting Sunni Arabs.
Holding the broadcast in the Green Zone reflected the gravity of the security situation in Baghdad. Although a target of periodic mortar shells, the large swath of land on the west bank of the Tigris is by far Baghdad’s most secure area.
Lenzner, the Nightline spokeswoman, said officials from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars and a movement led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — radical groups opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq — withdrew from the show over the choice of the Green Zone as the venue.
She said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, and Khamees al-Ubaydi, one of Saddam’s lawyers, were turned away because of a security alert, a frequent occurrence that often leads to closure of the Green Zone for hours.